Even as both major political parties commit themselves to ambitious programs of spending, shaping society through legislation, and punishing anybody who looks at them cross-eyed, the American people continue to believe the government is too powerful and does too much.
The catch is that people are most committed to smaller, restrained government when their favored party is out of power. That may be because they think their preferred policies are so wonderful that anything justifies their implementation, but the evidence suggests that it's really hatred of opponents throwing not only commitment to smaller government, but even liberal-democratic norms, out the window.
"A 54 percent majority of Americans say the federal government has too much power, while 39 percent say it has about the right amount of power and 6 percent say too little," Gallup reported last week. "These figures have generally been stable throughout the Donald Trump and Joe Biden presidential administrations. Since 2005, no less than 50 percent of Americans have said they believe the federal government is too powerful, with some of those readings reaching 60 percent."
Americans are pretty clear in what they mean by "too much power," too. They want a government that plays less of a role in people's lives.
"When asked how active the government should be in addressing the nation's problems, 53 percent say it is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, while 43 percent believe the government should be doing more to solve problems," Gallup added.
The catch is that "Republicans and Democrats are more inclined to say the government has too much power when the president is from the other party, and less inclined when a president from their own party is in the White House." For more than a decade, Republicans have said that government has too much power, but the intensity of their feelings fluctuates depending on whether they hold the White House. Democrats also vary in their feelings, though they tend to believe the government is too powerful only when the presidency is held by Republicans. Majorities of independents have pretty consistently stuck to their guns in opposing an overpowerful state no matter which party has the edge.
Are Republicans and Democrats more sympathetic to big government in their own hands because they believe in the righteousness of their agendas? Well, maybe. But the evidence suggests that political partisans are less convinced of their own side's goodness than they are that their enemies are evil, in an expression of what's called negative partisanship.
"Negative partisanship is the idea that people choose a party not necessarily based on the party's platform or even the candidate. They do so out of animosity or dislike or disdain toward the opposing party," Chris Weber, an associate professor in Arizona State University's School of Government and Public Policy, commented in 2020. Weber points out that Americans haven't really changed their feelings towards their own parties over the years, but their dislike of political opponents has intensified.
"Viewing half of the country or a large section of the country as antithetical to American democracy is actually really harmful," he added. "It's an outgrowth of political polarization that has potentially very serious consequences."
Recent polling emphasizes Professor Weber's point.
"Eighty-one percent of Democrats say they believe the Republican Party's agenda poses a threat that, if it isn't stopped, will destroy America as we know it," NBC News reported this week of a new poll. "An almost identical share of Republicans—79 percent—believe the same of the Democratic Party's agenda."
"A majority of voters in both parties identified the opposing party as a 'major threat to democracy,'" a New York Times/Siena College poll published last week agreed. "Voters also signaled a bipartisan willingness to support a president who goes 'outside of existing rules': A third, including similar shares in both parties, said presidents should do what they think is best, even if it might flout the rules."
That is not the first poll to find significant (though not generally majority) support for a presidency that can act without constraints. And it's not just the presidency. Driven by animus towards opponents and a sense among large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans "that their side in politics has been losing more often than it has been winning" in the words of Pew Research (since the major parties alternate in dominance, just who is winning?), both parties are jettisoning faith in traditional boundaries on political power. The illiberal evolution is apparent on the environmentalist left and the national conservative right which now frequently reject checks on authority that stand in their way.
"This is what feels most broken in our politics," Reason's Stephanie Slade wrote in the October issue. "It's not the ways left and right are further apart than ever; it's the ways they're closer together, with powerful elements on each side having jettisoned the longstanding liberal ideal of respecting the rights of even those with whom you strongly disagree."
With the major parties having a near-total lock on political power, Americans are stuck voting for different brands of the large, intrusive government most tell Gallup they don't want.
The irony is that people who don't like each other can get along reasonably well under a smaller and less-intrusive government by leaving each other alone and just rolling their eyes at the strange ways of those others. But the increasingly authoritarian parties for whom they're actually voting, and their selectivity about favoring smaller government only when their faction is out of power, guarantee continuing conflict. A big government that interferes in many areas of life is too dangerous to be allowed to fall into the hands of enemies who will use it for their purposes—and it will change hands so long as there are competitive elections.
It's encouraging that Americans tell pollsters, year after year, that they want a smaller government that does less; that's a recipe for a freer, more peaceful society that makes room for people of varied values and preferences. But advocating restraint only when you're out of power is only another way of saying that you want to kneecap your enemies. To end the alternating bouts of kneecapping, people are going to have to adopt smaller government as a principle that applies to everybody, including themselves and their allies.