Americans Fear Big Government More Than Big Business

A new Gallup poll indicates that it is Big Government, not Big Business, that most concerns the American public.

Notwithstanding the Occupy movement and the attacks on business that have accompanied it, and also notwithstanding the rights ongoing attacks on labor, a new Gallup poll seems to show that the entity that concerns Americans the most by far is “Big Government”:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans’ concerns about the threat of big government continue to dwarf those about big business and big labor, and by an even larger margin now than in March 2009. The 64% of Americans who say big government will be the biggest threat to the country is just one percentage point shy of the record high, while the 26% who say big business is down from the 32% recorded during the recession. Relatively few name big labor as the greatest threat.

Historically, Americans have always been more concerned about big government than big business or big labor in response to this trend question dating back to 1965. Concerns about big business surged to a high of 38% in 2002, after the large-scale accounting scandals at Enron and WorldCom. An all-time-high 65% of Americans named big government as the greatest threat in 1999 and 2000. Worries about big labor have declined significantly over the years, from a high of 29% in 1965 to the 8% to 11% range over the past decade and a half.

Gallup’s chart, which Ezra Klein calls “so far as liberalism goes, this is a pretty devastating graph,” tells the story:

Klein’s concern is likely amplified by the fact that Democrats seem to have become more concerned about the increasing power of government in recent years, while public concern about big business has actually decreased despite the ongoing economic impact of the financial crisis:

Almost half of Democrats now say big government is the biggest threat to the nation, more than say so about big business, and far more than were concerned about big government in March 2009. The 32% of Democrats concerned about big government at that time — shortly after President Obama took office — was down significantly from a reading in 2006, when George W. Bush was president.

By contrast, 82% of Republicans and 64% of independents today view big government as the biggest threat, slightly higher percentages than Gallup found in 2009.

Lower percentages of Democrats, Republicans, and independents are now concerned about big business than was the case in 2009.

As Gallup notes in their summary, it would appear that notwithstanding several months of Occupy protests bringing media and public attention on its messages of “corporate greed” and general opposition to “big business,” the American public isn’t quite as receptive to such as message as one might respect. The fact that concern about business power seems to have actually declined over the past several years, to levels equal to where it was during the boom years of the 1990s is actually quite surprising. In an era of economic uncertainty and upheaval, one would have expected the public to become more concerned about the rising power of business. Instead, the opposite seems to have occurred. It’s also worth noting that the only time in recent memory when public distrust of government power dipped below 50% was in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and that didn’t last very long.  All in all, it’s easy to see why Klein and his friends might be concerned.

I do hope, though, that Klein isn’t surprised by these numbers. Distrust of Big Government is as American as apple pie. It’s something that is engrained in our political institutions, and reaches back to the Founding Era itself. It’s true that we’ve seen government expand through entitlement programs, government largesse, and a Federal Budget that seemed to know no limit. Additionally, there are clearly limits to the public distrust of the state, as we can see in the numerous and repetative polls that show strong public resistence to any reforms that change the fundamental nature of Social Security and Medicare. Nonetheless, it does appear there are limits to the public’s tolerance for government power. Nearly three years later, public opposition to the Affordable Care Act is as high as it ever was, majorities supporting repeal of the law, and recent polling has showed clear majorities supporting the Supreme Court voiding the law when it rules on its Constitutionality next year.  In the end, that suspicion of Washington remains a powerful force in American politics, which is one of the main reasons that Republicans have been so successful with that message over the past 30 years or so. Perhaps Democrats should listen to the voice of the people on this one.

FILED UNDER: Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. ponce says:

    About what you’d expect considering big business supplies most Americans with their beliefs.

  2. Tano says:

    And they fear big Labor only one third as much as they fear big Business.

    , public opposition to the Affordable Care Act is as high as it ever was,

    It gets so tiring to have to repeat this endlessly, but it seems that the propagandists simply refuse to deal honestly with this issue

    EVERY poll that I have ever seen that asked the simple follow-up question to those opposed to ACA – “Why do you oppose it?” has found, roughly that 40% of the people support ACA, 40% oppose it from the right (those who “fear big governmnet”), and 10-15% oppose it from the left (it didn’t go far enough).

    Thus a majority of voters have consistently supported Obamacare OR SOMETHING FURTHER TO THE LEFT. That is not evidence of majority support for seeing a threat from big government.

  3. Nikki says:

    @ponce: Yup. Big Business pretty much owns/controls the sources from which people are most likely to get their information. When media conglomerates disappear or are somehow neutralized, then perhaps we will see more Americans flexing their critical thinking skills.

