The conclusions of a new extensive survey released today by the Pew Research Center are not surprising to people who have followed our chronicling of the Populist Majority over the past two years: Solid majorities of Americans accept a significant role for government in ensuring a strong and fair economy, in ensuring access to quality education and health care, protecting the environment and in helping people get out of poverty.
But the survey also documents the deep distrust most Americans have across the political spectrum with the ability of government to serve the needs and interests of the people. It's a testament to the success conservatives have had in driving a wedge between government and particularly working people, while insuring that government policies, with few exceptions, support the interests of big money. It is a testament, more specifically, to the impact of the conservative "wrecking ball" approach to governance, which has been more focused on obstructing, handcuffing or starving government programs than in working to make government more effective.
With the aid of a news media that rarely probes the reasons why government programs don't meet public expectations and instead engages in the mock objectivity of false equivalence when reporting the actions of conservative and progressive officeholders, the public misdirects its frustration and too often votes for the people whose ideology is the source of the problem, often because it is those candidates who are most adept at mirroring voter frustrations.
"At a general level, the public finds the government frustrating and badly managed. Just 20 percent say the federal government runs its programs well, and 59 percent say it is in need of 'very major reform,' up 22 percentage points since 1997," the Pew study says in its summary.
That is true even though when participants were asked to drill down into specific government functions, "the balance of opinion about government performance is more positive than negative" in 10 out of 13 areas cited in the survey.
The three areas where opinions in the survey are most negative – managing immigration, ensuring seniors have adequate Social Security and helping people get out of poverty – happen to be areas where conservatives and their corporate funders have focused a sustained fusillade of propaganda designed to provoke fear (immigration), imminent crisis (Social Security) or massive failure (poverty), without regard to the facts in all three areas.
Nonetheless, when people participating in the Pew survey were asked whether government should play a "major" or "minor" role in each of 13 areas of public policy, only one area, space exploration, failed to get agreement from more than half of those surveyed that government should have a "major" role. Only in one other area, "helping people get out of poverty," did fewer than 60 percent of those surveyed see a major role for government; the percentage in this case was 55 percent.
If there is this level of consensus for government having a major role in improving the lives of working people, why have foes of government amassed so much political power, from the halls of Congress to state and local legislatures? Alec MacGillis in a column in The New York Times on Sunday suggests that it is too simplistic to say that the people who are in most need of government are voting against their own interests. "Rather, they are not voting, period," he wrote. "They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process."
That disconnection has handed a disproportionate share of political power, he writes, to people "who are a notch or two up the economic ladder" who are reacting to what they see as a growing dependency on safety-net programs by people who aren't doing enough to help themselves or are making self-destructive choices with the resources that they have.
MacGillis writes that progressives have to respond politically by "mobilizing the people who benefit" from government programs. But he quickly adds that progressives need to also find ways to "reduce the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst." That means fighting to make government programs more efficient and effective – and touting the successes when they exist.
"The best way to reduce resentment, though, would be to bring about true economic growth in the areas where the use of government benefits is on the rise," MacGillis concludes. That is true, but ultimately the only way to make that possible is by first being clear about the source of people's frustration with government. The Republican presidential candidates will say it's "Washington bureaucrats," but government employees are with few exceptions people struggling to serve their fellow citizens against enormous headwinds generated by anti-government ideologues in Congress. Making that story clear to potential voters is an essential task in the months ahead.