My last post was about a question on whether "the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses" or "the government should do more to solve our country’s problems." In recent surveys, opinions on that question were farther to the left (government should do more) than they ever had been since the question was first asked in the mid-1980s. I said that the GSS had asked essentially the same question in 1975 and 1983, and that a NORC survey had asked it in 1974, making it possible to take the history back farther, and that I would do that in a future post, although probably not the next one. But improbable things happen sometimes, so I will do it in this post.
The questions I wrote about last time all involved a choice between two statements. The NORC questions asked people to place themselves on scales ranging from full agreement with one statement to full agreement with the other. The GSS used a 5-point scale, and the earlier NORC survey used a seven-point scale, so there was a point that was midway in between the two. In order to make the values comparable, I calculated the ratio of people who placed themselves closer to the "government should do more" end to those who placed themselves closer to the "doing to many things" end, omitting those who took the middle option, and took the logarithm of that ratio. The results:
There is a lot of short-term variation and no clear trend. In 2014, opinions were the most conservative ever--by 2018, they were the most liberal since 1990. In the question I considered last time, opinions became more conservative in the early 1990s, and then more liberal--in the GSS, they became more conservative throughout the 1990s.
What if we look at them all together?
Here they are, with the NORC/GSS results in red. There's a lot of variation among surveys taken at approximately the same time, which seems reasonable to me--I think that answers to this question might be more affected by context than most (e. g., more conservative if preceded by questions about taxes than if preceded by questions about education and health care). Some of the GSS results are a bit out of line with those in most contemporary surveys, but none are real outliers. So it seems reasonable to take them all together. In order to show the trend more clearly, I use a smoothed estimate.*
In my last post, I said that the current leftward movement started in the "early 2010s and has been pretty steady." On closer examination, I don't think that's true, or at least not clear. There wasn't much change through 2014, and then there was a gap until the GSS in the first part of 2016. There were only two other questions in 2016, and they were November and December. So it's hard to say what was happening in the last few years of the Obama administration, but opinions definitely became more liberal under Trump, and are now to the left of where they were in the mid-1970s and early 1990s. There is some tendency for opinions to go left under Republicans and to the right under Democrats, however, so that may not last. As I've mentioned before, the early 1990s really stand out for a strong rightward movement. People tend to ascribe Republican success in the 1994 elections to Newt Gingrich's strategy, but I think there was definitely more going on, although I'm not sure what it was.
*There are lots of methods of smoothing, and things are complicated because these observations aren't equally spaced. I tried several and picked the one that had the best match to my own impressions.
[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]