Most people seem to agree that the United States Federal government has accumulated a great deal more power than it was originally granted, but there is broad disagreement over the cause of this shift and (not surprisingly) whether or not these changes have been salutary or good.
This dashboard examines public opinion on power from multiple angles and sources, and includes the latest comparative research on how American public opinion differs from other countries, including Canada and Mexico.
Power and Public Opinion
One could argue that the American experience - from its first settlements to Westward expansion and to the "end of the frontier" - has generated a political culture that is inherently skeptical of centralized political power. While this story is considerably more complicated (see, e.g., "Political Culture" at the Center for the Study of Federalism), public opinion research does seem to bear out this generalization. There has always been an aversion to centralized power in the American mind. When paired with the existence of unique structural protections against centralized power in the Constitution (Federalism and Separation of Powers), the American tendency to be suspicious of the accumulation of power seems more inherent to the system than an artifact of history.
Measuring Public Opinion
Measuring public opinion in relation to centralization can be difficult. The Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) measured popular opinion regarding governmental power from 1978-1992. Gallup also conducted its own surveys, roughly from 1976 to current day.
Below, we provide a summary of both of these datasets. We also provide an overlay of the responses from ACIR and Gallup, as well as their individual breakdowns.
Perceptions of Power by Country
The above studies show that trust in central authority has declined in the United States in dramatic ways. Recent studies from a comparative (international) perspective help put this data in context. Below we summarize and link to the groundbreaking comparative research of John Kincaid and Richard L. Cole. This fascinating empirical work compares perception on power between the federal, state, and local levels in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Which Level of Government Needs More Power
Power and Federalism
Gallup has an entire grouping of surveys that focuses on government. The following graphs measure public opinion regarding federal power in contrast with other levels of government, with other institutions, and with the private or public sector
While there have been a few variations regarding business and industry, the levels have remained fairly consistent.
It is interesting to note that there has also been an increase in support for governmental functions to be carried out at the state and local levels.
Kincaid, John and Richard L. Cole, “Citizen Attitudes Toward Issues of Federalism in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 41, issue 1 (2011): 53-75. https://doi.org/10.1093/publius/pjq035
Samples, John and Emily Elkins. “Public Attitudes toward Federalism: The Public’s Preference for Renewed Federalism.” Policy Analysis no.759 (2014): 1-40. https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa759_web.pdf
Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations Public Opinion Reports
Oldendick, Robert W., Stephen E Bennett. “The Polls—Federal Government Power.” Public Opinion Quarterly 83, Issue 1 (2019):135-158. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfy047
Doherty, Carroll. "Key findings on Americans’ Views of the U.S. Political System and Democracy.” Pew Research Center. April 26, 2018.
Gupta, Tivas. "The Future of Federalism." Harvard Political Review (2019). (This article is currently unavailable).
“The maintenance of federalism involves ‘thinking federal,’ that is, being oriented toward the ideals and norms of republicanism, constitutionalism, and power sharing.”
-Daniel J. Elazar