Americans’ Lived Experience Of Democracy

Exploratory Research Findings | Reclaiming Government for America’s Future Project

December 2015

For Public Works and Indivisible



Executive Summary


The Topos Approach

Findings: Subjects or Citizens?

Findings: News Media’s Role

Findings: Signs of Hope

Findings: How People of Color Think About Government

Findings: How Young People Think About Government



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Almost every high-profile policy issue today is, to some degree, a referendum on the role of government. Whether it is a tax debate, budget battle, gun control effort, campaign finance fight, or court argument on marriage rights, the role and scope of the “public” in our everyday lives is in question.

For five decades, forces have aligned to undermine government. And, their arguments have become today’s common sense: Government is too big and taxes are too high. Government is incompetent and the private sector, with its profit motive, can do better. Government caters to special interests, but overlooks the needs of the little guy. Today, across the ideological spectrum, these seeds of cynicism have taken root. We Americans have relinquished our claim to government that is ours to create, oversee and reform, as needed.

Every public debate begs for a fresh perspective: That government, even when it missteps, is essential to our well-being and must be reclaimed for America’s future. That our government is motivated by the values of stewardship, citizenship, justice and freedom. That our government safeguards our present and invests in our future. That our government is us.

Reclaiming Government for America’s Future, the research effort described in this report, represents an ambitious attempt by Indivisible and Public Works to create that fresh perspective. It builds upon past research that documented that Americans view government as a solely political enterprise, wasteful and bureaucratic, that functions best when it provides only the services that each individual believes he or she benefits from directly. The approach that emerged from the earlier effort focused on the systems, institutions and structures we have built together by working through government, and that have been foundations of American prosperity and quality of life. This focus created the space for an aspirational, unifying conversation that avoids the typical pitfalls in a discussion of government.

The success, and limitations of this past effort, as well as the changes occurring in our nation, made it apparent that it was time for a new investigation. In the report that follows, The Topos Partnership, the research team whom we contracted with to undertake this investigation, reaffirms that Americans overwhelmingly hold negative views of government. Moreover, it surfaces another critical dimension of the problem. While Americans know that the United States is, on paper at least, a democracy, where government is supposed to serve the public interest, their lived experience tells them that they are more like “subjects” than “citizens.” They have lost a sense of a “body politic” – that they are bound together by a shared stake in our future.

Clearly, these findings present real challenges for those wishing to reclaim a sense of government as us. Thankfully, this report also offers windows of opportunity. In its findings, we learn that Americans want a government that is “of the people.” Moreover, some Americans – especially those in communities of color – believe they can take an active role in shaping government.

As you read this report, keep in mind that it summarizes only the first phase of the research. The second phase is already underway and the Topos team is now testing narrative elements, looking for strategies that can build upon the potential opportunities in the landscape of American cultural thinking about government.

And, lastly, I encourage you to recognize that this research is not designed to identify reforms to make government work better. For instance, when you read this report, you may be struck by the need to limit the influence of money in our political system or the need to reinvigorate civics in the classroom. This report is meant to uncover the deeper cultural challenge that underpins our ability to engage Americans in the need for any changes to the way our democracy functions. This cultural challenge cannot be addressed solely by reforming government – even by improving our campaign finance system. Changing our culture – reinvigorating a sense of government as us – requires more than policy or administrative changes. It requires a shared narrative, one that can bring us into a common enterprise, regardless of our differences. We may take different approaches as we use this narrative. We may use it to bolster a variety of reform efforts or policy changes. We may enlist different constituencies. We may represent diverse segments along a variety of spectrums: ideological, political, generational, racial, and economic.

But to be successful, we will all need to be able to put forward an aspirational narrative about government that can live in the common sense of the majority of Americans. We hope you’ll join us in creating this new perspective about government.

Dianne Stewart
President and CEO of Public Works
President and CEO of Indivisible



The ultimate goals of the research reported on here – and of the larger project it is part of (Reclaiming Government for America’s Future)– are to reinforce the idea that the well being of the United States depends on effective government, and to encourage Americans to engage more actively in shaping government to serve the good of all.

Whether in economic, military, health, social or other terms, our success requires government that makes smart choices and wise use of resources, pays careful attention to circumstances and anticipates coming challenges Public systems and institutions – from schools to libraries to infrastructure – are essential to our prosperity and quality of life And public decisions – about investments, regulations, priorities – determine the character of those systems and institutions, and of American life in countless ways.

If Americans are inclined to ignore all this, to dismiss the critical role of policy in shaping our future, we are less likely to have the meaningful democratic debate that keeps government on track If we see government as inherently part of the problem, we are less likely to engage in its democratic processes or see it as a means for coming together to solve problems Put briefly, the aim of the project is to help people recognize that, for better or worse, government plays an essential role in our society, and that we help ourselves not by dismissing it or tearing it down, but by engaging with it and making it better

This report presents the findings from an initial phase of research designed to assess the current cultural and cognitive terrain related to this topic – how do Americans feel, think and talk about government now? While much of the discussion focuses on patterns that are daunting and even discouraging, there are also promising aspects of the findings, and it is important to remember that the next phase of work will focus on identifying narratives that can help restore constructive, commonsense perspectives about why government matters, and why it is in our interest to make the most of it.


The fundamental finding from the exploratory research is that Americans in the early twenty-first century no longer feel like citizens in a democratic society, but instead like subjects in a different kind of country altogether.

In the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville spent the better part of a year traveling through the young United States, talking with Americans, observing their customs and attitudes, reading their newspapers, and gaining insights into their society. What he found, and described in his classic Democracy in America, was a nation where “the sovereignty of the people ... reaches its final aims without impediment” and “has acquired ... all the practical development that the imagination can conceive,” a nation that “may almost be said to govern itself, so feeble and so restricted is the share left to the administration, so little do the authorities forget their popular origin and the power from which they emanate.”

While we do not want to overlook the fact that the “people” de Tocqueville refers to are primarily white men, with the rest of society excluded from democratic participation[1], we are nonetheless struck by the contrast he draws between the vigorous discussion and public sovereignty in the United States and what he observed in various European nations of the time, where “the greatest changes occur ... without [the] cooperation [of the public]. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. ... They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called ‘the government.’” His conclusion about such societies: “When a nation has reached this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry: in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects.”

Current research with the American public – including ethnographic research with over three hundred individuals in four states, sixty in-depth interviews with a diverse group from around the country, a review of over two hundred news media pieces from around the country touching on topics related to government, a review of recent surveys, and an original survey with a representative sample of 800 – suggests that living in 2015 America feels more like living in one of these non-democratic nineteenth century societies than in the democratic country the founders created, and that we tell ourselves we still are. At the level of our lived experience, we have undergone a basic paradigm shift.