  4. Nikki says:

    Perhaps Democrats should listen to the voice of the people on this one.

    Yeah. Just like the Republicans should perhaps listen to the majority of voters who want taxes raised on the rich, right?

  5. legion says:

    This attitude has always mystified me… Yeah, I get the ‘don’t trust the gov’t’ thing, but why trust big business any more? I mean, a government runs on rules that have to be visible to the public, and any changes to those rules are by a public process – even if money gets you more influence, you can still see the process. And if you really dislike what the gov’t is doing, you can work to get them voted out & replaced with people you do like. A company can change its TOS unilaterally these days, and if you don’t like it, and there’s no real alternative source (or if all the suppliers are in collusion), you have exactly _nothing_ to do but suck it up.

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, given that ‘big business’ supplies tens of millions of people out there with such items as salaries, bonuses, commissions, health insurance coverage, retirement plans, pension plans, paid vacation, paid sick leave, dental insurance, vision coverage, stock options, ESOP plans, etc., whereas big government tends to reduce or entirely to eliminate such items, the results of this poll really are not all that surprising. At least they’re not surprising to those of us who, you know, actually work for a living.

  7. Scott F. says:

    “It’s the collusion, stupid” to paraphase an earlier bit of wisdom.

    The 32% of Democrats concerned about big government at that time — shortly after President Obama took office — was down significantly from a reading in 2006, when George W. Bush was president.

    Shortly after Obama took office, Democrats were still hopeful the party in power could make a difference. They’ve now figured out that when it comes to fealty to Big Business, the difference between the Republicans and Democrats is a matter of degree, not kind. Both parties have to pay the piper. In a plutocracy, Big Business is Big Government.

  8. reid says:

    “Keep your Big Government hands off of my Big Government Medicare!” I guess ignorance is an American tradition, too….

  9. Rob in CT says:

    The question is, like many poll questions, just a tad simplistic. However, yeah sure it’s pretty obvious that Americans distrust government. And fwiw, I think that’s generally healthy. I’m also pretty sure this poll captures a ton of left-wing/Democratic folks who are worried about the “War on Terror” or the “War on Drugs” but don’t have any problem with government-supplied health insurance, along with the Righties who have no problem with the aforementioned “wars” but think government provided insurance is the worst thing in the world.

  10. JKB says:

    i really don’t see the confusion. Government hemmed in big business in the first half of the 20th Century. Here is the author Frederick Allen Lewis writing of the state of the corporation in 1950 in his book surveying the transformation of America, ‘The Big Change’:

    Is the big and successful corporation its own master, then? Not quite.

    To begin with, it is severely circumscribed by the government. as Professor Sumner H. Slichter has said, one of the basic changes which have taken place in America during the last fifty years [1900-1950] is “the transformation of the economy form one of free enterprise to one of government guided enterprise….The new economy,” says Dr. Slichter, “operates on the principle that fundamental decisions on who as what incomes, what is produced, and at what prices it s sold are determined by public policies.” The government interferes with the course of prices by putting a floor under some, a ceiling over others; it regulates in numerous ways how goods may be advertised and sold, what businesses a corporation may be allowed to buy into, and how employees may be paid; in some states with Fair Employment laws it even has a say about who may be hired. “When a piece of business comes up,’ writes Ed Tyng, “the first question is not likely to be ‘Should we do it?’ but ‘Can we do it, under existing rules and regulations?’ “He is writing about banking, but what he says hold good for many another business. Furthermore, in the collection of corporate income taxes, withholding taxes, social security taxes, and other levies the government imposes upon the corporation an intricate series of bookkeeping tasks which in some cases may be as onerous as those it must undertake on its own behalf. Thus the choices of enterprise are both hedged in and complicated by government.

    Government went far beyond “guiding” in the next thirty years with an approaching collapse from the strangling by 1980. Ronald Reagan and the dergulators in Congress pried a few of the government fingers off the throat of the American enterprise but inexorably those fingers have tightened their grip again. The current Administration has sought to tighten the noose. But as before, the strangling government regulation is killing the golden goose.

    But beyond the aging hippies, the anarchists and the spoiled, over-credentialed, under educated children of the #OWS, the American people know that the excesses in ‘business’ were only possible by the leave of government and political interference given the control levers government has over business.

  11. Liberty60 says:

    @JKB:
    Um, in what way does Big Government have a stranglehold on Goldman Sachs?

    Many military contractors have been convicted of committing fraud against the government and in some cases actually killing American soldiers with shoddy work, and yet continue to be rewarded with lucrative contracts; Is this an example of a stranglehold?

