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Americans Still See Big Government as Top Threat

Americans Still See Big Government as Top Threat

by Noam Fishman and Alyssa Davis
Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • About two-thirds name big government as biggest threat
  • One in four fear big business most, 5% big labor
  • Republicans especially concerned about big government

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As businessman Donald Trump prepares to become the nation's 45th president, Americans continue to express more concern about the threat big government poses to the U.S. than big business or big labor. Two in three Americans (67%) identify big government as the country's biggest threat. That is below the record high of 72% in 2013 but still on the higher end of the range since the mid-1960s.

Chart 1

Meanwhile, the 26% of Americans who name big business as the biggest threat remains down from 32% in 2009 amid the economic recession, but it is near the average since 1965. Just 5% say big labor is the biggest threat. This is about half the level recorded a decade ago and far lower than in the 1960s and 1970s, when it typically ranked second among the three threats.

Americans have consistently been more concerned about big government than big business and big labor since Gallup first asked this question in 1965. This concern peaked in 2013, the year healthcare exchanges opened under the Affordable Care Act and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed information about government spying tactics. However, concern about big government has declined slightly since.

Worry about big business spiked to a record high of 38% in 2002 after corporate scandals at Enron, WorldCom and Tyco made headlines. It rose again to 31% in 2008 and 32% in 2009 after government bailouts of banks and automotive companies during the financial crisis, as well as the revelation of Bernie Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme.

Public concern about big labor has lagged far behind big business and big government since the mid-1990s, reflecting the weakening role of labor unions in U.S. society. By contrast, in the 1960s and 1970s, Americans typically were more concerned about big labor than big business. Concern about big labor was highest in 1965, at 29%.

Republicans Most Concerned About Big Government

Americans' wariness of the threat that big government poses has generally increased over time, although it has varied based on the party of the president in recent years. Concern about big government averaged 65% under the two most recent Democratic presidents -- Barack Obama and Bill Clinton -- compared with 56% during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush.

Republicans primarily drive this pattern, as they consistently show more concern than Democrats about big government -- and even more so when Democrats occupy the White House. Republicans' choice of big government averaged 85% under Obama and 77% under Clinton, compared with 62% under Bush.

On the other hand, the average percentage of Democrats naming big government has been steadier across all three administrations -- 48% under Obama, 51% under Bush and 52% under Clinton.

Percentage Naming Big Government as Biggest Threat, by Administration
In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future -- big business, big labor or big government?
  U.S. adults Republicans Independents Democrats
  % % % %
Barack Obama 65 85 66 48
George W. Bush 56 62 56 51
Bill Clinton 65 77 66 52
Averages calculated based on years in which Gallup asked the question

Of the three threats, big government is the dominant choice for Republicans and, to a lesser extent, independents. But Democrats are more divided -- 51% say big government and 43% say big business. Less than 10% across all partisan groups mention big labor.

Perceptions of Biggest Threat, by Party Identification
In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future -- big business, big labor or big government?
  Republicans Independents Democrats
  % % %
Big government 81 67 51
Big business 10 26 43
Big labor 6 7 4
Gallup, Dec. 7-11, 2016

Republicans' mentions of big government fell to 81% in the December 2016 Gallup poll, from 88% in 2015 and 92% in 2013. This dip could reflect a belief among Republicans that big government will be less of a threat because their party will soon control the presidency and Congress. Democrats' and independents' views are essentially unchanged from 2015.

Bottom Line

Americans' choice of big government, big business or big labor as the biggest institutional threat facing the U.S. in the future strongly skews toward the first of these. While Republicans are most likely to say big government is the biggest threat, about half of Democrats -- the party that favors government intervention and the party currently in control of the presidency -- say the same.

When Trump takes office, Americans' views of big government as a threat may lessen, based on historical patterns. Republicans' mentions of big government fell when the last Republican president took office. The trajectory of Democrats' views is less predictable. They may become more fearful of big government because their party is not in power -- and perhaps grow more apprehensive about big business given Trump's business ties and his Cabinet picks from big business and big financial institutions.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Dec. 7-11, 2016, with a random sample of 1,028 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 60% cellphone respondents and 40% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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