Daniel J. Elazar once noted, “The maintenance of federalism involves ‘thinking federal,’ that is, being oriented toward the ideals and norms of republicanism, constitutionalism, and power sharing.” Regarding power, 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, unsurprisingly, 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 several topics such as: the size and power of the federal government, which levels of government need more or less power, whether the government or private entities should provide solutions to various challenges, and how the American public opinion differs from other countries.
Government Power Comparison
Measuring public opinion in relation to centralization can be difficult. Various scholars or organizations have attempted to measure various aspects of centralizations such as regulation, the expansion of federal power, etc. The Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) is one such organization that has measured popular opinion regarding governmental power from 1978-1992. Gallup also conducted its own surveys, roughly from 1976 to 2021. Building upon the individual breakdowns from the subsequent graph, we show a composite view of these responses to help provide a clearer picture of how public opinion has changed over time.
The storyboard below provides a further breakdown of the data from the previous graph. It is interesting to note that from 1985 to about 2005 there actually was a more positive view of governmental power. Citizens were either saying that the government "needs more power" or has "the right amount"; the government having "too much power" was the highest value outside of this range. Though in recent years, (see Gallup graph below) "too much power" has slowly taken the lead in becoming the most popular response.
Next, we examine a series of questions comparing governmental power in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. This first graph examines the percentage of people who think the federal government has too much power. While the number of data points is limited in this series, an interesting note is that in 2003, the United States had the lowest percentage. In subsequent years, however, the US was in the top spot.
Continuing with the same data as the previous graph, the following storyboard breaks down each country and compares their various levels of government in order to see which one is regarded as having too much power. In general, the higher the level of government is the more it is regarded as having too much power. This response is consistent across all three countries.
Often with power, we examine it from the perspective of having too much power; however, equally important is the opposite end of the spectrum—having too little power. This graph compares those who think that the federal government needs more power in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
Breaking down the last graph even further, the following storyboard examines which level of government respondents believed needed more power in 2003 and 2007. It is interesting that in the United States and Canada, the federal government is the lowest, with local and state being the highest. In Mexico, however, the federal level was higher than the local level in terms of needing more power.
Amount of Power
When studying governmental power, it is important to gain an understanding of how it compares to other institutions/groups. The graph below gives such a comparison, allowing respondents to decide if each of the items presented has too much power, not enough power, or about the right amount. Lobbyists received the highest response rate for "too much power" at 71%, while the military was the top answer for "about right" (53%) or "not enough" (28%) power.
When looking at the levels of government in this survey, the federal government was rated at 58% for "too much power," followed by 30% for "about right" and only 9% of respondents thought the federal government's power was "not enough." States were respectively at 34%, 49%, and 15%. Finally, local governments were rated at 22%, 53%, and 21%. Thus, we can see that there is an inverse relationship concerning power between the federal and state/local governments. Citizens are more likely to want a decrease in power in the federal government and an increase in state and local government. This also can support ideas of decentralization, where the closer the level of government is to the citizen, the more power they want for that organization.
This next graph continues with our examination of the power given to the federal government. Gallup has various public opinion surveys related to governmental topics; one question they have asked is how satisfied individuals are with the size and power of the federal government. Satisfaction with government power was highest from 2001-2006. Government dissatisfaction reached a high point in 2012 with 69% either being "very" or "somewhat dissatisfied."
Perceptions on governmental power have changed over time. Views that the government is too powerful has remained above 30% reaching a high point in 1976 and 1980 at 49%. Meanwhile, views that the federal government is not too strong has decreased from 36% to 17%. Perhaps more surprising is the percentage of people who either don't know or have little interest in the power of the federal government. At the beginning, these numbers were either the same or lower than those who thought that the government was too powerful, but in recent years the numbers have increased.
Expansion of Power
In addition to examining the balance of power between the levels of government, it can also prove helpful to examine the relationship of power between the government and other separate entities. The first graph examines government regulation of business/industry. Between 2009-2017, the highest ratings for those who thought that governmental regulation was too high ranged from 45%-50%.
