Responsiveness and Effectiveness
Research has shown that Americans tend to assign certain functions to different levels of government. This so-called "intuitive federalism" means that Americans tend to be more sensitive to how policy functions are assigned at different orders of government. In this dashboard, we look at the ways in which American public opinion reflects how American attitudes have changed over time as it relates to the virtues of governmental responsiveness and institutional effectiveness. As we can see below, Americans do care about federalism in this regard. When researchers ask questions like "who does it best?" U.S. citizens tend to favor local and state government over decisionmaking at the federal level.
Defining Good Governance
In a large and diverse republic, however, we can expect strong disagreements about what "best" actually means. For the purpose of this summary, we follow the data and define good government as one that is responsive to local preferences and efficient in its execution. Of course, these are not the only ways to define good governance. Asking this question is important, however, because it provides valuable insight in to the different expectations Americans have for government at different levels of operation. According to the public opinion research presented below, Americans have become less confident that their federal government is able to effectively address their needs and/or to adequately respond to their preferences.
The first graph in this dashboard represents an aggregate score (an "index") using data from American National Election Studies Index, from 1964-2016. Respondents were asked a series of related questions, including these questions on responsiveness:
"Over the years, how much attention do you feel the government pays to what the people think when it decides what to do -- a good deal, some, or not much?"
And "how much do you feel that having elections makes the government pay attention to what the people think, a good deal, some or not much?"
Effectiveness of Government Actions
In addition to the index[es] above, the American National Elections survey asked a series of questions that captured attitudes relating to the effectiveness of government actions, including elections, government attention to citizen concerns, and the degree to which Americans feel that their elected officials care about what they think.
On elections (below left) the percentage of citizens who think that elections do not matter ("not much") jumped in 2012 and 2016 to record highs.
On attentiveness, NES found that from 1962-2004, less than 20% of Americans felt or believed that the government paid attention to voter preferences very much ("A Good Deal"). The vast majority ("Some" and "A Good Deal") feel that the government pays little attention at all to voter preferences.
This data is supported by PEW research that shows that only about 1/4 of American voters think that elected officials care about the average voting American's opinion - a significant drop from its highest levels in 2000 and 1996.
What do these drops in perception of attentiveness mean for federalism?
Pew research has tracked citizen attitudes toward the federal government. Since 1997 and up to 2017 (Figure 1 below), the share of American voters who are "frustrated" with the Federal Government has remained about the same (ranging from roughly 50% to 60% with no significant trends). However, the percentage of Americans who are "Basically Content" with the Federal government has plummeted, from as high as 53% in 2001 to 17% in 2017 (with two record lows in 2011 and 2013). This observable drop in contentment with the Federal government tracks with other data (figure 2 below). In the early 2000s, most Americans were split, roughly, between those who were "satisfied" with the way things were going in the country and those "dissatisfied." In 2004, the American electorate crossed what we could call a "dissatisfaction threshold" - since that time, the perecentage of Americans dissatisfied with the way things are going has not dipped below 50%. Or to put it another way, the majority of Americans have been dissatisfied with the way things are going since 2004.
American Dissapproval Explained
In 2015, PEW Research complied a study on government efficiency. According to PEW results, a solid and steady majority of Americans believe that Government is "almost always wasteful and inefficient." On average, less than 40% of Americans think that Government does "a better job than people give it credit for." These results may not be surprising, but they do provide one revealing insight: American views of the wastefulness of government is high even during times when they report high levels of trust in the federal government. Or to put it more simply, the public's trust and confidence in officials varies year by year, but the public's concern over government waste and inefficiency appears stable, regardless of which party is in power or other external events.
Dramatic Changes in Public Opinion
The above data provides strong evidence that American public opinion has taken a dim view of federal efficiency in recent decades, and for reasons relatedly primarily to the potential for waste (see, Trust index). But as the ANES data shows, inefficiency is fundamentally related to "responsiveness." What is "responsiveness" and why have citizens atttiudes toward responsiveness taken a bleak view in recent years?
The American National Election Studies database breaks down the concept of responsivness in to three
. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the following statements:
"Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on."
"People like me don't have any say about what the government does."
"Public officials don't care much what people like me think."
The results are shown below, from left to right. Surprisingly, perhaps, Americans have become more confident in their ability to understand how government works (this fits with other data that show that Americans perceive themselves to be relatively well informed).