Town meeting


This lamentable pattern is not confined to any one segment of American society, and is not a political stance. Instead it is a fact about the day-to-day lived experience of Americans from around the country, from all backgrounds, and of all political persuasions. There are exceptions, of course – individuals who feel particularly empowered and engaged, or moments in a given day, or a political season, when people feel like active participants in a self-governing community or nation, or remember that they are supposed to be – but the pattern is a strong default across the American landscape, and comprises a range of more particular patterns:

Government is “them”: Across the political spectrum, we consistently refer to government as a separate and mostly distant entity. This “third person” perspective is pervasive even when references to government are positive, e.g. when “they” do something that benefits “us.”

Top-of-mind functions have to do with control/force: When asked what government does, what it is for, answers that come to mind tend to be along the lines that government makes the rules, keeps order, prevents chaos. This may sometimes be thought of as positive, sometimes negative, but in any case is similar to one of the central functions of non-democratic governments.

Government for and by elites: If we are subjects, our “rulers” are elites who are not like us, do not live like us, cannot relate to us (and vice versa). In particular, they are wealthier. In fact, government action is often assumed to be about lining the pockets of the politicians themselves – a view even stronger than typical accusations from advocates concerned about money in politics[3].

Limited role for “us”: The sense of what democratic participation means is essentially limited to the occasional act of voting. Overall, we have little sense of being able to make a difference through government, or to shape the actions of government.

We resent the money “they” “take” from us: In this context, taxes can feel like forced tribute or worse, rather than the contributions we all make towards shared goals.

Government is largely out-of-mind: People generally prefer not to think about government, and it is felt as a distant entity that, on a good day, is unlikely to come to mind.

These elements add up to a bleak pattern in which there is little sense of a democratic society, or of a “body politic” – a public bound together by shared stakes and shared enterprise. Rather than a sovereign people and its representatives, the essential relationship of government is between rulers and their subjects.

The roots of this problem may be manifold – from the real, ascending and widely-resented power of wealthy elites[4]; to the cynicism about government created long ago by various actions of the Nixon administration[5]; to the rise of a conservative rhetorical infrastructure dedicated to establishing that “government is the problem”; to a decades-old strategy of distancing Whites in particular from government by associating it, explicitly or implicitly, with unpopular policies or stances related to minorities[6].

Regardless of the roots of the problem, it is clear that the idea of government by the people is nearly gone from Americans’ shared cultural lexicon.

The U.S. Constitution


While the analysis in the report focuses largely on Americans’ fundamental concern about who runs our country and in whose interest, it is also important to note that the public continues to question the effectiveness, efficiency and relevance of government. While the question of who runs our country has emerged much more strongly than when a similar investigation was conducted a decade ago, these other patterns, related to the visibility of government’s role and of its successes, should not be overlooked. Attempts to reclaim government as our tool will not only have to help Americans see that government can be “for” them and that they have a role in making it so, but efforts must also help Americans understand that government can and often does work well and that it can and should uphold the mission we Americans set out for it.


While the patterns discussed so far relate to the thoughts and perceptions of average Americans (as reflected in ethnographic conversations, survey responses, etc.), the report also finds that the public discourse that surrounds us is exacerbating the problems. More specifically, typical news coverage – even well-meaning and well-written news coverage – reflects and probably contributes to the subjects-vs.-citizens dynamic.

When the news consistently treats government entities as “authorities” (i.e. entities with power and knowledge we do not possess), when it talks about government actions as reflections of this or that individual politician’s priorities (as opposed to ours), when it focuses on the political successes and failures of individual officials – and even when it (properly) focuses on ways in which government fails to promote the public good or to reflect the public will, in all these ways, news media inadvertently reinforces the us/them pattern that frames Americans as subjects. Most broadly, news coverage typically does not “connect the dots” between public will, government actions and common good – the fundamental through-line theoretically at the heart of democratic governance.

It is quite possible that these patterns are longstanding ones (the media analysis here is not historical in nature) – but even if so, they are very likely problematic in the current cultural context, as they reinforce counterproductive views, feelings and stances towards government.

There are a variety of reasons news media might have the character it does – from the much-discussed fact that news outlets are ultimately businesses that must follow business logic, to the relative ease of simply describing events (rather than situating them in the broader picture of self-governance), to possible embedded assumptions about an informed readership that can “connect the dots” for itself.

The result, though, is a news media that largely reflects and probably exacerbates the problematic dynamics discussed in the report.


The patterns already described constitute a central and daunting challenge that anyone hoping to help revitalize Americans’ constructive relationship with government must take on – a project that will certainly involve real government reforms and changes in how people interact with government, as well as communications that help them see that active engagement in the process of self-government is an essential way to promote our own wellbeing.

But there are also other dynamics discussed in the report, some of which are more hopeful in nature. Data concerning the perceptions of Americans of color, for instance, offers a picture of people with higher expectations of government, and more inclined to believe they can take an active, shaping role. The relationship that African-Americans in particular have with government is in some ways closer than the relationship most Whites express. For African-Americans, government is a more visible presence, and one with a stronger moral obligation to do right by people. This perception of government is probably shaped by historical factors (cited by others), such as the civil rights movement and historical protections offered by the federal government against local abuses, as well as a history of high levels of civil service employment among African-Americans. But whatever their historical roots, African-Americans’ thoughts about government seem to involve higher highs (of hope and expectation) though also lower lows (of frustration and disappointment) than those of Whites. Along with their stronger belief that it should be and often is possible to influence the actions of government, e.g. through protests or media attention, this characteristically African-American pattern of engagement offers one model for possibly helpful shifts in the population as a whole.

Americans under age thirty have perspectives that offer different kinds of hope and challenges. On one hand, they are less likely to see government as relevant, less likely to pay attention to it at all. On the other, they are more likely to believe that public, collective actions such as rallies and awareness campaigns have the power to create change. To the extent this optimism can be harnessed through narratives that draw clear ties between government and popular action, young people remain a strong source of potential energy for a cultural shift.

And it is not only younger Americans and people of color who offer signs of hope. The findings more broadly make it clear, for instance, that Americans do at least want a government that is “for the people” (whether or not they currently see this as realistic) – and that, in principle, they prioritize collective action that promotes the common good over self-reliance and a “you’re on your own” stance.


In the coming stages of research, already begun, the team will try to build on hopeful strains in American culture, to revive the idea of government as a critical means of ensuring our own wellbeing. Using a variety of methods including ethnographic field testing, quantitative surveys and online discussion groups, we will seek ways to avoid the traps in current thinking, and find narratives that help establish new, more constructive perspectives towards the public sector. If successful, these new narratives should help bring Americans back in the direction of the vigorously and thoroughly democratic United States encountered by de Tocqueville 180 years ago.

Americans talk about their views of government


Capitol building Two men in LA


Over ten years ago, Public Works embarked on an ambitious effort with two objectives:

  • Identify key obstacles to constructive public dialog about the role of government in U.S. life.
  • Identify a way of framing the topic with the potential to help shift the culture in constructive directions – in particular by helping Americans see that government must play a key role in supporting our prosperity and quality of life, and that we must therefore engage with it rather than dismissing or bypassing it.

