Expert Commentary

Growing gap in favorable views of federal and state governments

2012 Pew Research survey looking at variation in citizen assessments of government at different levels, and partisan divides in the United States.

During the 1960s and 1970s, protest was central to American political discourse — against the Vietnam War, for the environment and women’s rights, against the abuse of political power. The Reagan years added social issues to the range of contentious subjects, but large-scale protest fell out of favor in the 1990s.

All that changed with the rise of the Tea Party in the late 2000s, followed by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The two movements not only fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum, their views of government are also diametrically opposed. The Tea Party favors small government, while Occupy Wall Street supports vigorous regulation of the financial industry. Of course, these movements may ultimately prove to be short-lived in historical terms. But to what extent do their respective rises signal something larger about public opinion trends?

A 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, “Growing Gap in Favorable Views of Federal, State Governments,” compared recent survey data on American government at all levels with past data on citizens’ views. The 2012 survey asked 3,008 adults about their views toward the federal government, as well as their state and local governments.

Key findings include:

  • As of 2012, only 33% of Americans have a favorable view of the federal government while 62% hold an unfavorable view. This is the “lowest positive rating in 15 years.” In 2002, 62% had favorable views of the federal government.
  • There is a sharp partisan split in terms of current views of the federal government: Just 20% of Republicans hold favorable views (this plummeted from 53% in mid-2008, when President Bush was still in office), while 51% of Democrats hold positive views.
  • However, this partisan split was reversed just a few years back: “As recently as 2008, Republicans held a more favorable opinion of the federal government in Washington (53%) than did Democrats (29%).”
  • Americans continue to hold very favorable views of local government in contrast to state and federal, with 61% holding a favorable view of their local government as of 2012 and only 31% holding an unfavorable view. In 2002, 67% had a favorable view.
  • Ratings of state governments remain relatively positive, with 52% of Americans holding a favorable view of their state government and 42% holding an unfavorable view. But this is still a drop in favorability from 2002, when 62% of Americans held a favorable view of their state government.
  • Republicans have the most positive view of state government, with 62% viewing their state government favorably. In contrast, 50% of Democrats and 49% of Independents view their state government favorably.
  • As of 2012, 70% of Republicans have a favorable view of their state government in states where both the legislature and governorship is Republican-controlled. By contrast, in states controlled by Democrats, 55% of Democrats hold a favorable view of their state government.

The results of the report show both decreasing favorability of federal government but also a strong partisan influence on citizens’ assessments, most noticeably among Republicans. In a separate survey that asked people to compare state and federal government, individuals rated their state government as more honest, less corrupt, more efficient and better at getting things done than the federal government. One of the biggest problems with the federal government, respondents said, is partisanship: “Three-quarters (75%) say the federal government is too divided along party lines, with just 20% saying the federal government can usually work together to get things done.”

Tags: survey, municipal, political polarization