who wants less government?

The General Social Survey asks respondents whether the government should do more or whether it already does too much. Here are the responses over time for representative samples of Americans (omitting those who place themselves halfway between those two views):

The balance of opinion swings back and forth. Sometimes, more people want to expand government; sometimes, more people think it already does too much. Obama saw a rise in government skepticism; Trump saw the opposite trend, culminating in the strong Democratic year of 2018.

And here are the results for two groups that are much debated right now.

First, white members of the working class, here defined as white people with family incomes in the bottom quintile.

These are the people who, according to progressives, would benefit from more government but don’t see things that way. Maybe progressives are wrong about the advantages of government; maybe white working-class people are wrong about the drawbacks of government; but either way, it is hard to build a party of the left if the largest racial group in the lowest income stratum wants less government.

Note, however, that the anti-government stance of this group is not hard-wired. In several years, a plurality of them have wanted more government. That was clearly true in 1975, and the next year, Jimmy Carter won the whole of Appalachia and the whole Gulf Coast. Instead of (only) complaining about the tilted electoral map, Democrats should be asking–as some are–why they aren’t the majority party in the country’s poorest states.

And here is the trend for African Americans. Combining all the years together would suggest that Blacks are more favorable than other Americans to government. But note their rising level of support for “government does too much.” I wouldn’t read much into the zigzag pattern; given the number of African American respondents, the margin of error for each year is +/- 8 points. But pretty clearly, African Americans were more favorable to government until ca. 1992 than since.

Finally, I should acknowledge that the question is very simplistic. The government should do more of what? Banning abortions? Stopping-and-frisking? Sending me checks? Covering the cost of seeing private-sector physicians? Curing cancer? I’m treating the results as proxy measures of support for social welfare, but that is not necessarily accurate.

See also: white working class alienation from government; what do the Democrats offer the working class?