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Report

Introducing the next government reform majority: What Americans want from reform in 2018

Donald J. Trump surged toward an Electoral College victory two years ago with a conservative base that favored smaller government that delivers fewer services and “very major reform” in how government works. These “dismantlers,” as I call them, applauded Trump’s attack on free-spending government and his promise to drain the swamp in Washington. As of August 2016, the dismantlers represented 82 percent of Americans who intended to vote for Trump.

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At the same time, Hillary Clinton surged toward a popular vote victory with a moderate-liberal base that favored a bigger government that delivers more services and modest reform at most in how government works. These “expanders” embraced Clinton’s attack on the nation’s richest one percent and her promise to be stronger together, and found common cause with “rebuilders” who also wanted bigger government, but demanded very major reform. Together, the expanders accounted for 44 percent of Americans who intended to vote for Clinton, while the rebuilders added another 30 percent.

The rebuilders now have the momentum to win a plurality in the midterm elections and are on track to becoming a president-maker in 2020, even as the dismantlers fight to maintain control.

Two years later, this fight about what government delivers and how it works has tightened. As of June 2018, the number of dismantlers was eight percentage points lower and the share of rebuilders was six percentage points higher than their twenty-year peaks in August 2016. Meanwhile, the number of expanders was 38 percentage points below its October 2001 high, and the share of “streamliners” who favor smaller government and see little need for reform was still stuck in the mid-teens where it has languished for more than a decade. The rebuilders now have the momentum to win a plurality in the midterm elections and are on track to becoming a president-maker in 2020, even as the dismantlers fight to maintain control. It is time to prepare for a bitter face-off between the two positions.

Defining the reform categories

The four government reform positions discussed in this report combine responses from two survey questions about what government delivers and how well it works: (1) If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a bigger government providing more services? (2) Which of these statements comes closer to your view? The federal government needs very major reform? The federal government is basically sound and needs only some reform? The questions produce four categories.

 

The federal government needs very major reform The federal government is basically sound and needs only some reform
Would rather have a smaller government providing fewer services Dismantlers Streamliners
Would rather have a bigger government providing more services Rebuilders Expanders

 

This typology excludes the two-to-four percent of respondents who said the federal government does not need much change at all. For more on the data used in this report, see footnote 1.

Where did all the expanders go?

The rise of the rebuilders reflects the recent collapse of expanding government as a dominant reform destination.[1] Having claimed a 43 percent share of public support in 1997, the number of expanders rose just after the September 11 attacks, according to a Brookings Institution Presidential Appointee Initiative survey, before declining to 20 percent in 2016 and 17 percent in June.

This decline reflects rising demand for major government reform—the number of Americans who said the federal government was basically sound and needed only some reform dropped from 58 percent in 1997 to just 31 percent in 2018, while the number who said the federal government needed very major reform jumped from 37 to 60 percent. As Americans changed positions on the need for reform, their preferences for bigger or smaller government pulled conservatives toward dismantling and liberals toward rebuilding.

Having claimed a 43 percent share of public support in 1997, the number of expanders rose just after the September 11 attacks, before declining to 20 percent in 2016 and 17 percent in June.

The rising demand for reform also reflects the changing tenor of American politics. Between 2010 and 2018, for example, the number of moderate Americans in the surveys cited here dropped nine percentage points to 25 percent, while the number of very conservative or very liberal Americans rose 16 percentage points to 27 percent. Similar movement toward the ideological extremes also occurred within the four reform groups—e.g., the number of very conservative dismantlers almost doubled to 26 percent, while the number of very liberal rebuilders more than doubled to 20 percent.

All four reform positions have strong party histories—Democrats have long favored expanding and rebuilding, while Republicans have long favored dismantling and streamlining. However, only dismantling and rebuilding could claim majority party support in June, and then only with roughly 50 percent of Republican or Democratic support respectively.

Dismantling in decline?

Ideology helps explain the eight-point drop in the total number of dismantlers over the past two years. Although the total number of conservative dismantlers held steady at about 60 percent, the number of dismantlers who described themselves as very conservative rose nine points to 26 percent during the short period, while the number who described themselves as conservative fell 12 points to 32 percent. As the dismantlers became more ideologically intense, they may have driven some of these less ideological supporters toward the exits, including some who may have reconsidered their conservative leanings all the way to a moderate or even liberal bent. Trump’s divisive message and angry policies may have produced great political theater at his rallies at the expense of party-building.