Public Works carried the results of this effort into the advocacy field, through hundreds of presentations and work sessions dedicated to changing the national conversation about government. The insights from the earlier project have been helpful to a wide range of groups around the country, and have continued to evolve through the work and experience of communicators on the ground. Put briefly, the approach that emerged from the earlier effort is one that focused on the systems, institutions and structures we have built together by working through government, and that have been foundations of American prosperity and quality of life. This focus created the space for an aspirational, unifying conversation that avoids the typical pitfalls in a discussion of government.


Significant historical developments since the last effort – including the Great Recession, the Citizens United decision, the Occupy and Tea Party movements, and the election of Barack Obama – require that the topic of Americans’ views of government be revisited.

The project reported on here, therefore, revisits basic questions about Americans’ perspectives. But it also builds in important new layers of inquiry. As the original research commissioned by Public Works recommended, it is certainly helpful to direct attention away from fraught and counterproductive personalized images of government – politicians as (bickering) individuals, the government as a personified authority, self-interested and/or alienated voters – in favor of a focus on the universally acknowledged value of various systems, institutions and structures we have created, from libraries and schools to roads and bridges, court systems, regulated utilities, travel networks and parks.

But this new round of research takes on the specific challenge of complementing this structural picture by identifying compelling ways of talking about the various roles of people in government – whether voters, elected leaders or other groups – so that we can more constructively address topics such as the deliberative role of government, the effects of an actively participating citizenry, the competing interests that government must weigh, and differences that government must resolve – topics that were strategically left “off the table” in the narratives developed through the earlier research.

Additionally, the new work devotes more specific attention to the perspectives of two important segments of the “Rising American Electorate”: Americans aged 30 and under, and Americans of color. Any effort to build a new “American common sense” about the role of the public sector can only succeed if it can connect with these two segments of the population. While it is sometimes helpful to “ignore” differences and focus instead on shared purpose and common effort – especially given the way government is habitually caricatured as a place of ineffectiveness, division and conflict – different categories of Americans obviously have different experience with and expectations of government, which ultimately must be taken into account.

This report summarizes the Exploratory Phase findings – i.e. the exploration of the current dynamics in thinking that create obstacles or opportunities for an American dialog about the critical importance of engaging together, through government, to create better communities, a better nation and a better future.

Hands working together


Two young men in ties Interviewing in Ohio

Developed over a decade of close collaboration between its three principals – a cognitive linguist, a public opinion strategist, and a cultural anthropologist – Topos’ approach is designed to deliver communications tools with a proven capacity to shift perspectives in more constructive directions, give communicators a deeper picture of the issue dynamics they are confronting, and suggest the fundamentally different alternatives available to them.

The exploratory research for this project has consisted of ethnographic field research, cognitive elicitations, media analysis and a quantitative survey. The methods are designed to yield complementary findings as the researchers move between one and another – e.g. elicitations help identify the most problematic dynamics that messages must overcome, while media analysis gives insights as to how this terrain is being represented and shaped by opinion leaders and journalists. The next phase of the work, Strategy Development, will build on this Exploratory foundation to discover the messages that can avoid conceptual “traps,” and help people move into more constructive understandings of the topic.

Importantly, the research is not intended to provide a snapshot of current opinion, nor to drill down into the specifics of how Americans regard particular events, policies, proposals or individuals. Instead it aims to assess the most fundamental aspects of the current cultural and cognitive landscape.


The strength of the anthropological approach is to provide a deeper view into people’s experience of the world. The primary tool of anthropology is ethnography – the observation and description of people in their natural environments, and the effort to engage with people on their own terms, rather than on terms imposed by the researcher.

In practice, in the four states visited in this research project, the ethnographic research entailed a certain amount of observation, but mostly engaging people in impromptu conversations. To be considered useful, interactions took at least 4 but no more than 40 minutes, depending on how much time and willingness a given subject had to delve into the topics. The conversations were sometimes one on one, but also included three or four way exchanges.

One of the keys to the ethnographic method is to allow patterns to emerge from natural interactions as much as possible. In the brand of ethnographic research that Topos undertakes, we decide ahead of time what kinds of topics we would like to cover – what terrain we want to be on, so to speak. We design questions and comments that are structured enough to put us into that terrain, but loose enough to elicit unexpected responses and rejoinders. Researchers are trained and experienced in the techniques needed to maintain and direct these kinds of semi-structured conversations.

Between April and July 2014, ethnography was undertaken in four sites: southern California, Philadelphia, central North Carolina and Ohio. Over 300 significant conversations were recorded, most of which were videotaped for later close analysis.


The goal of these semi-structured interviews is to approximate a natural conversation while also encouraging the subject to reason about a topic from a wide variety of perspectives, including some that are unexpected and deliberately challenging. One of the key goals of elicitations is to encourage subjects to think aloud about the issue, rather than reproduce opinions they have stated or heard before. Sixty plus elicitations were conducted, with a diverse group of Americans in the four focal areas of CA, OH, PA and NC. The conversations ranged from 40-60 minutes and were recorded and transcribed for analysis.


Although the research included a broad sampling of media texts, this analysis is not a quantitative look at the number of various types of articles published. Instead it is a qualitative examination of how topics are treated in the materials, and the likely implications for readers’ thinking. The researchers look at such factors as the types of topics that are and are not mentioned in a given article, the ways in which topics within a story are treated as either related or unrelated, the causal stories conveyed or implied by the articles, and so forth. The analysis is less about cataloguing what is explicitly said than it is about identifying the implicit understandings that are conveyed by the materials.

This analysis is based on a review of over 200 relevant pieces in the news media, mostly between 5/5/2014 and 6/20/2014, including state and regional newspapers, news magazines, blogs, and transcripts from television news. Particular stories were identified by scanning media sources for articles and reporting that touched upon the relevant themes of government revenue and budgeting.


The analysis includes findings from a survey designed and analyzed by Topos Partnership. The survey was completed by 825 adults (18+) in the United States, from February 20 – March 2, 2015. The survey was conducted using GfK’s web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, GfK provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online, and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.


Alexis de Tocqueville Crowd at fair

In this section of the report we discuss the most critical pattern at the heart of current dysfunctional dynamics related to public attitudes towards government.

The most compelling and fundamental pattern emerging across the research points to a profound problem at this level:

Americans feel more like “subjects” than “citizens” – and living in 21st century America feels like living in another kind of country altogether, not the democratic society we are supposed to be.

Every American knows, on some level, that the U.S. is a free country, a democracy (or republic), where representative government is supposed to serve the public interest. But this is relatively abstract knowledge, at odds with a lived experience that is very different.

Consider the following excerpt from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (written in the 1830s), which discusses the lived experience of residents of other countries, of a different kind from America:

There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. ... They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.” They enjoy [various public] goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. ... Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. ... When a nation has reached this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry: in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects.

By contrast, consider this excerpt from de Tocqueville’s discussion of American society:

In America the sovereignty of the people is not, as with certain nations, a hidden or barren notion; it is acknowledged in custom, celebrated by law. It expands with freedom and reaches its final aims without impediment. ...

