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Who’s Afraid of Big Government?
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux,

Photo courtesy of snty-tact via Wikimedia Commons

According to a new poll by Gallup, Americans’ fears about big government’s threat to the country’s wellbeing are at near-record highs, outstripping the potential harm posed by big business or big labor. Over six-in-ten (64%) Americans say that big government represents the biggest threat to the country’s future, compared to only one-quarter (26%) who say that big business embodies the greatest threat, and less than one-in-ten who say the same of big labor.

Gallup’s trend data shows that Americans have always been more anxious about the threat of big government.  This fear peaked in the 1990s during President Clinton’s second term, while concerns about big business surged to nearly 38% in 2002, around the time of the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

These numbers would seem to suggest that Americans – even Democrats – would favor measures to curb government programs, and be quick to support fewer government controls on big business. The question itself, however, belies the complexity of Americans’ attitudes toward both government and business. Fear of labor, which registered significantly higher as a concern several decades ago, seems not to ruffle many people these days.

Although Pew and others have recorded record or near record disapproval of government, few Americans are calling for the government to get out of the way (even though it might shut down again anyway). In fact, most Americans support government efforts to help reduce income inequality, help alleviate college loan burdens and providing support for faith-based and federal organizations that help the poor.

  • Two-thirds (67%) oppose cutting federal funding for social programs that help the poor.
  • Two-thirds (66%) also say that the government should do more to help students pay for college and pay off student loan debt.
  • The same number (66%) oppose cutting federal funding for religious organizations that help the poor.

It’s abundantly clear that many Americans are worried about how their government functions (just look at Congress’ approval ratings) yet these findings show that Americans don’t just want less government across the board. In fact, questions about less government or more government usually miss the point. Most Americans want better government. Let’s ask more questions about that.