Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Americans Remain Divided on Completely Meaningless Question

with 2 comments

A recent Gallup poll (h/t Jonathan Cohn) provides another illustration of a point I’ve made before–view of Americans as presented in the media are a product of the weird sorts of questions asked by pollsters. gov activity poll Now, what on earth is this asking? Do people really have opinions on “how active” government should be, unmoored from the specific things government does? We know that many people would like government to address a range of problems – like poverty and lack of health care and improving public education. But “every area it can”? Why should anyone have an opinion about that?

The reason this makes sense to Gallup and their audience is because many things government does are naturalized. meaning it’s not seen as a choice. Property protection, contract enforcement, the military, prisons and policing–these things are likely covered under most people’s understandings of “basic functions.” But of course, government could be sprawling and expensive while only doing these things (especially the last two). Political scientists have been pleading for over a generation with people not to ask only about “government” in general but to pair that with more specific questions. I’d go further and say asking about “government” when we know full well it means different things to different people makes no sense unless you are trying to mislead. That’s not to say that’s what’s happening here. It’s exceedingly common to see people act like talk about “government” is not inherently contestable and ambiguous. Those who want government to act to serve the interests of those at the bottom often use this language. But it doesn’t make it useful for understanding people’s positions on what government should be doing (let alone for enlisting support for specific policies).

For what it’s worth, this is why ‘big government’ is a concept that causes such confusion. As near as I can tell, ‘big government’ means actions that punish the powerful or help out the disadvantaged, while not big government are actions that punish the disadvantaged or serve the interests of the powerful. So ‘anti-government’ conservatives railing against ‘big government’ can expand the carceral state, the national security state, the bloated military. And that’s why people can say ‘keep the government out of my Medicare’. It looks foolish because we don’t mean the same thing by these terms as those we criticize. It would make both polling and politics easier if we all meant the same thing by terms.

But sadly, that’s not how things work.

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Written by David Kaib

October 2, 2014 at 9:40 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I get to the end of the ‘if we all meant the same thing by terms’ tunnel all the time myself. But, yea that’s not how things work, and the appeal for univocal language is usually done from a position of privilege. And I think the ‘big government’ critique is straight reactionary white supremacy.

    That Gallup poll is a joke. It’s tautological as hell – “…you think the government should do only those things necessary to provide the most basic government functions…”

    Jeremy Mohler

    October 3, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    • I tend to put single quotes around all the important terms in my mind to remind me of exactly this.

      David Kaib

      October 3, 2014 at 9:36 pm


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