In a July study titled What Americans Want, the Center for American Progress explores our confidence in government and what we want improved. It has bad news and good news for progressives.

The bad news: Americans overall lack confidence in government.

The good news: Younger Americans disagree. (More)

What Americans Want, Part I – Says Who?

This week Morning Feature considers a July report by the Center for American Progress titled What Americans Want. Today we look at Americans’ confidence in government to solve problems. Tomorrow we examine “Doing What Works,” CAP’s strategies for reform. Saturday we discuss how to share these ideas with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

The overall news from the CAP study is challenging. In January, I offered a progressive Democratic platform in three sentences: (1) People matter more than profits; (2) The earth is our home, not our trash can; and, (3) We need good government for #1 and #2. Polls show majority support for all three points, which should mean good news for Democrats. But polls also show Democrats face a difficult time in this year’s midterms, and the sticking point is #3. According to the CAP study, most Americans have little confidence that government can solve problems. Unless you ask younger Americans.

Better, not smaller.

Americans have conflicted views on government. According to this study, 57% of us say “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” Only 39% say “Government should do more to solve problems.” That sounds like good news for Tea Party Republicans, but other findings in the study suggest that answer is more reflexive than reflective. When the study moved from that generic question to specific issues, most Americans wanted more government, not less:

  • 61% want more involvement to develop renewable energy sources.
  • 60% want more involvement to improve education.
  • 60% want more involvement to make college affordable.
  • 57% want more involvement to reduce poverty.
  • 51% want more involvement to ensure access to affordable health care.

Yet only 33% of Americans have “a lot” or “some” confidence in government to solve problems, 35% have “just a little,” and 31% have “none.” Among independent voters like Fred, only 26% have “a lot” or “some” confidence in government, 40% have “just a little,” and 34% have “none.”

A crisis of confidence.

Our challenge is not that most Americans think government shouldn’t help. It’s that most Americans think government won’t help. When asked to grade government on five indices, Americans were harsh:

  • 21% gave an “Excellent” or “Good” on being customer-friendly and providing quality service.
  • 19% gave an “Excellent” or “Good” on helping you and your family.
  • 16% gave an “Excellent” or “Good” on accomplishing its goals.
  • 14% gave an “Excellent” or “Good” on being well-run and effectively managed.
  • Only 7% gave an “Excellent” or “Good” on spending money efficiently.

Asked to rate “examples of government waste” from 0 (“not an example”) to 10 (“a perfect example”), Americans gave these averages:

  • 8.1 for programs continuing for years even if they have not proven effective and no-bid contracts and contractors overcharging.
  • 8.0 for people receiving benefits who do not deserve them.
  • 7.9 for tax breaks for corporations with political influence.
  • 7.8 for inefficient employees receiving high salaries and generous benefits.
  • 7.4 for agencies duplicating efforts of other agencies.
  • 6.7 for failing to use new technologies and modern management methods.
  • 5.8 for excessive and unnecessary military spending.

Failure of government or of media?

The findings suggest some of the lost confidence stems from media memes. For example, 61% of Americans said they were satisfied with their personal interactions with government agencies over the past year. Those with interacted with an agency often gave it higher marks than those who did not. Americans overall rated Social Security and Medicare 4.7 and 4.6 on a performance scale of 1-10, but seniors rated those two agencies at 5.9 and 5.5. In short, many Americans have bought into the Reagan-era mantra of “government is the problem” … except for the government agencies they deal with …

… and agencies with extensive public relations efforts. Among federal agencies that the CAP survey asked people to rate, the top three were the FBI, the military, and the Department of Homeland Security. Is it mere coincidence that my cable company has three documentary channels devoted to crime, and four channels for the military? Add in almost universally positive news reports – lest a reporter or news network be labeled “soft on crime” or “hating the troops” – and the top marks for security agencies are hardly surprising.

And then there’s race.

CAP’s companion study on Americans aged 18-32 – titled The Generation Gap on Government – showed very different attitudes. Among Millennials, 44% expressed “a lot” or “some” confidence in government, while only 20% had “none.” The generational gap in confidence has almost tripled in the past 10 years. Millennials have a more favorable view of government than older Americans, support a broader agenda, and have much more confidence that government can be more effective.

A key difference may be race. Hispanics make up 19% of Millennials, versus only 8% of non-Millennials, and they view government more favorably. But so do working class white Millennials. While older working class whites have a dim view of government, that has faded or reversed among Millennials, who view government as favorably (or more so) than their college-educated age peers.

The future holds promise for progressives. Tomorrow we’ll discuss strategies to get there.


Happy Thursday!