Polarized

How opinions unite and divide us

Federalism Internalized?

People have differing views of federal, state, and local governments. Why?

In the first of what I hope to be an ongoing series, this post briefly summarizes some interesting and recent public opinion findings and makes sense of them in the context of political psychology research.

A poll released this past week by the Pew Research Center finds that (1) there is a growing gap in public perceptions of federal, state, and local governments and (2) there are major partisan divides in these views. What should we make of these data?

The Pew report finds that while 50% of the people in the United States have a favorable view of their state government and 60% have a favorable view of their local government, only about one-third of respondents reported positive attitudes toward government in Washington and this number has tanked (dropping from a high near 75% in the early 2000s).

The report also finds a major partisan disagreement among views of federal government: While Democrats had generally negative views of the federal government prior to the election of Barack Obama, their views have been increasingly negative since about 2010, whereas Republicans’ views have dropped dramatically since Obama’s election. Views of Independents remain largely unchanged over the same period.

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This leads me to two important things to consider when interpreting these findings. First, the partisan divide is unsurprising. According to theories of motivated reasoning (gated, ungated), partisans view the same facts differently. It may matter very little for peoples’ views whether the federal government is doing an objectively good or bad job. Democratic control of the White House means Democrats will necessarily interpret the evidence as more positive than Republicans (who would see the federal government doing a better job under Republican control, all else constant).

Second, the poll raises some questions about whether people can meaningfully distinguish among the performance of different levels of government. Research by Kevin Arceaneaux (Temple) (gated, ungated) suggests that people generally have difficulty attributing policymaking responsibility to federal versus state versus local government. And, only under fairly narrow circumstances do those perceptions of responsibility translate into voting behavior.

Given this evidence, it seems unlikely that the opinions reported by Pew reflect meaningful differences in opinions across the federal, state, and local strata. Instead, partisan biases seem to explain differences in perceptions of federal government performance and the lack of such differences among evaluations of state and local governments.

The most interesting finding therefore seems to be the downward trend in Democrats’ perceptions of the federal government. This may reflect their attention to the performance of Congress (with the House of Representatives vividly controlled by TEA Party-influenced Republicans) compared to Republicans’ attention to Obama. Unfortunately, we don’t have direct evidence for this in the results released by Pew, so it’s open to consideration exactly why this downward trend has occurred.

Thomas J. Leeper is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and a graduate fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

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