Daniel J. Elazar once noted that “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 entitites should provide solutions to various challenges, and how American public opinion differs from other countries.
Government Power Comparison
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 2021. Building upon the individual breakdowns from the subsequent slide, we show a composite view of these responses to help provide a clearer picture on how public opinion has changed overtime.
The two graphs below provide a further breakdown of the data from the previous slide. 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". However, outside of this range, government having too much power was the highest value.
Next we examine a series of questions comparing the United States, Canada, and Mexico regarding governmental power. This first graph examines the percentage of people who think that 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. However, in subsequent years, the US was in the top spot.
Continuing with the same data as the previous slide, the following graphs break down each country and compares their various levels of government in order to see which one is regarded as having too much power. It is interesting that, in general, the higher the level of government the more it is regarded as having too much power. This 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 our comparison even further, the following graphs examine 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. However in Mexico, 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. This 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.
This next graph continues with our examination of the 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%. Meaninwhile views that the federal goverment is not too strong has decreased from 36% to 17%. However, perhaps more surpising is the percentage of peopel 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, however in recent years they have been higher.
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 entitties. The first graph examines governemnt regulation of business/industry. Between 2009-2017, there were the highest ratings for those who thought that governmental regulation was too high ranging 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, and should be doing more to solve the country's problems. While the majority of the time, more people felt that government was doing too much, in recent years, the gap has begun to close with only 2 percentage points seperating the two views.
These next two graphs examine the power balance between the federal, state, and local levels. In the first graph which contrasts the federal and local governments, the majority of respondents (it's 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. However, in 1981 and 2016 it was reveresed 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 how well they actually succeed in doing so.
Over the past couple of decades, respondents have been asked whether they prefer one-party or divided control of the Presidency and Congress, while the response "no difference" has been the top response, 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 it 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 support the idea of devolution - or concentrating power in the state and local level. However, this support for decentralization has not always been the case, and in fact has been a more recent development. For example during the 1930's -1940's 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 has 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 and 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 in 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 their preferred party is in control.
ACIR. “ACIR Public Opinion Reports 1978-1992.” library.unt.edu. Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations, n.d. https://library.unt.edu/gpo/acir/ACIRbib/acir_public_opinion_surveys.htm
Gallup. “In Depth: Topics a to Z - Government.” Gallup.com, April 20, 2007. https://news.gallup.com/poll/27286/Government.aspx.
Jones, Jeffrey M. “New High Favors One-Party Control of U.S. Federal Government.” Gallup.com. Gallup, October 2, 2020. https://news.gallup.com/poll/321158/new-high-favors-one-party-control-federal-government.aspx.
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, no. 1 (November 8, 2010): 53–75. https://doi.org/10.1093/publius/pjq035.
Pew Research Center. “In Views of U.S. Democracy, Widening Partisan Divides over Freedom to Peacefully Protest.” Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy, September 2, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/09/02/in-views-of-u-s-democracy-widening-partisan-divides-over-freedom-to-peacefully-protest/.
“Power of the Federal Government 1964-2000.” ANES | American National Election Studies, n.d. https://electionstudies.org/resources/anes-guide/top-tables/?id=30.
Samples, John, and Emily Ekins. “Public Attitudes toward Federalism the Public’s Preference for Renewed Federalism.” Cato Institute. , September 23, 2014. https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa759_web.pdf.
Swift, Art. “Majority in U.S. Say Federal Government Has Too Much Power.” Gallup.com. Gallup, October 5, 2017. https://news.gallup.com/poll/220199/majority-say-federal-government-power.aspx.
Gupta, Tivas. "The Future of Federalism." Harvard Political Review (2019). (This article is currently unavailable).
Doherty, Carroll. "Key findings on Americans’ Views of the U.S. Political System and Democracy.” Pew Research Center. April 26, 2018.
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