At the present day the principle of the sovereignty of the people has acquired, in the United States, all the practical development that the imagination can conceive. ... it appears in every possible form according to the exigency of the occasion. ...

... [S]ociety governs itself for itself. ... The nation participates in the making of its laws by the choice of its legislators, and in the execution of them by the choice of the agents of the executive government; it may almost be said to govern itself, so feeble and so restricted is the share left to the administration, so little do the authorities forget their popular origin and the power from which they emanate.

In essence, the most fundamental finding from the current research is that American life today feels closer to the first description than the second. In terms of their default perceptions and lived experience, regardless of their political orientations or beliefs, Americans might as well be living in one of the other nineteenth century European countries de Tocqueville alludes to. In such a country:

The word cloud below – drawn from our national survey conducted in 2015, in which participants were asked to list the first few terms that come to mind in connection with the word “government” – reflects a number of these points, including the fundamental perception of government as “other,” a focus on how government mainly acts to make the rich richer, and an emphasis on government’s “Control” function[7].


When you think of government, what word describes your feelings?

Word cloud

As the word cloud reflects, many, many Americans are palpably angry at government, which they perceive as corrupt, self-serving and ineffective at meeting public needs[8]. Politicians are seen as spending their time bickering or pursuing their own agendas, rather than representing their constituents.

But the most important single idea here – so fundamental that it is easy to overlook it – is that while government may sometimes be more or less “for the people,” it is decidedly not felt as being “by” the people anymore. Many other problems stem from this single problematic perception.


When you think of government, which picture is closest to what comes to mind for you personally?

Associations with government

Likewise, when given a choice of images they most associate with government, the Americans we surveyed in 2015 most often chose pictures that, again, represent the kinds of patterns just discussed – bickering, greedy politicians who look like elites rather than average Americans, oppression and surveillance, red tape “they” impose on us, and taxes “they” take away. Survey participants were much less likely to choose images associated with collective action or stakes.

The rest of this section focuses on fleshing out this pattern of Americans as “subjects” rather than “citizens” – what we take to be the underlying pictures in Americans’ heads that shape their perceptions, cause them to focus on certain facts while ignoring or dismissing others, and ultimately determine the kind of conversation that is possible within the culture.


The most basic dimension of the problem, as mentioned previously, is that government is perceived as “other” – not “us” but “them.”

This pattern is reflected in a survey question that asks Americans the question directly. Overwhelmingly, people choose language that distances us from government ,“THE government,” over language that demonstrates a sense of connection to, or ownership of, government.


Do you tend to think of it as "THE government", more as "OUR" or as "WE". we are government"?

Graph: Who is the government?

Strong majorities across all demographics including party affiliation follow this general pattern.

The same perception of government as “them” is also reflected implicitly in responses to survey questions about leaders’ priorities and focus:

Elected officials in Washington lose touch with the people pretty quickly. 83%
Elected officials in Washington try hard to stay in touch with voters back home. 13%
Most elected officials don’t care what people like me think. 78%
Most elected officials care what people like me think. 19%
The political system could work fine; it’s the members of Congress that are the problem. 63%
Most members of Congress have good intentions; it’s the political system that is broken. 33%

This “third-person perspective” (government as they, them, it) also permeates the qualitative data, as Americans refer over and over to government as though it were disconnected from the people, or state expressly that government leaders act in their own interest, which is implicitly or explicitly separate from ours.

Currently in today’s day and age it’s like the government is for the government and not for the people anymore. (Conservative White woman, 47 PA)
Government is not by or for the people anymore.
(Moderate White woman, 53 PA)
We all know that at the end of the day Washington is gonna do what they want to do. (Moderate African-American man, 52 CA)
They would prefer to be more dictators of what’s happening in our country rather than representative of the people. So, that’s what I think is creating dysfunction. (Liberal White Man, 61 CA)
The longer that somebody has been there [in government] and they start to become power brokers and they’re giving favors and they’re taking favors... they just become so entrenched so that their biggest motivation is to stay in power to obtain more power. It’s like all the thought about why it is that they’re supposed to be in public service has just gone totally down the tube.
(Conservative Hispanic Woman, 42 NC)
I think that government now goes out and does what it sees fit... I really don’t think they’re out there as much any more for the people as what they’re meant to be. I think they just have their set viewpoints.
(Conservative White Woman, 47 PA)

These quotes illustrate two different aspects of the problem. On the surface they are about government that is no longer “for the people” – not acting in our interest.

Implicitly, however, in a way that research participants tend not to articulate directly, they convey a picture of government that is no longer “by the people” in any meaningful sense.

It is as though Americans have mostly forgotten the idea that our government is intended to be an expression of the public will – and used to be experienced and understood that way, according to de Tocqueville’s nineteenth century observations – but now the best we can hope for is a government “for the people,” i.e. one that, at least in some ways, takes our needs into account.


Most of the quotes above refer to the idea of “the people” – and contrast this collective sense of the public, on one hand, with government on the other. In drawing this contrast, research subjects are expressing a kind of populism that is somewhat different from the purely economic interpretation of the idea, in which corporate elites, for instance, are “the enemy.” In the 2015 version of populism, hinted at in quotes like those above, it is not just wealthy individuals in the private sector who are seen as standing in opposition to what “the people” need. It is elected leaders as well – a daunting development for anyone hoping to create broader, more constructive engagement between the public and the public sector. (See “Government for and by elites” later in this section, for further discussion of how politicians and the wealthy are merging into a single, resented category.)


Another way in which Americans feel more like subjects than citizens – as though they were governed by rulers rather than elected representatives – is the emphasis on the “control” function of government. Time and time again when asked the main purpose of government, Americans reflect a top-of-mind image that is about making and enforcing rules, i.e. telling us what to do.

Q:  If you were to explain to a kid, to a 12-year-old or something, why we have government, why we invented this thing, how would you sum that up?
A:  I would just say like control, like the populace, so that there’s not rampant crime ... because if people were left to their own devices, chaos could ensue.
(Moderate White Woman, 20s OH)
[Government is] very necessary for order... So we won’t have anarchy. There has to be rules in place, otherwise we as a society would cease, we would fall like the way of Rome if we didn’t have rules and government. (Conservative mixed-race Female, 49 WI)
I guess the role of government, to me, would be obviously first and foremost establishing laws ... I believe, definitely, in a limited government, but having said that, I do think there’s certain regulations that need to be in place to make sure that citizens as well as corporations aren’t harming each other.
(Liberal White Man, 30s PA)
I mean if [homeless shelters] wanted, they could do experiments [on the residents] or ... put 50 of them in one room on the floor, which they wouldn’t do, but without any sort of regulation, they could if they wanted to, where at least if you have some sort of government regulation, inspectors that would come in to make sure that they’re abiding by the laws, or at least humane ways of handling them. (Liberal White Female, 55 PA)
It’s to keep everybody under control.
(Conservative mixed-race woman, 50s PA)
Q:  What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word government?
A:  Well, I have two senses. One is control, ‘cause I think our government likes to control. And not just us. I think the world... And I also think of / the government likes to help.
(Moderate African-American man, 52 CA)

While these responses might at first strike us as unremarkable, – especially given that most people are happy with this basic function of government – consider asking people an analogous question about what business management entails. If responses focused primarily on setting rules for employee behavior, rather than on taking all the steps necessary for the success of the enterprise, you would conclude that people were missing a great deal of what is important when it comes to business.

