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How Americans Perceive Government in 2017
Polling Matters

How Americans Perceive Government in 2017

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Frank Newport and Lydia Saad

Gallup has recently published a series of articles detailing Americans' views on the performance of government and how they would prefer it function. Here we have assembled the findings to provide a one-stop summary of public opinion on the way the nation is being led in 2017.

Americans' Evaluation of Government

Overall, Americans' views of government remain negative. Most U.S. adults are dissatisfied with how the executive and legislative branches are doing their jobs, and majorities hold unfavorable views of both major political parties. Even Republicans rate Congress negatively, despite their party being in control of both chambers.

  1. Americans' frustration with government is focused on Washington, D.C. This is seen in trust and approval ratings they give to the executive and legislative branches -- especially Congress. U.S. adults maintain higher levels of trust in the judicial branch as well as state and local government.

  2. Barely a quarter of Americans, 28%, currently say they are satisfied with the way the nation is being governed. This is below the average of 38% found in the 22 times Gallup has asked this question since 1971 but still above the low point of 18%, recorded during the federal government shutdown in October 2013.

  3. Americans' low trust in many aspects of their government is part of a general trend of declining trust in U.S. institutions. But even in this broad context, the government is particularly suspect in the public's eyes. The federal government has the least positive image of any business or industry sector measured, Congress engenders the lowest confidence of any institution that Gallup tests, and Americans rate the honesty and ethics of members of Congress as the lowest among 22 professions in Gallup's most recent update.

  4. Another longtime indicator of citizen frustration with government comes from Gallup's monthly updates on the most important problem facing the nation. Government was the most frequently occurring single problem mentioned during all of 2014 and 2015, was the second most frequently mentioned problem in 2016, and has been at the top or near the top of the list throughout 2017.

  5. The issues that Americans raise when they talk about government as the top problem center more on the process of government and political personalities -- particularly infighting and bickering -- than on worries about government power, size, or specific policies or tendencies.

  6. Americans continue to have more trust in the government to handle international than domestic problems, although both are down substantially since Gallup began measuring them routinely 17 years ago. Even with these overall declines, a majority continue to have at least a fair amount of trust in the government to handle international issues.

  7. Americans' declining trust in the government is also reflected in the finding that both presidential and congressional job approval ratings are low on a historical basis. Just 13% say they approve of Congress, slightly above the all-time low of 9% recorded in the fall of 2013. Rank-and-file Republicans are essentially as down on the legislative branch of government as are Democrats, even though the GOP is in control of both houses. Presidential job approval is in the 35% to 40% range, well below historical averages as well as averages for elected presidents in their first year in office.

  8. One consistent finding in recent decades: Americans have a relatively higher level of trust in the judicial branch than either the executive or legislative branch. The higher regard in which Americans hold the judicial branch is also reflected in the approval rating they give the Supreme Court -- now 49%, and the highest in five years. Still, trust in all three branches is down on a longer-term basis.

  9. Trust in the men and women in political office is also low. The majority of Americans, however, continue to have trust in the people of the country themselves, in essence the bedrock of democracy, and this is up slightly this year.

Americans' Views of Both Major Parties Near Low Points

Political parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but they have served as the organizing bodies of the government for nearly all of the nation's history. Neither party currently fares well, but Democrats are viewed better on a relative basis.

  1. Americans' views of both the Democratic and Republican Parties are poor, and near the lows Gallup has measured historically for each party. However, the Democratic Party fares slightly better than the GOP, with a 44% favorable rating versus 36% for the Republicans. In 2004, both parties' favorable ratings exceeded 50%, but Republicans' ratings have averaged below 50% since 2005 and Democrats' have done so since 2010.

  2. Americans give the Republican Party the edge as the party better able to keep the country prosperous and to keep the country secure from external threats -- possibly explaining why Republicans fared well electorally in 2016. But the GOP's advantage on these key issues may be tenuous given that the top problems Americans name on Gallup's "most important problem" question are dissatisfaction with government, race relations, immigration, unifying the country and healthcare. And, after naming the most important problem and asking which party is better able to handle it, Americans give the edge to the Democratic Party.

  3. Many of the issues at the top of the "most important problem" list, including healthcare and race relations, are ones that Democrats traditionally are favored over Republicans to handle. The fact that a Republican is in office also would appear to work to the Democrats' advantage in assessing which party is better at addressing Americans' dissatisfaction with government.

  4. Favorability and mixed views on policy seem to suggest neither party has a clear advantage over the other in Americans' minds. Americans do not give clear guidance, either, as to whether one-party government or divided government is preferable, or whether it makes no difference. Since 2014, more Americans have said they prefer one-party government to divided government. But the plurality typically say it makes no difference, perhaps an indication the public does not see either party as particularly competent.

  5. The poor party images and weak confidence in both parties has led to about six in 10 Americans in recent years saying the two major parties do such a poor job representing Americans that a third major party is needed.

Views on the Role of Government

"Wary" remains the watchword to describe Americans' stance toward government power in 2017. Over half of U.S. adults say the government has too much power, and more Americans say the government is doing too much to solve the country's problems (things that should be left to individuals and businesses) than say it should be doing more. However, this preference for limited government has moderated slightly in the past year. In terms of process, they want their elected representatives to compromise to get things done.

  1. Americans are a bit less critical of government power today than in the prior three years -- mainly because Republican skepticism has eased slightly with Donald Trump in the White House. More specifically, 55% of Americans now think the federal government has too much power, down from 59% to 60% in each of the past four years. Meanwhile, Republicans' belief that the government has too much power has slipped to 66%, from 82% a year ago. (Democrats' concern has inched up to 44%, from 36%.)

  2. Also, while a majority of Americans have long believed the government is doing too much to solve problems that should be left to individuals and businesses, the 50% adopting this stance in 2017 is the lowest since 2009. Nearly as many, 45%, now say the government should do more to address the country's woes.

  3. One area where Americans have moved away from wanting the government involved is in terms of promoting traditional values in society. Whereas this was the majority view from 1993 through 2006, since 2015 half or more have consistently said the government should not favor any particular set of values. More Americans now say they want the government to stay out of favoring any particular values than want it to promote "traditional values."

  4. One thing is clear: Americans are much more likely to want politicians to compromise to get things done rather than stick to their principles even if nothing gets done (54% vs. 18%, respectively). The gap between preferring action and standing on principle on this measure is the widest that Gallup has recorded since first asking this in 2010.

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Implications for the Future

Americans' frustration with government and with both political parties has revealed itself in numerous shifts in party control this century. In the past 15 years, the country has shifted from one-party Republican government in 2002-2006 to divided government in 2007-2008, to one-party Democratic government in 2009-2010, to divided government in 2011-2016 and back to one-party Republican government today.

A one-party system typically allows the government to work more efficiently to pass policies, and also gives voters clear lines of accountability for the government's performance. Divided government makes policy agreement more difficult but also ensures extreme policies are not passed. Divided government also blurs lines of accountability if Americans are unhappy with the government's performance.

Third parties face major structural obstacles in U.S. elections and usually fare poorly. The 2016 election arguably manifested some of these frustrations, with the strong primary showings of anti-establishment candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. However, as Trump (and Americans) may be finding, anti-establishment candidates who lack strong ties to party leaders, and who cannot engender considerable support among the American public, face an uphill battle in governing.

Trump's low job approval ratings increase the odds of Democrats making major gains in the 2018 midterm elections, which could perhaps lead to a Democratic majority in one or both houses of government and a return to divided government in 2019.

Gallup


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