New Study Explores the Ambivalence Many Americans Express about Government

Jan 01, 2001


What many Americans say about the government in general is often at odds with what they say they want it to do in specific areas.

So report public opinion analysts Albert H. Cantril and Susan Davis Cantril in Reading Mixed Signals: Ambivalence in American Public Opinion about Government. Based on a comprehensive national survey, their new book is being published by the Woodrow Wilson Center Press and will be released in early September.

The Mixed Signals

Findings from the survey show many people are of mixed minds in their views about the federal government. This ambivalence is seen most often among government's critics -- people who are inclined to think government is too powerful, tries to do too many things, or goes too far in regulating business. According to the study, even as they hold such general views, more than half (54%) of these detractors of government say they want federal spending continued or increased in a host of areas, such as Medicaid for low-income families or ensuring safe working conditions.

Mixed signals come as well from supporters of government -- those who think government is not too powerful, has struck the right balance in what it does, and needs to regulate business. The study shows that nearly a quarter (23%) of these supporters of government advocate spending cuts in specific areas.

Sending mixed signals is not a proxy for the irresolute. The authors find that those who send mixed signals offer opinions on just as many issues -- with the same intensity -- as those who are not ambivalent.

"Reading Mixed Signals addresses one of the great puzzles in American public opinion," said Lee H. Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Although this apparent paradox in the public's thinking was first identified more than thirty years ago," he added, "thanks to this rigorous and scientific study, we now know a good deal more about what lies behind it."

According to the study, those who are ambivalent in either their criticism or support of government together make up about a third (32%) of the public. These "ambivalent critics" and "ambivalent supporters" are key in the political life of the nation. The Cantrils note that "this is both because of their numbers and because when they vote they are more likely than others to split their ballots among candidates of different parties."

What lies behind ambivalence about government?

The study finds that people's opinions on issues in public debate today have more to do with ambivalence than their demographic characteristics, with the exception of age, or whether they describe their political views as conservative, middle of the road, or liberal.

Among people generally critical of government, the Cantrils find, six considerations stand out as especially important in explaining levels of ambivalence:

Differences of opinion about how much attention government should pay to the concerns of low-income Americans. Those who think government is paying too little or the right amount of attention to the poor are more likely to be more ambivalent in their criticism of government than those who think too much attention is given to the poor.

Differences in how much people think their communities are affected by what goes on in other parts of the country. Those who sense interdependence tend to be more ambivalent as critics of government while those who think the problems localities face are "mostly local" tend to be less ambivalent.

Differing levels of confidence in the executive agencies of the federal government. Critics who are more confident are usually more ambivalent in their criticism of government while those who have less confidence are less ambivalent.

Differences of opinion about how to deal with the issue of race. Government's critics who think the country still has a long way to go in working for racial equality are more ambivalent. Critics who think the country doesn't need to push so hard on the matter of racial equality are less ambivalent.

Age. Younger critics of government tend to be more ambivalent in their thinking than older critics.

Differences of opinion about getting ahead. Those who think there are times when circumstances stand in the way are more likely to be ambivalent as critics than those who think anyone can get ahead with hard work.

Among people generally supportive of government, differences of opinion about government's attention to the poor and differences on the issue of race also come into play in explaining ambivalence. But these factors are much less important among those favorable to government than they are among government's critics because much less ambivalence is expressed overall among government's supporters.

"We at the Woodrow Wilson Center are proud to have been part of this study, our first venture into opinion research," said Center Director Hamilton. "It provides essential background for our work on problems of governance that confront American leadership as we move into the new century."

In his Foreword to the book, Michael J. Lacey, Director of the Wilson Center's Division of United States Studies, observes this is a study "rich in implications for those involved in the actual practice of American politics, and also for those who devote themselves to the study of the subject."

The study and book were made possible by a grant to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from the Florence and John Schumann Foundation of Montclair, New Jersey. The book will be distributed by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Albert H. Cantril and Susan Davis Cantril are Washington-based independent analysts of public opinion and survey research.