PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup's recent update of its long-standing trend question on whether big business, big labor, or big government will be the biggest threat to the country in the future finds Americans still viewing big government as the most serious threat. However, compared to Gallup's last pre-financial-crisis measurement in December 2006, more now see big business and fewer see big government as the greater threat.
These shifts in attitudes have occurred even as the government has taken on an expanded role in regulating U.S. financial institutions in response to the financial crisis, under the Bush and Obama administrations.
Americans' responses to these developments vary according to their partisan affiliation.
Now, 80% of Republicans view big government as the biggest threat to the country, up from 68% in December 2006. At the same time, Democrats' perceptions of the greater threat are completely reversed. In December 2006, 55% of Democrats said big government posed the greater threat, while 32% said big business did. In the latest poll, a majority of Democrats now view big business as the greater threat (52%) while only about one in three think big government is.
Independents' views did not change much over this period, with solid majorities in both polls saying big government is the greater threat.
Gallup's history of asking this question dates back to 1965. Since that time, Americans have always viewed big government as posing the greatest threat of the three institutions tested, although the percentage naming it has varied over time.
From the 1960s through the early 1980s, half or less of Americans named big government as the greatest threat. That view expanded greatly in the 1990s -- reaching a high of 65% in 1999 and 2000 -- as concerns about the power of big labor greatly subsided.
In 2002, after the wave of accounting scandals at companies like Enron and WorldCom, opinions shifted, and the percentage mentioning big business as the greatest threat peaked at 38%, while concern about big government dipped below the majority level for the first time since 1981.
As the accounting crisis faded in people's memories, Americans again became more concerned with the reach of government (reaching 61% in 2005 and 2006), until the recent financial crisis caused more to fear the power of big business.
A primary thrust of the American political tradition is a fear of centralized government with too much power. And the U.S. capitalist economic system has given businesses wide latitude to operate with minimal government interference. But those values were put to the test last year as the imminent collapse of several major U.S. corporations threatened to drive the country into an economic depression. The government responded by infusing some of these failing companies with cash and in some cases taking on significant ownership in the companies.
Gallup has now conducted two post-crisis updates of this question (Dec. 4-7, 2008, and March 27-29, 2009) and has found similar results each time, both overall (In December, 53% said big government was the greater threat and 31% said big business was) and by party (there have been some minor changes since December as Republicans have become slightly more likely to identify big government and Democrats slightly more likely to identify big business as the greater threat).
Thus, the change in administrations from Republican to Democratic and the government's additional actions to stabilize failing companies or address other economic problems since early December has not caused fear of big government to escalate any further beyond what was the case late last year.
Given the timing of the December poll, it is not clear whether the initial shift came in response to the financial bailout from last fall or perhaps was a more basic partisan reaction to the election of a Democratic president in November. Whatever the cause, Republicans have grown somewhat more concerned about the threat of big government and Democrats have grown more concerned about the threat of big business, but Americans as a whole still rate big government as the greater threat.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 27-29, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.