Survey answers, too, reflect a perspective in which government is best at functions related to making and enforcing rules – and more broadly, functions related to force (including protecting us from various harms). The following graphic represents survey responses regarding what is important for government to do (in orange), and how well it performs (green).


When it comes to the various roles for government:
How important are each of the following?
How would you rate government’s performance?

Graph of government roles

The most obvious take-away from the graph, of course, is that government performance is perceived to be far less than satisfactory. E.g. while roughly 60% believe that improving Americans’ quality of life is a very or extremely important function, only around 30% give good performance marks.

But the point for purposes of the present discussion is that the areas where government is perceived as performing relatively well are related to force or control – protecting us from terrorism, responding to natural disasters, preventing major crises, keeping law and order, and regulating health and safety.

In short, our government is perceived as doing its best in the same areas where a monarchy or other non-democratic government might also be most active.


Not so long ago Americans’ central concern was whether government had gotten “too big”. Now, that question seems less relevant as people focus more on the question of whom government serves.

73% agree, 24% disagree: “It is not the size of government that matters. It’s who government works for that matters.”

So what drives these leaders – perceived as other, and focused partly on setting the rules for the rest of us? The consistent response from Americans is that these rulers are operating to benefit wealthy elites, including themselves.

This perception certainly has some basis in fact – as was discussed, for instance, in an influential political science study from Princeton University last year[9]. The United States seemingly is shifting ever closer towards plutocracy.

But the point for purposes of the current research is that the cultural and cognitive patterns that shape what Americans want and expect related to government may be so dominated by a particular image that it comes to define understandings of what government is – and thoughts about what else it could or should be can be obscured or forgotten.

Consider the following breakdown of survey responses regarding who benefits most from government actions.


Rate how often government actions benefit each of the following groups:

Graph: Who benefits

It is striking that the very top category here is the politicians themselves. In other words, Americans believe that government actions are primarily intended to benefit the leaders making the decisions, e.g. by making them richer.

Q:  What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say government?
A:  Gee. The first thing? Crooked... I think there’s a lot of them out there that are in it for the money instead of the American people. I think there’s a lot of people, a lot of politicians that are lining their pockets with lobbyists’ money and getting away with it. (Conservative White man, 49 PA)

This sense of politicians directly enriching themselves, whether by taking bribes or by somehow appropriating tax dollars, is beyond even the strongest accusations usually leveled by advocates concerned about money in politics – yet it is part of many Americans’ mental picture of how our government operates.

More broadly, the three groups selected by far the most in the survey question above are politicians, the wealthy, and large corporations[10]. The group that receives the next most benefit, “special interest groups,” may also fit into this same pattern of elites as the beneficiaries of government activity.

By contrast, when asked directly about whether government actions have positive or negative impacts on “most people’s lives,” a majority (55%) says “negative” or “very negative.”


Overall, what kind of impact do you think the government has on most people’s lives?

Graph: Government impact

In short, the research finds a powerful default image of government leaders working handin hand with other wealthy elites in ways that benefit all of them, rather than any of us. Fully two-thirds (69%) agree that “Wealthy corporations/people use campaign conributions to get the policies that give them more wealth and power.” Even if Americans can’t articulate exactly how it works, they believe that government is run largely by and for this class – in fact there may often be little distinction between the wealthy individuals inside and outside the halls of government – and this is the source of much of the anger and defeatism expressed in various aspects of the research.

Whoever has the most money has the most influence and controls the government. (Moderate African-American man, 33 PA)
When I see some of these laws, I’m like, “What were they thinking of?” And I say, “Oh, so-and-so is now building this casino, or whatever here.” (Moderate White Woman, 58 NC)
There’s too much special interest going on in government... too much big companies, big money, big organizations... They take care of the rich, because they’re the ones that fund their campaigns... It seems like the middle class gets hurt the worst. (Conservative White man, 34 NC)
[Money] is what drives all the decisions. It’s whoever’s going to fund my next campaign versus looking at the masses. I don’t have a million dollars to give to somebody’s campaign, but I still count, and my family still matters. (Conservative White woman, 45 OH)
They all have their allies that are supporting them and their funding is much greater than what I’m going to do and so my voice doesn’t get heard as loudly as somebody else ... with the amount of money they’re providing. (Conservative White Woman, 31 OH)
Q:  Do you think that there’s other people or certain groups of people who do benefit from having a government?
A:  The rich people do, yeah. (Liberal Mexican-Italian Man, 37 CA)
Technically, it should be the people, in general [who benefit from government], but I don’t really see it as that, currently... It seems like it’s geared towards like corporations or the wealthy, or what they call the 1%, or maybe even the 2%, that kind of thing. I don’t really see a lot of people who are in the middle to lower bracket in terms of income. They don’t seem to be benefiting as much as... actually, they’re the ones that seem to be struggling. (Liberal White Man, 47 CA)
Q:  Right now who do you think benefits most from government?
A:  The ones that are on top... They’re taking from the poor and giving to the rich ... You really want me to answer that? The White people. The Whites while Blacks suffer. (Apolitical African-American woman, 60s OH)
I just think, as far as the judicial branch, it’s out of hand. I think money rules that branch of government at this point in time, because if you make a million dollars you can kill somebody and get away with it; if you take a pair of sneakers you’re going to jail for life. That’s not a proper way to run it. (Liberal African-American Man, 53 OH)

It is also clear from the qualitative research that American attitudes about an economy that does not work for them are parallel to, and strongly linked to, a perception of a government that does not work for them. In fact, we hypothesize that because of this linkage, the economic problems of the past decade have contributed to the further souring of attitudes toward government.

The survey research confirms that Americans believe elected leaders have helped to create an economic system that benefits those same elites:

The economic system in this country unfairly favors powerful interests. 73%
The economic system in this country is generally fair to most Americans. 23%
Corporations control government and the public’s interests come last. 64%
What is good for business is good for America – we all benefit when corporations are profitable. 32%

With the deeply held sense that government operates in the interests of elites, not the common good, it is no surprise that Americans divide on whether or not they want government to do more.

Government should do more to solve problems 51%
Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. 47%

Finally, it would be a shame to leave this section without referring again to de Tocqueville’s account of what he observed in the 1830s:

At the present day the more affluent classes of society are so entirely removed from the direction of political affairs in the United States that wealth, far from conferring a right to the exercise of power, is rather an obstacle than a means of attaining to it.

It might be hard for many of us in 2015 to believe that he was talking about American society.


Overall, the research shows clearly that Americans have little sense of agency when it comes to government, little sense that we can or do shape the course of our society.

