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Do Americans want to govern themselves?

By John Sides

Many thanks to Ezra for allowing me to guest-blog this week.  As befits the wonkishness of this blog and Ezra's attentiveness to political science research, my posts will tend to focus on political science and especially the areas that I know best, such as public opinion and elections. 

Over the weekend, John Fund's Wall Street Journal column profiled pollster Scott Rasmussen.  Fund quotes Rasmussen saying this:

"Americans don't want to be governed from the left or the right," Scott Rasmussen tells the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conference of 1,500 conservative and moderate legislators. "They want, like the Founding Fathers, to largely govern themselves with Washington in a supporting -- but not dominant -- role. The tea party movement is today's updated expression of that sentiment.

On his Web site, Rasmussen says something similar:

The American people don’t want to be governed from the left, the right or the center. The American people want to govern themselves.

Do Americans really want to govern themselves?  There is reason to be doubtful.  In their 2002 book "Stealth Democracy," political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse explore this topic via both a national survey and focus groups.  (Ezra has mentioned this book before, e.g., here.) 

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse find the same discontent that Rasmussen identifies: Americans tired of conflict and politics-as-usual.  But they don't embrace self-governance.  Indeed, they are highly ambivalent about, well, themselves -- the American people.  On the one hand, in a 1998 survey 63 percent said that "the American people could solve the country's problems."  On the other hand, 65 percent said that "people don't have enough time or knowledge to make political decisions."  Majorities also said that "you can't be too careful in dealing with people" (60 percent) and "most people would take advantage of you if they had the chance" (52 percent). 

Focus group participants were skeptical that the American people wanted to be responsible for political decision-making.  They said that people are too busy, or too apathetic, or too uninformed, or simply not smart enough.  Here is a typical quote from one participant:

How many of us here want to make a change by going to the government or how many of us can? ... I think we're so occupied trying to keep up in this society that there's not enough people who have the difference to go in there and say "this is what I want to do." ... There is just not enough people doing what should be done to make a difference.

According to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, the public would rather have other people make the decisions, so long as those people are "empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers."  About a third of the public is willing to delegate authority to such people even if they are not elected.

Eight years later, is this book out of date?  I don't think so.  In February, a CNN poll asked this question: "Do you think you personally could do a better job running the country than our government officials are presently doing?"  Only 36 percent said yes. 

There is no question that Americans have lost trust in government.  That is the predictable consequence of any recession.  It is far less certain, however, that they want to take responsibility for governing themselves. 

John Sides is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University. He blogs at the Monkey Cage.

By John Sides  |  August 23, 2010; 10:23 AM ET
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I haven't read the book, but what does "govern themselves" mean in this context? That people do/don't want an Athenian-style democracy? An anarchist collective?

There's so much gray area that I'm constantly frustrated when people talk about how President Obama is a "socialist" or how people want to "govern themselves". Do people want to disband our professional military? Should we go back to bucket brigades for fires? Defend our own inventions or creations from infringement and enforce our own contracts?

Pretty much everyone I've ever talked to wants some functions performed by professionals employed by the government or skilled elected representatives. How we get those people and what functions we want them to do is, or should be, a completely different and non-ideological discussion.

Posted by: MosBen | August 23, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

It appears that John Sides does not understand nor revere the idea of self governance and wishes to provide cover for the Marxists in office and the bills they have passed.

If he were right, the Tea Party would be a fizzle (it isn't) and the Democrats would be heralding their legislative accomplishments (they aren't).

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | August 23, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

The American people want to be governed from the middle of the political spectrum. They do not have the priorities of the Washington elite and the lobbyists inside the beltway.

In 2008 whoever won the Democratic nomination was going to be elected President because of the massive disgust with George W. Bush.

The public is upset with Barack Obama because in the election campaign of 2008 he campaigned he was a centrist and would govern with moderation.

Once elected he has governed to the left of his campaign promises and on the rare occasions he has held a press conference he has shown to be ill prepared and thin skinned.

He still has time to return to the campaign of 2008 but in the future the American public are going to vet him much more carefully!

Posted by: mwhoke | August 23, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

In a nutshell I believe that The American people desire their elected public officials to actually perform as they campaigned on!

Posted by: mwhoke | August 23, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Well, really, if American's don't want to govern themselves (a preposterous proposition, but one expects no less from Klein's corner), then by all means, bring the boot down, and give 'em what's good for them.

