Last week the Washington Post had a story saying that public opinion was moving in favor of a more activist government. It relied on the following survey question: "some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your view?” Although the story just gave a few comparisons, this question has been asked frequently since the 1980s, so I wanted to look at the whole series. Here is a plot of the logarithm of the ratio of "do more" to "too many things":
There are two major shifts in a conservative (government doing too much) direction: the early 1990s and around 2009-10. The first one corresponds to the first couple of years of the Clinton administration, the second to the first couple of years of the Obama administration. You could explain them as a reaction against what people perceived as governmental overreach, but this raises a question of why Biden hasn't met with the same kind of reaction. Also, it's interesting that the shift in the 1990s was bigger than the shift in 2009-10, although Clinton's administration was less ambitious than Obama's (its most prominent policy achievement was NAFTA, which wasn't really a big government vs. small government issue). As I've remarked a number of times, the public just seemed to have a negative feeling about government in the early 1990s. The move in favor of an active government doesn't seem to be just a reaction against Trump--it appears to have started in the early 2010s and been pretty steady since that time.
The General Social Survey asked the same question in 1975, and regularly since 1983, and a NORC survey asked it in 1973, but rather than asking people to choose one statement, they asked them to place themselves on a five-point scale. I show the means for the GSS item in this post: they don't seem to show a leftward movement in recent years. In a future post (probably not my next one, but pretty soon), I'll have a more detailed comparison.
Note: there were some questions in which the first option was "solve problems and help meet the needs of people." These seemed to get a consistently more pro-government response than the usual form, so I didn't include them.
[data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]