Demographics also affected movement across the reform groups as the dismantlers became less diverse. Whereas more than 80 percent of dismantlers described themselves as white, five percent as Hispanic, and three percent as black, just 52 percent of the rebuilders described themselves as white, while 22 percent described themselves as black, and 17 percent as Hispanic. Sixty-four percent of the dismantlers identified themselves as male, while 55 percent of the rebuilders identified themselves as female.

Politics and process

Despite their differences, the dismantlers and rebuilders share similar concerns about how government works today. According to my analysis of the Pew Research Center’s 2015 “Beyond Distrust” data, the two groups were significantly more likely than the expanders and streamliners to say that: the federal government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, is doing a somewhat or very bad job strengthening the economy, protecting the nation from terrorism, managing the immigration system, ensuring that food and medicine are safe, helping people out of poverty, and responding to natural disasters.

The dismantlers and rebuilders were also much more likely than the expanders and streamliners to say voting does not really affect how government runs things, most elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s interests and do not care about people like them, and ordinary citizens cannot do a lot to influence the government in Washington—and to question the intelligence, honesty, energy, integrity, and even patriotism of their leaders. It is little surprise, then, that the dismantlers and rebuilders would be more likely to say that ordinary Americans would do a better job solving the country’s problems than elected officials. Finally, the dismantlers and rebuilders also share a general sense that their side has been losing more often than winning on the issues of the day.

Despite their differences, the dismantlers and rebuilders share similar concerns about how government works today.

Once past their shared distrust, the two groups diverge on what government should deliver. The dismantlers are much less likely than the rebuilders to say homosexuality should be accepted by society, immigrants strengthen the country, or government should do more to help needy Americans, but much more likely to say stricter environmental laws hurt the economy and poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits. The dismantlers are also less likely than the rebuilders to believe the federal government should play a major role in strengthening the economy, reducing poverty, protecting the environment, and ensuring access to health care.

These agreements on how government works and disagreements on what it should deliver undergird today’s electoral conflict—neither side trusts government to do the right thing when the other party is in charge, neither trusts the other party and its leaders to do the right thing.

Grading government

This bitterness comes to a head with ratings of the federal government’s overall performance in running its programs. As of June 2018, 45 percent of the expanders gave the federal government an excellent or good rating, compared with 32 percent of the streamliners, 21 percent of the rebuilders, and just nine percent of the dismantlers.

These agreements on how government works and disagreements on what it should deliver undergird today’s electoral conflict—neither side trusts government to do the right thing when the other party is in charge

Looking back over past surveys, the expanders have been the most positive of the four groups toward government performance, confirming their liberal-moderate and Democratic leanings. The streamliners became much more positive in 2015 and 2018, perhaps reflecting the economic recovery and Trump’s arrival. The rebuilders were the most positive just after Obama’s arrival in 2010 and most negative just before he left, perhaps suggesting rising concerns about Republican control of Congress. The dismantlers were the most negative with Obama in office, and the most positive after Trump’s arrival, confirming their hopes for major reform.

It is easy to understand why the expanders would give the federal government high ratings in 1997 and 2010 with Democratic presidents in the White House, but more difficult to explain the high grades in 2018 with an avowed dismantler at the helm. My best guess is that the ratings reflect support for prized federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare, pushing against the dismantlers by declaring government basically sound, indicating unwavering support for prized programs, or even expressing solidarity for beleaguered federal employees. Perhaps nothing says “resist” like a positive rating.

It is equally difficult to explain why the dismantlers were reluctant to give excellent ratings to government eighteen months into the Trump administration. Despite a surge in the number of “only fair” ratings, the dismantlers seemed to be in a wait-and-see-mode as the nation turned toward the midterms. Trump’s dilemma is clear—the more he attacks federal employees and promotes his deep-state conspiracies, the less credit he gets for very major reform. He told his supporters that he alone could fix it, after all. So why is government still rife with corruption and conspiracy?

Calling the rebuilders

Americans may agree that it is time for major reform in how government works, but Congress and the past two presidents were unable to move beyond small-scale legislation and modest executive orders for more than a decade. Beyond a handful of statutes designed to reorganize homeland security and coordinate national intelligence, Congress and presidents did not stem the cascade of bureaucratic breakdowns in government performance that worked its will during the 2017 hurricane season and at the U.S. border.

