THE BLOG
12/02/2010 03:23 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

The Myth of a Conservative Public

The results of the 2010 midterm elections have contributed to a widespread belief that public opinion in the U.S. has shifted sharply to the right since the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Dramatic Republican gains, including the pickup of more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives and the success of a good number of candidates supported by the Tea Party movement, have led some conservative commentators to claim that the results represented a decisive rejection of the liberal policies of President Obama and the Democratic Congress and a mandate for smaller government, lower taxes, and less regulation of the private sector.

There is no question that the new Congress that will take office in January will be much more conservative than the current Congress. The six Republicans who will be taking previously Democratic seats in the Senate are certain to be a good deal more conservative than the Democrats they are replacing. And the new House of Representatives, which will have 242 Republicans to only 193 Democrats, may well be the most conservative in the past 60 years.

But do Republican gains in the midterm election indicate that the American public supports the conservative policy agenda of Republican congressional leaders? A careful examination of evidence from a recent national survey of public attitudes about the role of government raises serious doubts about such an interpretation. The results of the Gallup News Service Governance Poll, a survey of 1,019 voting age Americans conducted from September 13-16, 2010, indicate that while Americans often support conservative principles in the abstract, large majorities of Americans continue to support an active role for government in addressing a wide variety of societal needs and problems.

More than 40 years ago, two pioneers in the study of American public opinion, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, observed that Americans tend to be ideological conservatives but operational liberals. In their groundbreaking 1967 book, The Political Beliefs of Americans, Free and Cantril found that even in the heyday of modern liberalism, the 1960s, most Americans agreed with broad statements of conservative principles. At the same time, however, when it came to specific programs addressing societal needs and problems, programs such as Medicare and federal aid to education, Free and Cantril found that large majorities of Americans generally supported activist government.

In many ways, the results of the Gallup News Service Governance Poll were strikingly similar to the findings that Free and Cantril reported back in the 1960s. On matters of principle, Americans in 2010 leaned strongly to the conservative side. For one thing, self-identified conservatives greatly outnumbered self-identified liberals: 43 percent of Gallup's respondents described themselves as conservatives compared with 37 percent who described themselves as moderates and only 20 percent who described themselves as liberals. In addition, when asked about the role of the federal government in dealing with the nation's problems, fully 58 percent of Gallup respondents felt that the government was "trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses" while only 37 percent felt that the government "should do more to solve our country's problems." Similarly, those who felt that there was too much government regulation of business and industry outnumbered those who felt that there was not enough government regulation by a 50 percent to 28 percent margin. Finally, 59 percent of Gallup's respondents felt that the federal government had too much power compared with only 33 percent who felt that the federal government had the right amount of power and a miniscule 8 percent who felt that the federal government had too little power.

These results appear to provide strong support for the view that the American public was in a decidedly conservative mood in 2010 and that the results of the midterm elections represented a rejection of liberalism and a ringing endorsement of the Republican Party's agenda of smaller government, lower taxes, and less regulation of business.

Until you examine some of the other results of the same survey -- the ones involving government responsibility for addressing specific societal needs and problems.

In addition to questions about abstract ideological principles, Gallup also asked its respondents a series of questions about government responsibility for a variety of societal needs and problems. For each one, respondents were asked to place themselves on a five-point scale with 1 labeled "no responsibility at all" and 5 labeled "total responsibility."

It will probably not surprise anyone that 94 percent of the public felt that government should have major or total responsibility (4 or 5 on the scale) for "protecting Americans from foreign threats." National security is one of the few areas of government responsibility that typically receives overwhelming support from Americans of all partisan and ideological stripes.

It is perhaps more surprising, given Americans' endorsement of broad conservative principles, that 76 percent of Gallup's respondents felt that government should have major or total responsibility for "protecting consumers from unsafe products" or that 66 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for "protecting the environment from human actions that can harm it." And it is perhaps even more surprising that 67 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for "preventing discrimination," that 57 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for "making sure all Americans have adequate healthcare," that 52 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for "making sure all who want jobs have them," or that 45 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for "providing a minimum standard of living for all Americans" (versus only 33 percent who felt that government should have little or no responsibility in this area).

Even a policy as radical by contemporary standards as "reducing income differences between rich and poor" drew the support of 35 percent of Americans (versus 45 percent who did not see this as an appropriate responsibility of government). The only area where the large majority of Americans rejected a substantial role for government was "protecting major U.S. corporations in danger of going out of business" which drew the support of only 19 percent of the public.

It wasn't just liberals who supported governmental activism. Even self-identified conservatives frequently endorsed governmental activism on specific issues. For example, 63 percent of conservatives, along with 84 percent of moderates and 87 percent of liberals, supported a substantial role for government in the area of consumer protection. And despite strong opposition to recent healthcare reform legislation by conservative pundits and politicians, 33 percent of conservatives, along with 71 percent of moderates and 81 percent of liberals, supported a substantial role for government in ensuring access to healthcare.

In order to assess the overall level of public support for governmental activism among the public, I created a governmental activism scale combining responses to seven questions: those dealing with consumer protection, the environment, healthcare, jobs, standards of living, discrimination, and income inequality. These questions all involve areas of government responsibility that would be expected to divide liberals from conservatives or Democrats from Republicans. Scale scores are based on the number of these seven areas for which respondents felt government should have major or total responsibility. The results are displayed in Table 1.

2010-12-02-table1.bmp

These results again indicate strong support for activist government among Americans in 2010. The distribution of scores is tilted heavily toward the liberal end of the scale: the average score on the scale was almost 4 out of 7. Only 30 percent of respondents felt that government should have major or total responsibility in two or fewer areas. In contrast, 46 percent of respondents felt that government should have major or total responsibility in at least five of these seven areas.

Table 2 displays the relationship between scores on the governmental activism scale and a variety of demographic and political characteristics. Support for activist government varied considerably across demographic groups with support generally greatest among traditionally Democratic leaning groups and weakest among traditionally Republican leaning groups. Younger Americans, women, nonwhites, and those with low-to-moderate incomes were the most supportive of governmental activism. Not surprisingly, self-identified conservatives were much less supportive of governmental activism than self identified moderates or liberals and Republican identifiers were much less supportive than independents or Democrats. Even among conservatives and Republicans, however, about one fourth of respondents came down on the liberal side of the scale.

2010-12-02-table2.png

Of the groups included in Table 2, Tea Party sympathizers were the least supportive of activist government. Among this group, which made up 30 percent of the entire sample, opponents of activist government outnumbered supporters of activist government by almost three to one. However, the opinions of Tea Party sympathizers were far to the right of the opinions of both Tea Party opponents and those who were neutral toward the Tea Party.

Conclusions

Despite the dramatic gains made by the Republican Party in the 2010 midterm elections, support for activist government remains very strong in the American public. Evidence from the recent Gallup News Service Governance Poll shows that today, just as in the 1960s, Americans tend to be ideological conservatives but operational liberals. They endorse conservative principles in the abstract, but support efforts by government to address specific societal needs and problems. These findings suggest that attempts by congressional Republicans to weaken or eliminate government programs in areas such as consumer rights, healthcare, income security, and environmental protection would be politically risky. While such policies might appeal to the conservative base of the Republican Party, they would almost certainly be unpopular with a majority of the American public.

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