Big Government is Gaining Bigly in Public Opinion

Slate‘s Henry Grabar on good news in new numbers from Pew:

Americans’ view of government seems to have rapidly shifted since last September, according to Pew. As many Americans would rather have a bigger government providing more services as at any point in the past couple decades. Support for big government has risen to 48 percent, up from 41 percent in September, while the percent of Americans favoring a smaller government providing fewer services has fallen from 50 to 45 in that time. It’s the first time since the beginning of the Obama administration, Pew says, that Americans have been so divided on the subject.

The numbers actually show that the core principles of conservatism—smaller government, fewer services—have gradually declined in support since the mid-1990s. Americans preferred smaller government 59% to 35% in 1998. The gap hasn’t just narrowed — it’s completely gone. Things have changed dramatically in a positive direction even since 2013– on every conceivable issue, the public is more open to government action now than they were then: Americans are 7 points more supportive of increasing federal spending on education, 20 points more supportive of increasing infrastructure spending, 12 points more supportive of boosting health care spending, 13 points more supportive of boosting environmental spending, and 18 percent more supportive of increasing spending on the poor.

Polls have long shown that Americans are generally more liberal than the media, politicians, or Americans themselves assume; the large number of people who self-describe as conservative meshes poorly with years of polling on support for specific policies.  Of course, for myriad reasons, the composition of Congress and the strategies, priorities, and messaging of the Democratic Party have failed to reflect this. There’s a new paper by political scientists David Broockman and Christopher Skovron on just this topic. The abstract:

The conservative asymmetry of elite polarization and the right-skewed “democratic deficit”—wherein policy is more conservative than majorities prefer on average—represent significant puzzles. We argue that such breakdowns in aggregate representation can arise because politicians systematically misperceive constituency opinion. We demonstrate this argument in US states, where conservative citizens are more active in the public spheres politicians monitor, which we hypothesized might distort politicians’ perceptions of public opinion. With original surveys of 3,765 politicians’ perceptions of constituency opinion on nine issues, we find politicians of both parties dramatically overestimate their constituents’ support for conservative policies. This pattern is robust across methods, years, issues, districts, and states. We also show Republicans overestimate constituency conservatism especially and that this partisan difference may arise from differences in politicians’ information environments. Our findings suggest a novel way democratic representation may fail: politicians can systematically misperceive what their constituents want.





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