The Trump administration has also favored a minimalist agenda, albeit built more on tweets and anger than the bipartisanship needed for comprehensive reform. Much as the president’s first-year hiring freeze, reorganization plan, and attacks on federal employee unions might have appealed to very conservative dismantlers, his limited reform agenda has been buried under layers of media coverage about ethical violations, staff turnover, and policy failures on health care and immigration. As for the president’s promised attack on fraud, waste, and abuse, his administration is known more for excessive spending, extravagance, and petty aggrandizement than supporting its own watchdogs.

The question for 2020 is whether and how the rebuilders can achieve a majority against expanders who are promising Medicare for all, a living wage, and guaranteed jobs, but have little to say about government reform beyond abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The question for 2020 is whether and how the rebuilders can achieve a majority against expanders who are promising Medicare for all, a living wage, and guaranteed jobs, but have little to say about government reform beyond abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Jimmy Carter’s 1976 outsider campaign may hold the answer. Although often remembered for the Iran hostage crisis and hyper-inflation, Carter was also a gifted strategist and government reformer. Having promised to create a government as good as the people, Carter’s agenda coupled a long list of policy reforms such as national health care with an equally challenging list of administrative reforms to strengthen the civil service, increase transparency and ethical conduct, create independent offices of inspectors general across government, reduce federal paperwork, and even create a new department or two.

Carter’s success came from raising expectations for what government could do to help the country, while embracing demands for major reforms in performance, transparency, and conduct. His agenda provided the scaffolding for Bill Clinton’s successful reinventing government campaign 20 years later and has even found its way into Trump’s occasional references to the honorable role that federal employees play in serving the American people.

If the rebuilders are to become president-makers, they must build an agenda that goes far enough to satisfy their own demand for significant government reform, while shaping their own agenda for a bigger government that delivers more services. In doing so, they would do well to start with Carter’s promise to live up to the majesty of our Constitution and the simple decency of the people, to lead without negativism and fear of the future, and rebuild government, not dismantle it.

After all, his era was not that different from today. “We want to have faith again,” he told the 1976 Democratic convention. “We want to be proud again. We just want the truth again.”


Footnotes

[1] All the findings discussed in this report come from random-sample surveys conducted by respected survey research firms and centers. The 1997, 2010, and 2015 data come from publicly-available datasets collected by the Pew Research Center, while the 2001 and 2016 data were collected by Princeton Survey Research Associates, and the 2018 data were collected by SSRS. The Brookings Institution’s Presidential Appointee Initiative provided the funding needed to collect the 2001 data, while the Volcker Alliance provided the funding needed to collect the 2016 and 2018 data. I am solely responsible for the data analysis, findings, and interpretations presented here.

The following two questions from the 1997, 2001, and 2010 surveys were used to create the four reform groups:

  1. “Imagine a scale from one to six where one represents someone who generally believes that federal government programs should be cut back greatly to reduce the power of government, and six represents someone who feels that federal government programs should be maintained to deal with important problems. Where on the scale of one to six would you place yourself?”
  2. “Which of these statements comes closest to your view? The federal government needs very major reform, or the federal government is basically sound and needs only some reform, or the federal government doesn’t need much change at all.”

The following two questions were used to create the four reform groups from the 2015 data points:

  1. “Which of these statements comes closest to your view: Government should do more to solve programs or government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals?”
  2. “Which of these statements comes closest to your view? The federal government needs very major reform, or the federal government is basically sound and needs only some reform, or the federal government doesn’t need much change at all.”

The following two questions were used to create the 2016 and 2018 data points:

  1. “If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government delivering fewer services or a bigger government delivering more services?”
  2. “Which of these statements comes closest to your view? The federal government needs very major reform, or the federal government is basically sound and needs only some reform, or the federal government doesn’t need much change at all.”

Respondents who said programs should be cut back (positions 1 – 3 on the scale, government is doing too much, or government should be smaller and deliver fewer services) and government needs very major reform are defined as dismantlers; respondents who said programs should be maintained or be bigger (positions 4 – 6 on the scale, government should do more to solve programs, or government should be bigger and deliver more services) were defined as rebuilders; respondents who said government programs should be cut back and government is basically sound and doesn’t need much change were defined as streamliners; and respondents who said government programs should be maintained or be bigger and government is basically sound and doesn’t need much change were defined as expanders.

Readers should note that I referred in my past work to rebuilders as “priority-setters”— my reading of the 2018 survey results suggests that these respondents now see the call for a bigger government that delivers more services as a reversal of recent policy decisions and new budget proposals by the Trump administration to cut many programs across the board in favor of tax cuts. [Back to top]

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