    The majority of laws that Congress debates are actually written by and for the benefit of business groups; More stranglehold?

    More importantly, can I get them to get me in such a strangehold? Cuz it really doesn’t sound so bad.

  12. Rob in CT says:

    If only businesspeople were a little more aware of why regulations came to be, there would be less need of them. Things like the Clean Water Act and such didn’t just spring fully-formed from the head of Marx.

    Sometimes the “hemming in” of business is entirely justified and desireable. Sometimes it goes too far (e.g. price/wage controls, in my opinion).

  13. @legion: I think a lot are skeptical of all three, but the question might force them to give just one answer (which one do you most distrust?)

    I myself think “Big Anything” is bad, but that “Big Government” is just the biggest problem now.

  14. Tano says:

    JKB,

    Your screed is deeply anti-conservative. It amounts to nothing more than special pleading for a class of individuals – those who run businesses – that they should somehow be exempt from any responsibility to the rest of society.

    At the core of the conservative philosophy is a view of human beings as deeply flawed, prone to all manner of vices – the religious term here is “fallen” The conservative mission then is to build and support institutions in society that can tame and civilize human instincts. Conservatives have always been suspicious of human motives, of all grand schemes, understanding that humans are prone to seeking power for its own sake, for being corrupted by power and money and greed.

    Thus conservatives have always been strong supporters of “law and order”, of policing. But the tendency to corruption, venality and vice is not limited to the guys hanging out on the street corner – it is a general human trait. That is why we need to have police not only on the streets, but in the marketplace where most human activity occurs.

    The point is not to strangle legitimate business, bur rather to encourage it, by creating an environment that is relatively free from the ruthless, dishonest connivances of the bad apples – behavior which, if it is not checked, forces the good apples to start cutting corners as well, in order to survive.

    Government regulation of business is essential to the success of honest, legitimate business. You point to the trends in the 20th century with disapproval, but that century was the American century – when our particular mix of free enterprise with appropriate governmental regulation yielded the most prosperous society in history. Over the last 30 years, since Reagan, the trend has been in the wrong direction – turning more of a blind eye to corporate vice, and weakening the economic standing of the middle class relative to the wealthy.

    If, after this latest crisis, which has uncovered so much shady dealing, corrupt collusion, and a degeneration of ethical standards – if after all that you cannot understand these points, then I really can’t imagine how to ever reach you. What are you thinking?

  15. Nikki says:

    If only businesspeople were a little more aware of why regulations came to be, there would be less need of them.

    Why do you assume they aren’t aware? More likely, they want a particular reg repealed because it interferes with the accumulation of profit.

  16. Scott F. says:

    @Tano:

    Well said.

  17. JKB says:

    @Liberty60: Um, in what way does Big Government have a stranglehold on Goldman Sachs?

    And the people know, that GS, the military contractors, the banks, all could only do what they did because they had big government’s backing. That, they have to buy a few Congressmen, a couple Senators, some agency people or even a President doesn’t negate that absent Big Government to use the gun to enforce their privileges, Big Business would not have these advantages.

    @Rob in CT: Sometimes the “hemming in” of business is entirely justified and desireable.

    True, and had government stayed in its area, provided boundaries and ran outriders to keep rogues from running wild, we’d be in a fine condition. But bureaucrats and politicians wanted to run things, things they’d read about in books but never actually tried to do in the real world. They developed complex webs of regulations that require a cadre of experts to navigate while providing little advantage to the greater good but much to the lining of politicians campaigns and bureaucrats since of prestige. The small minds of regulators and politicians go for specifics which leave no room for innovation or competition. When they should provide the much more difficult precision. Precision hems in the rule to control the negative outcome while leaving the providers free from second guessing in the broader area. But precision is difficult and does not enhance power or prestige.

    And quite frankly, the either/or of discussing regulation is tiring. Wanting to trim, refine and make more precise regulation does not mean getting rid of regulations. It only means making them scalpels instead of broadswords. It means selective cutting of bad actors without clear cutting the entire landscape.

  18. Hey Norm says:

    I don’t have time to delve into the details behind this today…but I suspect it is the same as with most red meat and dog-whistle words…people hate big government…until you start asking specifics about what government should do.
    Same with the PPACA…nobody likes it…but they all love the specifics.
    Things like this do allow Doug to spank the monkey of his Libertarian fantasies though…so good for him.
    Keep the Government out of my Social Security and Medicare Doug!!!!

  19. Argon says:

    Simple questions: Economics aside, would you rather buy baby food made in China or in the USA? Would you put you life savings in an unregulated bank? How would you expect he number of recalls for defective products or contaminated food would change if the government got smaller? If you’re for big business, I think it’s essential to have a government that can match.