In qualitative data, they rarely talk about how regular people can affect the course of our society, or the choices of government.

When asked in the survey about how they might make a difference in problems they see, people are more likely to believe they can make a difference working with friends and neighbors, their place of worship or nonprofit organizations than with elected leaders.


To make a difference on problems you see in your community or state, how effective is it to work with each of the following groups:

Graph: Effective groups

And when asked whether people working together can make a difference, they are less likely to feel this is possible if the question includes the idea of working together with government.


Thinking about problems facing the country, how much difference do you believe that people working together [as a group/with their government] can make in solving the problems you see?

Graph: Can working together solve problems?

Furthermore, when asked about how they can influence government, few are confident that this can be done, particularly in ways other than voting. Strikingly, it is as though the picture of what participation in a democratic society means has been reduced narrowly to the occasional act of voting.


When you think about the ways people can influence the decisions of government, generally, how effective do you think each of the following actions are?

Graph: How effective are these actions?

Three quarters (76%) have never “spoken in public (such as a community meeting, church, school, or work event) for an organization or cause you cared about” and 65% have never “expressed your opinion by contacting an elected official.”

In ethnographic and interview data, the lack of agency is evident in the consistent discussion of government and government actions in terms that indicate no role for the public, as in all the quotes earlier in this section, as well as the absence of references to an active role for citizens.

In effect, there is no sense of a “body politic” – Americans taking an active, collective interest in shaping the course of government – as opposed to the active and vivid sense of families, churches or circles of friends as meaningful actors.

On some level, Americans are willing to take responsibility for the consequences of a lack of broad-based involvement. A majority (63%) agrees with the statement, “We get the government we deserve, because so many people do not make the effort to vote or get involved.”

But the sense that we should be more pro-active is far from people’s default stance, which tends to be passive and fatalistic.


While Americans know that we are literally, or hypothetically, represented in Congress, the discussion so far makes clear that they tend not to think of elected leaders as representatives, but as a separate class of rulers who govern largely in their own interest, or in the interest of their wealthy friends and patrons.

Given this broadly shared mental picture, it is no surprise that taxes are deeply resented, and are another of the strong, negative, top-of-mind associations when government is mentioned.

A lot of the laws that are supposedly enforced aren’t enforced, and a lot of things that shouldn’t be enforced at all are enforced, but I guess that’s politics.
Q:  What are you thinking of in particular?
The tax – for example, my family just went through an ordeal. My dad used to own his own business and he’s been audited twice for something he’s never done. They tried to say he didn’t pay his taxes, but he’s always paid his taxes because he’s a law-abiding citizen. I don't think it's right to try to knock down the little man...
(Conservative White Man, 20s NC)
Q:  How do you feel about taxes? Is there anything you’d be willing to pay more taxes for?
A:  No, I’m not. I think we pay way too much as it is. It’s ridiculous, we’re taxed to death.
Q:  So if you have the purse strings... If you were making those decisions where would you say we shouldn’t be spending it on this, we should be spending it on that?
A:  I think all that spending needs to be reassessed. Because I’m wondering what they’re doing with the money they were getting before they started raising all the taxes.
(Moderate White woman, 40s CA)

Certainly, some of this feeling is connected with a sense that government wastes the money it collects.

Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient 65%
Government often does a better job than people give it credit for 32%

But as the quotes above (and many more like them) illustrate, an even more fundamental dynamic is that people feel this money is taken away from us by others, who do not make decisions in our interest.


Many, if not most, Americans give little thought to government – and prefer it that way.

The past rounds of research on the topic had established that we tend, by default, to be relatively unaware of ways in which we are surrounded by public systems and institutions – and incurious about how they got there – and that pattern continues today.

Q:  When you look around the city and think about things the government does, what comes to mind?
A:  I don’t know what you mean. You’re talking like the welfare office – stuff like that? (Apolitical White woman, 20s OH)
I hear nothing about city government... They’re pretty quiet... Yeah. I feel like they pretty much all do the same thing. Like no matter who’s in office, it all pretty much stays the same. (Liberal African-American man, 30s NC)
[Government is] supposed to be to take care of the people, but they don’t. You know? Instead of helping out here, they all try to fix things [in other countries]. (Liberal Hispanic man, 20s CA)

This “cognitive blindness” to most of what government does is one of the reasons that communications focused on making public systems and institutions visible can be so striking and compelling, as earlier research determined. When we remind people of all the structures we have created – library systems, court systems, highway systems, etc. – and their role in supporting our prosperity and quality of life, they are able to take an engaged and constructive stance towards government. But this awareness usually needs to be actively triggered by careful communications, and default views of government focus on unpleasant topics like bureaucracy, and especially, the “politicians” we resent for a variety of reasons.

Beyond obliviousness, Americans sometimes say that they actively prefer not to think about government. It is a topic people would often rather avoid, not only in conversation but in their own thoughts.

I leave the politics to the politicians... Let them do what they do. I want to live, survive. (Liberal African-American man, 62 CA)
I’ve heard things like [how] they want to limit contributions from companies, or groups, or certain people. But I haven’t really paid attention to it, because I think everything they say is not gonna happen. (Conservative White woman, 26 OH)
No government system is perfect. What’s that famous quote? – the Government that governs best, governs least.
(Liberal White woman, 25 PA)
I don’t really know who my representatives are. I would have to look into it and see what they’re doing and what they’re about. As far as like representing me well as far as my interests, my interests have mainly just been to pay the bills. (Liberal African-American man, 24 PA)
Q:  Do you feel like your elected representatives represent you and the people of Cleveland or Ohio?
A:  I don’t do much to get involved in it, so I hope they do.
(Apolitical White woman, 20s OH)

Even when asked explicitly in a survey, nearly half of Americans acknowledge that they pay little or no attention to government – and therefore by implication have essentially written off any chance of taking an active role in the process.

“I generally pay attention to government actions and debates, and often have a point of view about the kinds of policies we should have.” 50%
“I generally live my life, don’t worry very much about government actions and debates, and hope the government does a good job.” 46%

If Americans tend to feel more like subjects than citizens, this pattern is not surprising, for a number of reasons. It is unpleasant to think about topics that we have little understanding of; the topic of government is suffused with resentment of “rulers” who typically do not have our interests at heart, but whom we must obey; Americans tend to think little about our history (e.g. about the nature of the country as de Tocqueville found it); “big picture” thinking is relatively less natural than a focus on “little picture” concerns; and so forth. Some of these dynamics are even alluded to in de Tocqueville’s observations about nineteenth century European societies, cited earlier.


The negative consequences of the Subjects vs. Citizens pattern are obvious on their face, including a lack of trust in government, less willingness to pay taxes, and more generally, Americans’ sad loss of what was once an invigorating sense of shaping our own destiny – if de Tocqueville’s and others’ early accounts are to be believed. But it is worth mentioning several additional implications before closing this section.

