Forget Romney's 47/53 Divide, the Real Split is Over the Role of Government


Improbably enough, there was a kernel of truth at the core of Mitt Romney's much-derided comment about 47 percent of Americans paying no income taxes and, therefore, being bound to serve as Barack Obama's government-dependent minions. That bit of discussion-worthy data is that there is a divide in the country — a philosophical one — over the role of government and the kind of country Americans want to live in. That divide is tellingly revealed in the latest Reason-Rupe poll, which took a somewhat more sophisticated view of the matter than did Romney when he was chatting-up fundraisers.

Some key questions, and their answers, from the survey:

Do you think the federal government has too much influence on your life, not enough influence, or about the right amount of influence on your life?

Too much: 55%

Not enough: 7%

About the right amount: 36%

Don't Know/Refused: 2%

Total: 100%

Would you like to see Congress pass more laws, fewer laws, or about what it's doing now?

More laws: 27%

Fewer laws: 45%

About what it's doing now: 21%

Don't Know/Refused: 7%

Total: 100%

Please tell me which comes closer to your own opinion…

We need a strong government to handle today's complex economic problems [or]: 49%

People would be better able to handle today's problems within a free market with less government involvement: 49%

Don't Know/Refused 2%

Total 100%

These are big-picture questions, asking people about their views of government, and showing, so far as I can tell, that a majority of people think they themselves should be left alone by the feds (I'm assuming the "fewer laws" constituency largely overlaps the "too much federal influence" respondents pretty closely), but people split pretty much down the middle when it comes to the treatment of their neighbors — or anybody else.

That respondents split pretty closely even when it comes to who should take the lead on providing for their golden-years pills, pokes and check-ups is pretty impressive this many decades into the financially unsustainable, but oh-so-popular Medicare program.

Please tell me which statement you agree with more:

People like me should be primarily responsible for saving enough money to pay for our own health care needs in retirement: 45%

People like me should primarily expect help from the government to pay for health care in retirement: 48%

Don't Know/Refused: 7%

Total: 100%

Not all the responses are so evenly divided. A clear majority take income-inequality as a non-issue, Medicare, as mentioned, remains popular, and a majority also want to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000. But nobody said Americans had to be coherent in their views. And there may be an information problem at the root of some of those responses. Only about a third of respondents realized that Medicare patients receive more in benefits than they paid in. And, as Emily Ekins pointed out earlier:

A majority of Americans, 57 percent, support raising income tax rates on incomes over $250,000.  However, the very same number—57 percent—says the top 5 percent of earners shouldn't have to contribute more than 40 percent of the total federal income taxes paid to government. In 2009, the top 5 percent of earners contributed 59 percent of total federal income taxes paid.

Still, I take the poll results as an acknowledgement of the existence of the divide over the role of government — not as a measure of the size of the constituencies for big, intrusive government vs. a small, leave-me-alone state that we can basically ignore. That's a discussion that's not only worth having, but which is actually ongoing.

Of course, the debate continues, but the politicians keep delivering an increasingly bloated product no matter who wins.