Role of U.S. Gov’t Remains Key Source of Party Differences

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The FINANCIAL — Democrats and Republicans have almost precisely opposite views of the purpose of government in today’s society. Fifty-seven percent of Democrats tend to believe the government should take active steps to try to improve the lives of its citizens. The same percentage of Republicans tilt toward the belief that the government should provide only the most basic functions. Independents are evenly divided between the two approaches.

These results, from Gallup’s Sept. 9-13 Governance survey, are based on a question that asks Americans to place themselves on a 1-to-5 scale, in which “5” means that “the government should take active steps in every area it can to try and improve the lives of its citizens.” At the other extreme, “1” means that “the government should do only those things necessary to provide the most basic government functions.”

Gallup has asked this question five times since 2010, and taken as a whole, Americans end up being distributed evenly across the positions in their responses. About a third of Americans overall opt for the “1” or “2” position, indicating a desire for a more limited government, and another third opt for the “4” or “5” position, indicating a desire for a more active government. The rest fall in the middle. Americans are also about evenly matched at the most extreme points on the scale, with 20% opting for position “5,” the most active possible government, and 17% opting for position “1,” the most limited government.

Remarkably, these attitudes have changed little since 2010, underscoring the apparent fundamental nature of the way in which the public looks at the role of government in the U.S.

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Fundamental views of what the government should or should not be doing is at the heart of many of the differences between the two major political parties and their candidates in the U.S. today. These views inform the disparate partisan approaches to solving specific issues of the day, including the economy, jobs, inequality, race relations, healthcare, education, guns and the environment. Democratic candidates tend to assume that government should be used as the means to solve many of these problems, while Republicans generally want to avoid government involvement and to find other ways to address the problems.

The issue of what the government should be doing is not one for which there is a clear majority direction from the citizens of this country taken as a whole. This in turn suggests that political candidates, and the parties they represent, need to recognize that the broad public is conflicted on the issue. While candidates can appeal to their partisan base with rigid positions on the “appropriate role of government” issue, from the broad perspective of the public in general, it is clearly an issue that calls for more flexible debate and discussion.


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