Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Liberalism and Public Perception

Political discourse moves on a number of different levels.  

The short-term level is the one we most often see in the media, perhaps due to the media's self-imposed pressure to have something to talk about in between elections.  The reporting on a candidates recent troubles, or yesterday's Occupy demonstrations, probably fall into this category.

The mid-term focus is, understandably, on such things as active campaigns and elections:  Who won what and why, and what the prospects are for significant policy changes.

Often ignored are the longer-term forces in play, such as demographics, systemic changes in the economy and government's role, such as the growth of entitlement spending.  It's certainly arguable that these forces have at least as much impact on public policy and politics as any of the shorter term movements, even if they are not regularly highlighted in the media.

It's those longer-term forces that I find most interesting and a recent graph from the Gallup organization highlights some of the systemic problems which face those urging a greater role for government in our society.  See the graph below.

Looked at long-term, this dataset has a number of interesting lessons for us:

First, concern about a larger government role has grown with time.

Second, that concern has, throughout the period studied, been at a higher level than concerns over business or labor power.

Third, that concern is now at a level which is the second highest in the period studied, and is only one percentage point below the historical high.  What makes this remarkable is that this is true even in an era of a poorly performing economy, from the standpoint of job creation, and during a period of concern over income inequality.

What is perhaps more surprising is that concern over big government is the leading concern, not merely among Republicans (as one would expect) and independents, but even among self-identified Democrats!

What this means for the upcoming election is something I'm not competent to analyze, but it will be interesting to see how this impacts any possible effects of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  

As the Gallup report notes:

"The Occupy Wall Street movement, focused on 'fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations,' has drawn much attention and a large following. Still, the majority of Americans do not view big business as the greatest threat to the country when asked to choose among big business, big government and big labor.  In fact, American's concerns about big business have declined significantly since 2009.

Similarly, these are daunting numbers for anyone advocating an increased government role, such as those favoring a single payer system in health care.

The full Gallup report is at www.gallup.com/poll/151490/Fear-Big-Government-Near-Record-Level.aspx?utm_source=add%2Bthis&utm_medium=addthis.com&utm_campaign=sharing#.TuaETC1jbVs.twitter


  1. I want to reduce government, yet I'm liberal when it comes to promoting multiple views, education, rules that encourage employment of Americans, free speech. Conservatives have successfully linked big government to liberalism. Yet who promotes a bloated defense system that can't be cut because suppliers are in every Congressional district? Who promotes the Medicare prescription drug program because it benefits large pharmaceuticals?

  2. Liberalism has at least two distinct lines of thought:

    One, which Andy mentions (the Jeffersonian line), is supportive of freedom of speech and lifestyles, diversity and freedom of individual action, and views large concentrations of power in the hands of government with suspicion.

    The other is statist, believing that the public is best served by a large and active government sector, intervening in the free market to protect elements of the public, and views the free market with suspicion, if not downright antipathy. This philosophy is perhaps best exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt.

    It's the second approach which is properly linked in the public mind with large government, a result not somehow engineered by conservative propaganda.

    At the same time, as the Occupy Wall Street folks have noted, both parties are probably equally guilty of expanding government when it appears to suit the interests of their core constituencies, whether large defense companies or unions.