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Are Americans Closet Statists?

Despite what liberal pollsters say, we don’t secretly worship big government.

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Republicans, of course, assume that these big babies, these hypocrites and spoil sports, are getting a bad rap (for the time being, at least—if they suddenly start voting for Democrats again, today’s wise constitutionalists will suddenly degenerate into sheep, soft and pampered and easily led, bought off by the politicians of the welfare state). Yet there’s something more going on. For the picture of the public that emerges from the polls, even those cited by Lindsey and Applebaum, is more bewildering than they let on—not merely contradictory but nonsensical, and probably worthless. 

Only a shifty partisan or someone who’s succumbed to wishful thinking (or a demographer who’s getting paid by a shifty partisan) can pretend to derive a reliable and nuanced assessment of American attitudes from the daily fusillade of numbers that pollsters let loose. Last week the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, issued a poll-riddled paper titled “Better, not Smaller: What Americans want from their Federal Government.” To their credit, the CAP demographers refused to call American voters hypocrites for disagreeing with them. Instead, they refused to believe that American voters disagree with them. 

CAP, of course, promotes more federal involvement in priority areas such as energy, poverty, and education. And hey look: “Clear majorities of Americans of all ages,” says its report, “want and expect more federal involvement in priority areas such as energy, poverty, and education.” Fewer than 25 percent of respondents told the pollsters they wanted less involvement in those areas. 

At the same time, however, the demographers admitted that from some perspectives—theirs, most notably—a lot of the numbers look terrible. Only 33 percent had some or a lot of confidence in the federal government’s ability to solve problems. A slightly higher number, 39 percent, agree that “the government should do more to solve problems”; 57 percent say “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”

A paradoxical people, these Americans: eager to have an incompetent government that they don’t trust do more of the things that they don’t want it to do. CAP’s pollsters square this circle by announcing that what Americans really want is a “federal government that is better not smaller,” which, as it happens, is what the Big Government liberals at CAP say they want, too. (Big Government conservatives also want this: their ideal is a government that is “energetic but limited,” like the Incredible Hulk isometrically flexing his muscles under a straitjacket.) 

There are easier ways to resolve the paradox. Maybe the problem is in the pollsters and not the respondents, in the questions rather than the answers. Simple, one-step questions are a dull blade with which to probe attitudes about a hypothetical future. 

Ask “Would you like a Ferris wheel in your backyard?” and a shockingly high percentage of Americans might say yes. Complicate the question, however—“Would you like a Ferris wheel in your backyard if it tripled your electric bill and bumped off the family dog?”—and the number would drop. Either/or questions aren’t much better. In its poll, CAP asked: “Please tell me whether you’d like to see more federal government involvement in [the following] areas, less involvement, about the same amount, or no federal government involvement.” Clear majorities (51 percent in the case of health care) answer “more, more, more.” CAP takes the result as an indication that Americans have a European-like craving for centralized power.

Yet a more complicated question would likely yield different results. “Would you like more government involvement in health care if it meant that .  .  . your insurance premiums rose or your employer might choose to drop your insurance .  .  . ?” The issue becomes less abstract when costs as well as benefits are introduced with any specificity. The Times poll that Lindsey and Applebaum cited merely asked respondents whether Social Security and Medicare were “worth the costs,” without saying what the costs are or might be. Indeed, even in CAP’s poll it appears that in some cases, the closer Big Government gets, the less Americans like it. Ten years ago 73 percent wanted more federal involvement in health care. Now that they’re about to get it—good and hard—the percentage has dropped to 51 percent. 

You could even make the case that the biggest threat to Big Government is Big Government. Karlyn Bowman, poll maven at the American Enterprise Institute (a small-government think tank run by Arthur Brooks), points to a survey from 1958, in which respondents were first asked how often they could trust the federal government “to do what was right.” Seventy-three percent said “always” or “most of the time.” A Yankelovich poll found similar attitudes in 1964. 

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