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Story Highlights

  • 52% say government doing too many things
  • Last year, majority favored active government role
  • Half prefer lower taxes and fewer government services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans have shifted back to favoring a more hands-off approach for government in addressing the nation’s problems after a rare endorsement of a more active role last year. Currently, 52% say the government is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, while 43% want the government to do more to solve the country’s problems. In contrast, a record-high 54% of U.S. adults last year said the government should do more to solve problems.

Line graph. Trend in Americans’ preference for government activity. Fifty-two percent of U.S. adults say the government is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses while 43% say the government should do more to solve the country’s problems. Last year, opinions were reversed, but the current figures are in line with what Gallup has typically measured since 1992.

Gallup’s question on the proper government role is asked as part of its annual Governance survey, conducted Sept. 1-17 this year. The shift toward favoring a more active government role in 2020 was seen among Democrats and independents but not Republicans — likely a response to the coronavirus pandemic and in particular to then-President Donald Trump’s approach to handling it. Trump generally opposed government efforts designed to slow the spread of the virus, such as face mask requirements and business and school closures.

Last year marked only the second time in Gallup’s 29-year trend that at least half of Americans endorsed an active role for the government on this item. The other pro-government response came in the weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks amid heightened concern about terrorism and a surge in trust in government.

All party groups are less likely now than a year ago to favor a more active government role, but independents’ opinions have changed the most. In 2020, 56% of independents wanted the government to do more to solve problems, compared with 38% now. Independents are even less inclined to want a more active government role today than they were in 2019 before the pandemic began, when 45% held that view. The same is true of Republicans, whose opinions did not show meaningful change last year.

Preference for Government Activity to Solve Nation’s Problems, by Political Party, 2019-2021

2019 2020 2021 Change,
2020-2021
% % % pct. pts.
Republicans
Trying to do too many things 72 74 80 +6
Should be doing more 24 22 15 -7
Independents
Trying to do too many things 51 38 57 +19
Should be doing more 45 56 38 -18
Democrats
Trying to do too many things 27 13 18 +5
Should be doing more 70 83 78 -5
Gallup

Public Prefers Lower Taxes, Fewer Government Services

Americans’ preference for a limited government role is also evident when they are asked to consider the trade-offs between taxes and government services. Given a choice, half of Americans say they prefer fewer government services and lower taxes, while 19% want higher taxes and more services. Twenty-nine percent want taxes and services as they are now.

In the five times Gallup has asked this question since 1993, the preference for lower taxes and fewer services has consistently prevailed, held either by pluralities or majorities of Americans, including a high of 56% in 2011. Only as many as 25%, in 2019, have said they wanted higher taxes and more services.

Line graph. Americans’ preferences for government services and taxes. Fifty percent of Americans would rather have less government services in order to reduce taxes, up from 42% in 2019. In 2011, a high of 56% held this view. Nineteen percent of Americans say they want more services and more taxes, down from 25% in 2019, the previous high. Twenty-nine percent prefer that services and taxes be about the same as now.

Gallup did not ask this “taxes versus government services” question last year, so it is not possible to know how opinions on the issue might have changed in a year when Americans said they wanted government to do more to solve the nation’s problems.

Currently, 77% of Republicans prefer fewer services and lower taxes, while 15% want no change and 7% prefer higher taxes and more services. Half of independents prefer lower taxes and fewer services, while 33% want to keep taxes and services where they are now and 16% want increases in both.

Democrats are mostly split between wanting more services and more taxes (37%) and keeping taxes and services where they are now (40%). Nineteen percent of Democrats prefer lower taxes and fewer services.

Majority Continues to Say Government Has Too Much Power

Consistent with their preferences for lower taxes and fewer services and their belief that the government is doing too many things, 54% say the federal government has too much power. This is essentially unchanged from 56% the last time the question was asked in 2019.

At least half of Americans since 2005 have said that the government has too much power, peaking at 60% in 2013 and 2015. From 2002 through 2004, in the first few years after 9/11, more Americans believed the federal government had about the right amount of power than believed it had too much. Relatively few Americans have ever said the government has too little power.