Further retreat – The patterns discussed above seem certain to create two kinds of vicious circle, one related to knowledge one related to control. First, avoidance of the unpleasant topic of government means less awareness and knowledge of both current events and basic structures of self-governance, making Americans even less equipped to take the reins and reassert their demand for government by and for the people. Second, as Americans retreat from engagement with government, leaving it more firmly in the hands of elected officials and their donors, the topic becomes even less pleasant, since we don’t like to think about topics where we have no control.

Less accountability – As Americans pay less attention to, and know less about, our processes of government, it is easier for parties not acting in the public interest to have greater and greater influence – naturally creating further dissatisfaction (another vicious circle).

Partisan consequences – For better or worse, depending on one’s point of view, the “subjects vs. citizens” dynamic favors the conservative political agenda, since a lack of faith in government can ultimately mean willingness to dismantle and defund various structures. On the other hand, some elected Republicans across the country recognize that these toxic attitudes can make it harder to achieve even the basics of good governance.

Interviewing in Ohio

The dynamics discussed in this section do not take place in a vacuum or within the heads of individual Americans, but play out in our culture – the beliefs and understandings that are shared through discourse of various kinds. In the next section we address ways in which news media both reflects and reinforces the Subjects vs. Citizens pattern.


TV array News crew

A qualitative review of roughly two hundred news media pieces from around the country shows that there are strong patterns in coverage that are likely to reinforce the Subjects vs. Citizens dynamic – even when journalists have the best intentions. The kinds of stories cited below will not strike readers as unusual, or strikingly unhelpful, but rather as the norm for coverage that touches on government and politics. (Note that in this analysis we have mostly avoided opinion pieces and other more agenda-driven forms of discourse, to demonstrate the patterns that are apparent even in the most ordinary, “unbiased” coverage.)

The problem is that these normal, daily patterns are probably exacerbating the unhelpful patterns of perception discussed earlier in the report.

While the analysis is not historical in nature and it is possible that a review of news coverage from thirty, fifty or a hundred and fifty years ago would uncover the same patterns, the point is that in the current cultural context, certain common aspects of coverage are likely to reinforce a sense of Americans as mere subjects, and of government that is not “by the people.”


Broadly speaking, there is a consistent problem that extends across most of the patterns discussed in this section: news coverage that fails to connect the dots between the public will, government actions, and the public interest. In principle, there is a through-line connecting all of these, that is the basis for the American system of democratic, representative government. But this through-line is difficult or impossible to discern in most coverage of this system. Instead, articles focus on individual players and actions, or other limited and self-contained elements of the picture.

One important dimension of this problem is that coverage tends to be “episodic” rather than “thematic” – in Shanto Iyengar’s terms[11]. That is, stories focus on specific events rather than the broader contexts that led up to them.

But more broadly, the coverage fails in various ways to link aspects of the complete government “picture” – and therefore fails to promote a constructive perspective on democratic self-governance.


One particular pattern in coverage related to government is the frequent framing of government offices or officials as “authorities” – either in the control or expertise senses of the word.

Authorities arrested a man after he allegedly drove down the street with a dog tied to the back of his truck. (Man accused of driving down street with dog tied to truck, WXIA 8 p.m. EDT 6/19/14, Forsyth County, GA)
Airport authorities confiscate $50,000 of cocaine-laced cookies (headline, Asbury Park Press, 6/20/14)
After being processed, the migrant families are dropped off at bus stations in McAllen and other cities... They are given notices to report to U.S. immigration authorities once they reach their destinations. (Migrants amassing at Rio Grande's edge, Arizona Republic, 6/20/14)
Food companies and restaurants could soon face government pressure to make their foods less salty ... The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to issue voluntary guidelines asking the food industry to lower sodium levels ... (FDA prepping long-awaited plan to reduce salt,, 6/17/14)

While these stories may strike us as mundane and natural – we want government to set rules, maintain law and order, and so forth – the regularity of this framing reflects and reinforces the sense of a government with “inherent” authority, not necessarily deriving from the will of the people. There is no sense in most such stories of the public will as a shaping force for government action, and government instead appears as a distant, separate figure, with the power to assert its own priorities.


In fact, instead of treating the public will as the proper guide for government action, many news stories frame government actions and decisions as the products of individual leaders’ wishes.

Gov. Corbett said Tuesday that he was willing to let the state's June 30 budget deadline pass if legislators don't act on his priority initiatives. (Corbett prepared to miss budget deadline to get his initiatives done, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/18/14)
[Florida Governor Rick Scott] also infuriated senators by threatening to veto their bills if they didn’t support his priorities and for issuing dire warnings of a “government shutdown” because of the lack of a budget [emphasis added]. (Florida budget talks collapse after political brawl, Miami Herald, 6/8/15)

Sometimes the figures in such pieces may in fact be acting on public priorities or in the public interest:

Vowing to protect fragile marine life, President Obama acted Tuesday to create the world's largest ocean preserve by expanding a national monument his predecessor established in waters thousands of miles from the American mainland. (Obama setting aside massive Pacific Ocean preserve, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/18/14)
President Obama is directing the Labor Department to create rules making sure that gay couples are eligible for benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the White House said Friday... (Obama to extend family leave to gay couples, 11Alive Atlanta, 6/20/14)

Nonetheless, the general picture created by such stories suggests a landscape of powerful individuals asserting, or vying to assert, their own will.

While the next example reflects the fact that political actors can’t always get their way (because other actors also have their own agendas), it focuses on the idea of a legislative vote as a “political statement” by an individual – rather than a choice about what is best for the state.

Senator Jason Carter, a Democrat running for governor, voted against the [Georgia] budget. "I think the conclusion is pretty clear. That is a political statement on his part," said [Georgia Governor] Deal on Thursday, reiterating a message delivered in two advertisements Deal's re-election campaign produced this week. (Deal, Carter trade jabs over education, Alive Atlanta, 6/19/14)

The primary point here is that ideas about what average Americans want or need are simply absent in such narratives about government action, as they focus on the priorities of the individuals in power instead.


Of course, it is not only that policy is often depicted as reflecting the views and wishes of individual leaders (rulers), many actions are more specifically seen to benefit the politicians themselves, e.g. financially.

... [E]xpensive catering was truly a bipartisan effort, with leaders hosting their own members. Republican House Speaker John Boehner spent $64,000. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spent $61,000. ... (Meet the man who is about to become House majority leader, USA Today, 6/13/14)
It would be a shame if [the Philadelphia City] Council slow-walked this promising deal to death just because [Council President] Clarke wants to wield power from his high chair on City Hall's fourth floor. ... Council members seem more interested in rushing off to the boardwalks for funnel cakes and deep-fried Snickers than they are in serving the public responsibly. (Inquirer Editorial: Pipeline to nowhere?, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/18/14)

On a closely related note, the very important and well-intentioned journalistic focus on politicians’ own financial dealings and personal wealth probably has the same sort of negative effect, further distancing American “subjects” from their “leaders.”

