It’s easy to make too much of any poll. At best a poll is only a snapshot of the ebb and flow of opinion – and that’s assuming the polltakers called more than a few people and did the math right. A good poll usually does little more than take what people know in their guts and move it into a kind of intellectual argument with real numbers. The use of that is for you to judge.
But there is one poll that appears to be worth contemplating. According to a CNN poll of 1,010 people who bothered to answer their phone, 15% of Americans now think that the Federal government will “do what’s right just about always or most of the time.” This is a new low since the question was first asked in 1958 (pdf).
This naturally begs the question, “15%? Really? That high?” But there’s a lot more to it than that.
There are some interesting details buried in this poll that are worth pointing out. Younger people 18-34 are actually more likely to have faith in the Feds, reaching 26% Always/Mostly the right thing. Millenials aren’t fueled by caffeine or seminars as much as they are by sheer optimism – which makes growing realism in the young all the more interesting as the next generation starts to split off.
The stat that I found most impressive, however, is that 77% of the public believes that government will do the right thing some of the time, and only 8% says they never do. The “get government off our backs” crowd is still a tiny minority, with most people waiting (or hoping) for redemption by the feds.
Where it gets scary is that among Democrats, 27% fit into the Always/Mostly category. Even self-identified liberals are not looking to the Feds to always be there for them.
Among all those numbers is the realization that the Federal government is now recognized as a flawed but not inherently bad force by a huge majority of people. They are convincible if some serious forward progress is found.
The poll is handy because it confirms what bubbles up to the surface when I talk with just about anyone of any age or political affiliation these days. People want the Government to do good things for us but are losing faith fast. Very few people buy into the “government is evil” line, meaning that we are not talking about completely abandoning government but arguing about degrees. Incendiary talk is really just talk. If you set up the question to be as neutral as possible you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who can’t find at least something about the Feds they like.
The coming election cycle will play off against this backdrop, with the most smoke and noise coming from the Republican field. There will be a tendency to exaggerate the belief that government can do nothing but screw up. But while hope is fading in many quarters that the Feds can always be relied on, very few buy the hard line.
This is a Democratic Republic. We get the government we deserve. If that scares you as much as it does me, I think it’s up to all of us to make a point of deserving something a little bit better.