Line graph. Americans’ perceptions of federal government power. Fifty-four percent of U.S. adults say the federal government has too much power, 36% say it has about the right amount, and 9% say it has too little. Majorities have typically said the government has too much power, including a high of 60% in 2013 and 2015. From 2002 through 2004, however, more said the government had the right amount of power than said it had too much.

Eighty-two percent of Republicans, 59% of independents and 19% of Democrats say the government has too much power. Most Democrats, 63%, say the government has the right amount of power.

Although Americans’ opinions about federal government power are essentially unchanged since 2019, partisans’ views have changed as the presidency switched from Republican Trump to Democrat Joe Biden. Two years ago, the party differences were much smaller than they are today, with 61% of Republicans, 57% of independents and 51% of Democrats saying the government had too much power.

Americans More Inclined to Say Government Regulating Business Too Much

Forty-three percent of Americans say there is too much government regulation of business and industry, while 25% say there is too little and 30% the right amount. Over the past year, the percentage perceiving too much regulation has increased seven percentage points (from 36% in 2020) while there has been a six-point decline in those seeing regulation as about right.

This shift is consistent with the last time the presidency changed from Republican to Democratic control. Spanning the transition from Republican George W. Bush to Democrat Barack Obama between 2008 and 2009, the percentage saying there was too much government regulation also increased seven points, from 38% to 45%.

Opinions moved in the other direction after the White House transitioned from Obama to Trump, though the change was not evident until Trump’s second year in office in 2018. In 2016, 47% of U.S. adults thought the government regulated business too much, compared with 45% in 2017 and 39% in 2018.

Line graph. Trend in Americans’ opinions of whether there is too much, too little or the right amount of government regulation of business. Typically Americans are most inclined to say there is too much government regulation. The percentage saying there is too much regulation has been higher in Democratic presidential administration than Republican administrations, including a high of 50% in 2011. Americans are usually least likely to say there is too little regulation of business, including a low of 17% in 2001.

Republicans, and to a lesser extent, independents, have become increasingly likely over the past year to say there is too much regulation of business and less likely to say there is the right amount of it. Seventy-two percent of Republicans and 43% of independents now say there is too much regulation. The remainder of independents divide evenly between saying there is the right amount or too little regulation.

More Democrats than last year (45% vs. 31%) say there is the right amount of regulation. That 14-point increase has mainly been offset by a 10-point decline in the percentage saying there is too little regulation. Overall, Democrats divide about evenly between saying there is too little or the right amount of regulation, with relatively few, 11%, saying there is too much.

Perceptions of the Amount of Government Regulation of Business, by Political Party, 2020-2021

2020 2021 Change, 2020-2021
% % pct. pts.
Republicans
Too much 60 72 +12
Too little 3 6 +3
Right amount 36 20 -16
Independents
Too much 35 43 +8
Too little 25 28 +3
Right amount 39 27 -12
Democrats
Too much 16 11 -5
Too little 52 42 -10
Right amount 31 45 +14
Gallup

Bottom Line

More Americans typically prefer a limited government role to an active one, think there is too much rather than too little regulation of business and believe the government is too powerful. The COVID-19 situation and the Trump administration’s response to it in 2020 may have briefly changed Americans’ views on the proper government role, but whatever effect it had has now disappeared. That could reflect changing government policy on the issue as Biden has been more assertive in using government power to take steps to mitigate the spread of the disease than Trump did. For example, Biden has imposed face mask and vaccine mandates for situations in which his administration believes the federal government has the authority to do so. Those steps have been controversial, and the controversy might have swayed some people — particularly independents — into thinking such a strong government response is not ideal.

But the reversal in opinions on government activity also may simply reflect a return to normal attitudes, similar to what occurred after 9/11 when Americans at least briefly advocated for a more active government role to deal with a national challenge, before reverting to favoring a more limited approach.

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View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

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