Not Learning to Love Big Government
America & the Left.


Ramesh Ponnuru

In the new issue of National Review, I take a skeptical look at the claim that we are now reaching the end of a long conservative era in American politics: that Barack Obama, if elected president, will be “the liberal Reagan” or anti-Reagan.

In the course of that article I go through some polling data that suggest that Americans have not moved left on a wide range of issues. On guns and abortion, for example, they seem to have moved right over the last fifteen years. Even on same-sex marriage, there has been no movement leftward since it became a national issue in late 2003.

Karlyn Bowman provided me with a great deal of trend data on the public’s view on abstract size-of-government questions — more data, in fact, than I could use in the article itself. So here I would like to go into a little bit more detail. Do the polls show that public suspicion of big government has been declining? In a word: No.

I’ll start with some of the best evidence we have that the public has moved left. CBS pollsters have often asked, “Would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with many services?” On this question there seems to be a pro-government trend over the last dozen years — but we certainly don’t seem to be more pro-government than we were during the Reagan ’80s. In April 1976 the larger-government side had a four-point lead and in May 1988 a one-point lead. Polls from 1996 through Jan. 2001 showed an average lead of 20 points for the smaller-government side. By November 2003, however, the smaller-government side led by only 3 points, and in the latest poll (March-April) the sides are tied.

The same pattern shows up in the results of a similar Washington Post/ABC poll question. People swung to a smaller-government view in the 1990s and then swung back, but the results from June 2008 (50-45 percent for smaller government) are roughly the same as those from July 1988 (49-45).

But other indicators do not even find a clear pro-government trend for the last decade. Gallup, as well as ABC and the Washington Post, has asked for many years whether Americans think that government “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” or “should do more to solve our country’s problems.” Almost always most people fall on the conservative side of that question: in September 1992 by an eight-point margin; in October 1998 by 12 points; in September 2002 by 7 points; and in September 2008 by 12 points. The gap does not seem to be shrinking.

NBC and the Wall Street Journal ask whether “government should do more to solve problems and help people” or “is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” In December 1995, a 62-32 percent majority picked the first option. In October of this year, only a 47-45 plurality did.

In laying out these numbers I am making no attempt to settle some important related questions. It may be that the public’s ideological conservatism on some of these poll questions co-exists with an operational liberalism with respect to specific spending proposals. Perhaps the percentage of people who are sufficiently worked up about big government to vote for the smaller-government candidate on the basis of that issue has shrunk. It may also be that in the aftermath of the financial crisis the public may move left on some of these questions.

But I think we are justified in rejecting the theory that the public has moved Left in its general attitude toward government. If Obama is elected with a strong Senate majority, public sentiment may be the chief constraint on him.