Americans’ Views on Federalism as States Take on More Power

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The American Public Weighs In on State vs. Federal Power

There is some evidence speaking to Americans’ preference for state versus federal control of government. In 2016, Gallup asked Americans, “Which theory of government do you favor: concentration of power in the state government or concentration of power in the federal government?” This was an update of a question included in one of Gallup’s earliest surveys in 1936. At that point, in the middle of the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt’s massive mobilization of the federal government in the New Deal program, 56% of those interviewed favored the federal government approach. By the time Gallup asked the question again in 1981, in Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, the public had flipped, favoring the state power alternative by 56% to 28%. The most recent results from 2016 showed a similar response, with 55% choosing the state government alternative and 37% choosing the federal government.

Political identity is highly related to preferences for state versus federal power. Remarkably, this partisan difference has persisted over the past eight decades. In 1936, 72% of Democrats favored the federal government theory of government, compared with 35% of Republicans. In 2016, 80 years later, 62% of Democrats favored the federal government, compared with 17% of Republicans.

More generally, a good deal of data show that the American public is more confident in their state government than in the federal government. This reflects the truism that Americans are, in general, more positive about government the more local it is. State governments routinely inspire more confidence than the federal government. And local governments inspire more confidence than state governments. As a September 2021 Deloitte Insights review pointed out, “Distant government tends to be distrusted government.”

In summary, we have a situation as far as public opinion is concerned in which Americans have for decades been more positive about their state government than the federal government, in which Americans hold the federal government in very low regard, and in which, when asked, Americans appear to tilt toward the idea that states should have more power than the federal government.


Americans’ Views on Federalism as States Take on More Power