Yet, as voters have become more confident in their ability to participate (below left), they are increasingly likely to answer that "people like me don't have any say about what the government does." In 1952, only 31% felt they did not have a voice or a say. By 2016, that number had risen steadily to 50%. In a democratic or popular government, there is no way to simply gloss this over; this is dispiriting trend, if more than half of the electorate believe that they have no voice.
What is going on? One major cause of this sentiment has to do with attitudes toward government officials, who are often portrayed - fairly or not - as distant and out of touch. Below (third right), we can observe what may be the most dramatic change in public opinion in this dataset. 60% of Americans now believe that public officals simply don't care much about what the average voter thinks. For comparison, this percentage has risen nearly three-fold since the mid 1950s, when only about 25% of Americans believed that public officials did not care about voter opinions, values, preferences, and hopes for the country.
At Which Level?
Given the lack of confidence in Government, it would be reasonable to ask: are there specific areas of competence that should be reserved for the states? Which powers and responsibilities should remain at the federal level and which should be managed by state and local governments?
Studies show that Americans have sophisticated views on this question. Researchers John Samples and Emily Ekins found that American public opnion has shifted dramatically in favor of a more "devolved federalism" since the 1970s. In 2013, Samples and Ekins replicated a 1973 a Harris Poll question, asking whether major policy decisions should be made at the federal or state level. "On nearly every issue," they concluded, "Americans have shifted away from a preference for federal-level decisionmaking, particularly on environmental protection, drug reform, prison reform, and health care." Below, we present a version of Samples and Ekins original research. Of note, education is the only category in which public opinion favors a greater role for the national government (comparing 2013 to 1973):
Decline in Public Support
As above, public opinion appears to show a decline in public support for major decisions to be held at the federal level - across all major categories except education. The authors conclude that "In 1973 majorities favored primarily federal-level decisionmaking for pollution control (58%) and drug reform (55%), while near majorities favored federal control for prison reform (50%) and health insurance (49%). Now majorities favor state and local decision-making on pollution control (56%), drug reform (61%), prison reform (68%), and health insurance (62%). While Americans continue to favor national-level decision-making for entitlement reform and scientific research, support has declined since 1973. On a number of issues, including welfare, transportation, and housing, Americans have consistently favored state and local control, and support has continued to increase. There has been little change in public attitudes when it comes to national defense; 9 in 10 Americans continue to view this as the federal government’s job. Similarly, there has been little change regarding education: only 2 in 10 Americans view this as primarily a federal responsibility."
This dashboard lends support to the near-consensus view that Americans do indeed have an "intuitive federalism," i.e., that Americans tend to assign certain functions to different levels of government. A diverse and far-ranging body of research suggests that government responsiveness and government effectiveness are important drivers of American support for state and local government. When researchers ask the basic question, "who does it best?", U.S. citizens do tend to favor local and state government over decisionmaking at the federal level. Most or all of our available data suggests that this preference has increased steadily over the decades. According to the public opinion research presented above, Americans have become less confident that their federal government is able to effectively address their needs and/or to adequately respond to their preferences.
While more research would be needed to substantiate this general claim, especially after the Coronavirus crisis, this collection does point to a worrying conclusion, namely, that
Americans have lost faith in their federal institutions - and at a dramatically higher rate than in their state and local governments.
We include this last card as food for thought, and as one more data point in this evolving story. In 2011, researchers found that ore than half (58%) of Americans had a favorable view of their Local Government. Similarly, more than 50% of Americans had a favorable view of their State Government. Down at the bottom of the list, only 32% had a Favorable view of Federal Government.
"Americans interact more frequently with lower levels of government and believe these levels better respond to constituents’ needs. Americans view the federal government as wasteful and inefficient, and although such problems are endemic to government at all levels, citizens believe they can better hold state and local governments accountable."
Ekins and Samples
Samples, John and Emily Elkins. "Public Attitudes toward Federalism: The Public’s Preference for Renewed Federalism." Policy Analysis, no. 759 (2014): 1-40.
American National Election Studies Trust in Government Index
PEW Research Center, 'Governance Survey Final Topline' (2015)
Andy Kiersz, "How Americans really feel about their country on 33 key issues, and how that has changed over 40 years." Business Insider. February 25, 2017.
Linde, Jonas, and Yvette Peters. “Responsiveness, Support, and Responsibility: How Democratic Responsiveness Facilitates Responsible Government.” Sage Journals 26, issue 3 (2018): 291-304.
An important question that this dashboard highlights is what citizens believe the federal government should be in charge of in contrast with other levels of government and/or private organizations and entities. An added layer to this is during times of crisis when the public perception of responsiveness and effectiveness can change dramatically.