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Polling Matters
Deconstructing Americans' View of Government as Top Problem
Polling Matters

Deconstructing Americans' View of Government as Top Problem

Chart: data points are described in article

Americans are more likely to name the government as the most important problem facing the nation than any other issue. However, they were more likely to name the government as the top problem at points in the past. And it is pretty clear that when Americans think about government as the top problem, they are talking about specific personalities that inhabit government today and the broad way in which the elected representatives that direct the government are going about their business -- and not so much about the bureaucracy of government or its size and power.

Each month, we ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country, and 20% of all mentions in October were categorized as relating to the government. The next-highest problem category was race relations and racism, at 14%, followed by the need to unify the country, at 11%. Remarkably, a low 5% mentioned the economy in general, and 5% mentioned jobs and unemployment.

Government ending up as the most important problem has not been an unusual situation in recent years. On average, government was the top problem throughout all of 2014 and 2015 and was second only to the economy in 2016. So far this year, government has been in the (dubious) top spot most months, tying healthcare in May and falling one point behind race relations in January. The average percentage of Americans who mention the government as the top problem has been 19% for the 10 months of this year so far.

What exactly is it that Americans are talking about when they say government is the nation's top problem?

A number of Americans' mentions included in government are simply "Donald Trump" or something similar. On the other hand, some verbatims included in this category mention that the biggest problem is Congress and others who oppose Trump and who won't let him get anything done.

Many other mentions in the government category concern Congress, with Americans feeling that the body is paralyzed, not doing its job, not getting anything done, not doing what's best for the country, not coming together, not working right, driving division in the political system, pulling apart rather than working together, fighting among itself, looking out for individual members rather than getting things done, lacking bipartisanship, not listening to constituents and becoming corrupt.

Notably, there are very few mentions of the bureaucracy of government -- the individual departments, agencies or bureaus and the way these entities are doing their jobs. There is also very little mention of the size and power of the government or its actual policies and direction; mentions of policy that are included mainly come from people who say the biggest problem is that the government is too leftist or socialist.

In short, in responding to this question, the people of the country are not so much decrying the size or power of the government, or even its policies, as they are criticizing the process of government. The problem from the people's perspective is not the substance of what is being done by the government but how it is being done (or not done).

Keep in mind, as I noted previously, that 11% of all mentions of the top problem facing the country focus on the need to unify the country. This category at least indirectly parallels many of the themes in the broader government category.

Donald Trump said he would drain the swamp in Washington during his presidential campaign. If what Trump meant by that was cutting back on the size, power and reach of the government, he may be somewhat off target. Those are important concerns to some Americans, but what stands out as the bigger problem is the need to fix the way Congress and the government work. My reading of the people's actual words: Americans want their elected representatives to work together more, compromise, get things done, and quit fighting and backstabbing.

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Government as Top Problem Still Not at Record Levels

As noted, the current percentage of Americans mentioning the government as the nation's top problem is by no means unprecedented. It has been as high or higher at other times in history. Government shot up as the top problem, for example, in a March 1954 Gallup survey -- a month in which Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in the House of Representatives, wounding five, and CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow publicly criticized crusading anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy. We also saw government as the top problem in the nation during the Watergate crisis in 1973 and 1974 (reaching 26% of all mentions in May-June 1974) and, in particular, during the shutdown of the government in October 2013 (when mentions of the government as top problem reached 33% of all mentions, the highest in Gallup's history).

Americans’ Top-of-Mind Mentions of

Also, we need to keep in mind that today's level of mentions of government as the top problem is nowhere near the level of other specific problems in Gallup's "most important problem" history. For example, in 2008, 58% named the economy as the top problem; in 2007, 38% mentioned the war in Iraq; in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, 46% mentioned terrorism; and at times in 1966 and 1967, over half of Americans mentioned the war in Vietnam as the country's No. 1 problem.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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