The second graph looks at whether the government should leave certain responsibilities to individuals or businesses or if they are not assuming enough responsibilities and should be doing more to solve the country's problems. The majority of the time, more people felt that the government was doing too much, but in recent years, the gap began to close with only two percentage points separating the two views.
These next two graphs examine the power balance between the federal, state, and local levels. The first graph contrasts the federal and local governments showing that the majority of respondents (the lowest point at 68%) felt that there should not be encroachment of the federal government in taking over those things that can be done at the local level. The second graph asked respondents whether they favored concentration of power in the federal or state government. In 1936-1937, respondents favored concentration of power in the federal government, which could be attributed to the Great Depression and FDR's presidency. In 1981 and 2016, however, it was reversed with a majority of people feeling that power should be concentrated at the state level rather than at the federal.
Branches of Government
An important part of our constitutional system is the principle of checks and balances. This next series of questions seeks to measure two important concepts: first, whether individuals think it is important that the branches keep one another from having too much power, and second, whether or not they actually succeed in doing so.
Those who felt that checks and balancers were "very important" decreased from 83% in 2017 to 75% in 2020. Yet, when those results are combined with "somewhat important" it increases to 94% and 96% respectively. Thus, over 9/10 of citizens feel that checks and balances are important to have.
While views on the importance of checks and balances may be positive, the opposite is true for how well those checks and balances actually work. A little over 70% of respondents in 2018 and 2020 feel that the three branches are able to check and balance each other "not at all well" or "not too well."
Over the past couple of decades, respondents have been asked whether they prefer one-party or divided control of the presidency and Congress. The top answer has been "no difference," but in recent years there has been an increase in those who prefer having one-party control. This holds true in 2020 for Democrats and Republicans while independents are more likely to respond "no difference."
1. Power can be an interesting variable to measure as the amount of power each level of government has; this has been under debate since the founding era. Much of the debate centers around the idea of devolution versus centralization. Or in other words how much power should be vested in the state and local government versus the federal (or national) government. Regardless of which side of the debate you favor, it is undeniable that there has been a shift in power towards the federal government. At times throughout history, such as during emergencies like the Great Depression, World War II, 9/11, or even Covid-19, this centralization of power is viewed as favorable and desirable, while at other times the reverse is sought after.
2. In 1978, about 38% of American citizens thought that the government had too much power; this remained fairly consistent until about 2003 when it began to rise and, by 2019, it had reached 56%. This idea of the federal government having too much power also seems to hold consistent with some other countries as well. From 2003-2009, about 50% or higher held this view in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
3. When it comes to comparing levels of government, several studies have found that state and local governments receive more favorable ratings than the federal government. Many of these findings support the idea of devolution—concentrating power at the state and local levels. However, this support for decentralization has not always been the case, and, in fact, this has been a more recent development. For example, during the 1930s-1940s the majority of Americans favored more power in the federal government. Today, there is also support for centralization in areas such as fiscal policy, national defense, or other areas where the Constitution granted the federal government primacy (for more information see “Public Attitudes toward Federalism: The Public’s Preference for Renewed Federalism” by Samples & Elkins).
4. When it comes to government regulation regarding business, or even opinion regarding the power of non-governmental institutions, the results are surprisingly mixed. The results for government regulation stayed fairly consistent from 1993-2019. While there has recently been a call for the government to do more to solve the country's problems, it seems to be following a cyclical trend and so further time would be needed to see if it will follow the previous pattern or start a new trend. When it comes to comparing institutions, the federal government, though having poorer results than several institutions, did not perform the poorest in the study (see the 2011 institutional comparison graph above). Other institutions such as lobbyists, banks, or major corporations actually had a higher response of those that thought that they had "too much" power.
5. While a majority of Americans think that it is important for each branch of government to keep the others in check, only 23% think that they actually do it "somewhat" or "very" well. Interestingly, there has been an increase in recent years in those who favor having one-party control for both Congress and the presidency. Further studies would be needed to see how much of this preference is based upon whether or not their preferred party is in control.
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