  20. legion says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: That’s a nice talking point, but it doesn’t really reflect much reality.

    ‘big business’ supplies tens of millions of people out there with such items as salaries, bonuses, commissions, health insurance coverage, retirement plans, pension plans, paid vacation, paid sick leave, dental insurance, vision coverage, stock options, ESOP plans, etc.

    And government, big or small, does exactly the same things for its employees. The real difference is that big business has a lot more influence over what big gov’t does than people like you and I. And neither of us has _any_ influence whatsoever on what big biz does. Again, governments can be kicked out – companies can’t.

  21. Liberty60 says:

    @JKB:

    that absent Big Government to use the gun to enforce their privileges, Big Business would not have these advantages

    And so on the day when we actually have “limited government”, will it no longer have guns?

    Or if it does, will those guns be in the control of Big Business, or the People?

    How would the People maintain that control?

  22. steve says:

    “That, they have to buy a few Congressmen, a couple Senators, some agency people or even a President doesn’t negate that absent Big Government to use the gun to enforce their privileges, Big Business would not have these advantages.”

    In the 1800s and early 1900s government was very small. Big business still ran things. Countries with smaller governments are run by the monied elites (econ talk for warlords).

    Steve

  23. Rob in CT says:

    JKB,

    And quite frankly, the either/or of discussing regulation is tiring. Wanting to trim, refine and make more precise regulation does not mean getting rid of regulations. It only means making them scalpels instead of broadswords. It means selective cutting of bad actors without clear cutting the entire landscape.

    This part here is perfectly reasonable and fine by me. What I don’t understand is why you seem to believe that our present situation involves mainly broadswords and clear-cutting.

    If there is a reg aimed at doing X that is a clumsy broadsword, I certainly don’t object to changing it into a scapel. What I see is a lot of hand-waiving about the evils of regulation in general, and a whole lot less of “yes, I agree we must prevent X. But that’s a bad way of doing it. This way is better: _____. Here’s how it would work: ____.”

    So yeah, discussing regulation gets tiresome.

  24. john personna says:

    I’m not sure the respondents are thinking “big” in economic terms.

    BTW, have you been watching the evolution of the Stop Online Piracy Act?

    Talk about corporations working hand-in-glove with government to reduce individual rights …

  25. Neil Hudelson says:

    People, people, people,

    Can’t we distrust and hate Big Government AND Big Business?

  26. McKeever says:

    Americans need to be concerned about the Online Piracy Act. They need to be more concerned about the dangerous UN Agenda 21. This will take away the right of Americans to own land, a car, and freedom to travel. It will also take control of private business/industry, banking, and other businesses.
    Look it up for yourself. Contact your congressmen and demand that the US withdraw its support for this foreign attempt on on our country.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Americans Fear Big Government More Than Big Business

    Thereby proving that most Americans are complete idiots. Here is a clue: Gov’t is for sale to the highest bidder.

    Guess what Doug? You can’t out bid them.

  28. anjin-san says:

    The current Administration has sought to tighten the noose. But as before, the strangling government regulation is killing the golden goose.

    Sorry Charlie, but the economy crashed under Bush. A more business friendly administration you will never see. The oil industry had their own keys to the west wing. Funny how it did not equate to jobs and prosperity. Just a rush of cash to the top.

  29. anjin-san says:

    that absent Big Government to use the gun to enforce their privileges, Big Business would not have these advantages

    You don’t read a lot of history, do you?

  30. Eric Florack says:

    This attitude has always mystified me…

    That much seems obvious.

    Yeah, I get the ‘don’t trust the gov’t’ thing,

    I wonder a bit at this, but no matter.

    but why trust big business any more? I mean, a government runs on rules that have to be visible to the public, and any changes to those rules are by a public process – even if money gets you more influence, you can still see the process. And if you really dislike what the gov’t is doing, you can work to get them voted out & replaced with people you do like

    Actually, you’ve swerved into the problem.
    You can’t “get them voted out”, since the majority of law and government anymore is in the form of people who do not stand for election and are therefore immune to public outcry.

    As an example from this morning’s news: The federal government has a rule up that will ban ALL cell phone use while driving. Not just hands free. ALL use.

    You can argue it’s a good law if you like. (I think it to be one more example of the mindset that considered you can solve any problem by passing a law, and that government is the answer to everything.) But that’s beside the point….

    Let’s say just for laughs the majority of Americans object to such a law. To whom do they attribute such law at the next election?

    That’s just one example.