I think Sides is confused (or wishes to confuse others) respecting the distinctions between "self government" and "political decision-making" (with the clever trick of teasing such confusions out of flimsy polls) The latest strains in the social fabric (such as it is) have been placed there precisely because the political class has so adamantly and stridently made political so many areas of self evidently private, personal endeavor. And the more Washington usurps, the more crises arise, the more "complicated" things become, and the more the politicians (and their propagandists) can play citizen against citizen, carefully arriving at John Sides, concluding the people need ruling, and they need ruling good.

Posted by: msoja | August 23, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

"mwhoke" has it right. We want public officials who represent us not themselves. I think if "self-governing" were defined as conducting our own affairs with minimum interference from government, you would find a large majority who would support that concept.


Posted by: ckessler55943 | August 23, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

"In a nutshell I believe that The American people desire their elected public officials to actually perform as they campaigned on!"

President Obama campaigned on reforming health care, ending the Iraq war, and beefing up the Afghanistan war - all of which he's basically done. What exactly do you think he campaigned on that he hasn't now done?

I think the broader problem with a statement like that is that in all likelihood a preponderant portion of the electorate actually doesn't know what he campaign on beyond, at best, some snippets shown quickly on the local news.

Posted by: y2josh_us | August 23, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

And yet we have increasing numbers of so-called "ballot initiatives" each election cycle, especially in states like California. Here is where the people try to "govern themselves," bypassing their elected officials and creating fiscal and constitutional chaos. More often than not, the majority who realizes in theory that they are not capable of making decisions on complex subjects takes to the ballot box to hamstring the legislatures, passing bad laws like Prop 13 and Prop 8 (and thousands of others). Then they want to be able to recall elected officials when things don't work out.

Our Founders wisely chose representative, rather than direct, democracy as the model for our young republic. Can we have some ballot initiatives to ban ballot initiatives?

Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 23, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Hmmm. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone would invent a system of governance where the public could hire people to make the day to day decisions about running the government? Then, if we could think of a way for the public to express its' approval or disapproval of the job those hirelings had been doing, the average citizen could keep his day job while at the same time exerting a powerful influence on his/her own governance.

Wouldn't that be something?

Posted by: mgsorens | August 23, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

I remember a bit from a sociology class back in the 60's: Americans prefer their "government" to be invisible, to operate as a field force rather than a bureaucracy. We tend not to trust personified government, we do trust the market. We don't want to ration medical care through "death panels", we prefer to do it through the pocketbook. That way, no one's to blame, there's no one to get upset. I haven't seen much in the years since the class to persuade me otherwise.

Posted by: bharshaw | August 23, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

It would probably be helpful to define terms here -- particularly "self-government".

The implied definition here seems to identify a system of direct democracy as "self-government" while implying that representative democracy is at odds with the term. I don't think this is necessarily the case, but I'm not sure this is the source of the dispute, because the term is never precisely defined.

Clarifying terms would probably help to clarify the core controversy.

A second issue, in the case of Rasmussen's assertion he's making claims that are debatable and vague.


1. a majority of Americans are not members of any Tea Party, so it's hard to see how their views reflect the will of a majority of Americans.

2. What does Rasmussen mean by "dominant"? How does he define the term in a concrete way?

In the case of Medicare and Social Security for example -- something that the Tea Party might view as an encroachment on individual liberty including some completely contradictory views along the lines of "get the governments hands off my Medicare" -- you find an overwhelming majority of Americans who support the existence of those programs.

For a majority of seniors Medicare is the dominant provider of health care, yet a majority of seniors do not want to see their Medicare system abolished or modified in ways that undermine the existence of the program. How does Rasmussen reconcile these realities with his thesis?

Clearly there are areas where Americans see Federal policy playing a "dominant" role. They want the consumer choice that the program affords in selecting providers, but they don't want to have an alternative which is administered by private firms. Even in the case of a program administered by private firms the federal government would still play a dominant role in collecting premiums for members in the privately managed program. So at least in the case of health care for seniors, most Americans seem to want a "dominant" federal role in some part of the process.

Posted by: JPRS | August 23, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

"The American people want to govern themselves."

As others on this thread have asked, what's that even supposed to mean?

Posted by: jonboinAR | August 23, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

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