19 April 2010

Pew: Everything Stinks

The big news this morning in the papers and on NPR was the publication of results of the latest Pew Research Center survey. It showed that Americans' confidence in government had reached historic lows. It was reported as if it were a bad omen for the current government and a prediction of Republican victories in November, but Pew's own summary shows that respondents' opinion of the Republican party was just as low as their regard for the Democrats. Nonetheless, the analysts are probably right to anticipate a heavy turnover after the elections, since anger at government will be directed inevitably at incumbents.

Interestingly, many Americans remain unwilling to believe that there's something wrong with our politics on a systemic level. A majority of respondents told Pew that individual officeholders, not the system, were the real cause of today's troubles. It's worth emphasizing that professed Republicans are the most likely to take this view, 60% of them saying so as opposed to 50% of Democrats and 51% of independents. This discrepancy may be explained by a strong Republican conviction that the nation's problems could be solved quite simply by replacing as many Democrats as possible with Republicans.

According to Pew, Americans are dissatisfied with bureaucracy as well as with legislators. Public opinion of government agencies has plunged across the board with two odd exceptions. By one percentage point, we hold a more favorable view of the CIA than we did in 1997 -- but the favorable rating for the Internal Revenue Service has jumped up by nine points over the same period.

American dissatisfaction extends to the private sector as well. Banks and financial institutions as a category have the worst rating of all, 69% of respondents deeming them a negative influence on the country. "Large corporations" are similarly malign for 64% of respondents, but "small businesses" are regarded favorably by 71% of them, and "technology companies" by 68%. In mixed news for Democrats, Congress and the federal government are deemed a negative influence by 65% of respondents, but those surveyed are split on the Obama administration, 45% viewing it negatively, 45% taking the opposite view. Apart from small businesses and tech companies, the institutions regarded most favorably are churches (63%) and colleges (61%). The different opinions on small and big businesses point at a populist mood, and not so much a preference for the private over the public sector as a distrust of anything big -- including big media, big labor, etc. The respondents don't want government to "control" the economy, but they do want more regulation of the financial sector in particular. This does not, taken as a whole, look like an endorsement of the Republican worldview. The GOP may benefit from the angry mood for one election cycle, but unless a new Republican majority takes what would have to be radical action to favor small businesses over corporations, they'll only find themselves on the receiving end of the same anger two years later. Whether by then more people will have finally changed their minds about the system being sound remains to be seen.

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