The Magazine

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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Twenty years later the percentage was down to 44 percent. Seymour Martin Lipset, in his book American Exceptionalism, reported that in 1964 only one out of three Americans thought his government served special interests rather than the public interest. Thirty years later the number was 80 percent, roughly where it is today in the CAP poll. 

What happened between 1964 and 1994? Lots of things: war, scandal, booms and busts, Jimmy Carter. Also, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson and an eager Congress launched the raft of programs known as the Great Society, which forever expanded the region of national life in which the federal government felt free to muck around. No one has been able to shrink the sphere since, though voters seem to like politicians—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, even George W. Bush—who promise to try, and for this reason, I suppose, liberal commentators have told us we’ve been living through an age of conservative dominance. 

Now, in post-LBJ America, when a pollster asks adults whether they’d prefer a larger government with more services or a smaller government with fewer services, Americans have in almost every instance chosen the latter. The more tasks the government takes on the more likely it is to fail, and for citizens to see it as a failure. As the government changed, so did the public’s attitude toward it.

So we’re all libertarians, then—good American-style conservatives, the unEuropeans? Well, no. The poll numbers are too muddled to say that, or much of anything. CAP’s picture of a public hungry for government is confirmed in a 2006 Fox News poll. It asked whether people would rather pay higher taxes to increase spending for a variety of programs—or cut their funding and leave taxes as they were. Large majorities said they’d rather pay more in taxes than cut funding for eight of the nine programs listed. Two years later, in a poll by the National Opinion Research Center, similar majorities said the government was spending too little on education, the environment, health care, cops, even drug treatment programs—everything but culture and the arts. 

In his great book, Lipset conceded these contradictions as inevitable artifacts of polling in a country where people are expected to have considered opinions even when they don’t. But he didn’t think the confusion  undercut the idea that Americans are different from their counterparts in the social democracies of Europe. 

“Given their anger about politics in the United States,” Lipset wondered, “what accounts for the continued stability of the American system?” He answered by pointing to another instance of American exceptionalism: the unbending belief that Americans had in their future. “The American dream is still alive, even if the government and other institutions are seen as corrupt and inefficient.” He wrote that in 1996. And—polls show!—it is still true, even with distrust in government greater than it was then. Karlyn Bowman cites a recent Pew poll. Sixty-four percent of the population thinks the future is bright for themselves and their families. Sixty-one percent are optimistic about the future of the United States. Americans continue to believe, over all, that they will be better off tomorrow than they are today. 

Their lack of faith in government, in other words, is not reflected in a lack of faith in their country—probably because, unlike some people I could name, they know the difference between the two.

 Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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