Do Americans want to govern themselves?
By John Sides
Many thanks to Ezra for allowing me to guest-blog this week. As befits the wonkishness of this blog and Ezra's attentiveness to political science research, my posts will tend to focus on political science and especially the areas that I know best, such as public opinion and elections.
Over the weekend, John Fund's Wall Street Journal column profiled pollster Scott Rasmussen. Fund quotes Rasmussen saying this:
"Americans don't want to be governed from the left or the right," Scott Rasmussen tells the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conference of 1,500 conservative and moderate legislators. "They want, like the Founding Fathers, to largely govern themselves with Washington in a supporting -- but not dominant -- role. The tea party movement is today's updated expression of that sentiment.
On his Web site, Rasmussen says something similar:
The American people don’t want to be governed from the left, the right or the center. The American people want to govern themselves.Do Americans really want to govern themselves? There is reason to be doubtful. In their 2002 book "Stealth Democracy," political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse explore this topic via both a national survey and focus groups. (Ezra has mentioned this book before, e.g., here.)
Hibbing and Theiss-Morse find the same discontent that Rasmussen identifies: Americans tired of conflict and politics-as-usual. But they don't embrace self-governance. Indeed, they are highly ambivalent about, well, themselves -- the American people. On the one hand, in a 1998 survey 63 percent said that "the American people could solve the country's problems." On the other hand, 65 percent said that "people don't have enough time or knowledge to make political decisions." Majorities also said that "you can't be too careful in dealing with people" (60 percent) and "most people would take advantage of you if they had the chance" (52 percent).
Focus group participants were skeptical that the American people wanted to be responsible for political decision-making. They said that people are too busy, or too apathetic, or too uninformed, or simply not smart enough. Here is a typical quote from one participant:
How many of us here want to make a change by going to the government or how many of us can? ... I think we're so occupied trying to keep up in this society that there's not enough people who have the difference to go in there and say "this is what I want to do." ... There is just not enough people doing what should be done to make a difference.
According to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, the public would rather have other people make the decisions, so long as those people are "empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers." About a third of the public is willing to delegate authority to such people even if they are not elected.
Eight years later, is this book out of date? I don't think so. In February, a CNN poll asked this question: "Do you think you personally could do a better job running the country than our government officials are presently doing?" Only 36 percent said yes.
There is no question that Americans have lost trust in government. That is the predictable consequence of any recession. It is far less certain, however, that they want to take responsibility for governing themselves.
John Sides is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University. He blogs at the Monkey Cage.