Gov. Rick Scott’s personal wealth rebounded to more than $130 million last year on the strength of his vast investments, and his chief rival, Charlie Crist, is now a millionaire, according to financial documents released on Monday. (Financial records show Scott, Crist net worth increased, Miami Herald, 6/16/14)
Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have long supported an estate tax to prevent the United States from being dominated by inherited wealth. That doesn't mean they want to pay it. To reduce the tax pinch, the Clintons are using financial planning strategies befitting the top 1 percent of U.S. households in wealth. (Wealthy Clintons use trusts to avoid full estate tax they back, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/18/14)


In both election coverage and political coverage more generally, events are frequently treated as wins and losses for individual politicians.

Commonly, of course, this includes coverage of the “horse race” angle on elections – the politicians themselves are treated as (potential) winners and losers, rather than the public, and elections almost as a spectator sport, as opposed to events that will impact future public policy.

The effect of Cantor’s defeat on Congress is also not hard to figure – and it should give pause to Democrats who spent Tuesday night celebrating the downfall of the acerbic majority leader. With very few exceptions, Republicans will now hew closely to the conservative party line and will rule out compromises with Democrats, even when those compromises are in the interests of Virginia and the nation. ... Then there’s the fascinating question of how on earth Cantor, a seven-term incumbent who had raised $5.4 million for his campaign and was expected to succeed John Boehner as House speaker, was defeated by David Brat, a 49-year-old economist at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., who has never held an elected office and who raised less than $123,000 for a campaign that had little backing, even from tea party groups. (The Cantor effect, Eugene Register Guard, 6/12/14)
Rahm Emanuel failed to win a second term Tuesday, suffering a national political embarrassment as little-known, lesser-funded challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia forced the mayor into the uncharted waters of an April runoff election. (Mayor Emanuel heads to runoff against Garcia, Chicago Tribune, 2/24/15)
It is no secret that in many districts across the state and nation the party primary election is more important than the general election – the product of gerrymandering that clumps similar voters together so that general election outcomes predictably favor one political party. This has led at least one Republican state legislator in Maryland, Don Dwyer, to publicly call on conservatives to run and vote as Democrats in what he called “Operation DINO” – Democrat in name only. (More details emerge on ‘fake’ Dem running for HD 62, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 5/13/14)
As they marched along the narrow streets of Charlestown in the Bunker Hill Day Parade Sunday, Attorney General Martha Coakley and Treasurer Steven Grossman both had something to prove. It had a lot to do with convincing voters that she or he was the Democrat best poised to beat the man who was marching between them – Republican gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker. (Candidates take their campaigns to street,, 6/16/2014)

Even outside of elections, stories often focus on political “wins” and “losses” for politicians, as though we were following the gains and setbacks of an individual character in a story.

The nonpartisan legislative audit contradicts the repeated assertions of state officials that they had strengthened the weak financial controls at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and dealt a political setback to the Republican governor and all-but-certain White House candidate. (Scott Walker drops job agencies' merger after critical audit of WEDC, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 5/8/15)

While the following example does include references to broader implications, it – and in particular its headline – focuses on President Obama as an individual suffering a defeat.

It may go down as the day Barack Obama could no longer defy political gravity.
The President went all in Friday, placing his personal prestige on the line in a last-ditch effort to convince globalization-weary House Democrats to give him the power to negotiate the world's biggest trade pact, a vital building block in his legacy. But he came up empty-handed when his own party mostly voted to repudiate the agreement – a setback that could have profound implications for America's economy and its place in the world, as well as how Obama's two terms are seen by history. (Lame duck: Democrats clip President Obama's wings,, 6/12/15)

More subtly, coverage can focus on topics like the careers of officials, as though our primary interest in them might be parallel to our interest in athletes.

At 85, prosecutor Sally Weintraub is wrapping up long, legendary legal career in Miami-Dade County. (headline, Miami Herald, 6/16/14)

Plenty of commentators have decried the focus on horserace aspects of election coverage, as opposed to policy implications. But as this pattern extends to coverage of leaders’ actions and maneuvers once they are in office, and the ways in which various turns of events help or hurt their careers, the sense of government “by the people” recedes even further into the background.


There are frequent stories that imply, or state explicitly, that government actions and decisions are unpopular or at odds with public priorities.

[Colorado political analyst Eric Sondermann] said that despite public opinion pushing lawmakers in Washington and elsewhere to work together, "both parties seemed to have moved toward their base elements this session." Most agree that the biggest beneficiary of the divided legislature is Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who took office in January for his second and final term. "He doesn't have to deal with the crazies on both sides," said former Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty. "Their bills die in one chamber or the other, and the governor never has to get his hands dirty." [emphasis added throughout] (Colorado's divided session leaves a legislative graveyard of bills, Denver Post, 5/3/15)
“The [Utah] House has now been delivered a bill [to address Utah’s large health coverage gap] that has the strong support of business leaders, health care organizations, and majority of Utah voters." [Policy analyst RyLee] Curtis added, "We’ve had three public opinion polls spanning across the state of Utah that show that there is public support for this ... To just let [SB 164] not be heard is not serving the public.” (Despite public, Senate support, Utah House blocks hearing of Healthy Utah Plan, Southern Utah Independent, 3/1/15)

Other stories are more subtle, not directly citing the public will, but making it clear that government actions do not or will not serve the public interest.

[According to Admiral Edward Straw:] "The VA is run by very senior, almost tenured, civilians who seem to care more about their careers than veteran needs.” (The real cancer that caused the VA scandal: Column, USA Today, 6/13/14)
Preschool for low-income kids ... reliably prepar[es] them to succeed in school and in life. [California Governor Jerry] Brown's unwillingness to fund it while tossing every spare dollar into the high-speed rail bottomless pit is unfathomable. (Preschool program makes sense for California, San Jose Mercury News, 6/10/14)
Public television officials are raising the concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s planned spectrum incentive auction, intended to free airwaves for use by wireless broadband companies, could leave parts of the country without over-the-air public television access. (Public television access at issue, Boston Globe, 6/16/14)

While these stories might in some sense connect the dots between public will, government action and the common good, they seem just as likely to reinforce a picture of government “rulers,” as to promote the sense that government, by default, represents and acts at the behest of the people.


Not surprisingly, there are also many, many stories that paint government as simply ineffective in a variety of ways, not doing things well, or not getting things done at all.

One of the common patterns is stories about failure due to gridlock, a narrative that reinforces ideas discussed earlier, such as politicians as individuals vying to “win” or assert their own will, rather than representing the public.

State lawmakers have been unable to bridge disagreements on how to force Duke Energy to clean up its 33 coal ash sites in the final days of the legislative session. The stalemate leaves open the possibility that one of the top policy priorities for the legislature and for Gov. Pat McCrory – as well as for people living in areas where the coal ash is store-housed – may be delayed. (NC House, Senate at ‘loggerheads’ over coal ash legislation, Charlotte Observer, 7/31/14)
How long could this stalemate last? “I don’t think anyone knows how this is going to play out,” Franklin & Marshall College political scientist G. Terry Madonna said. (Pa. budget gridlock: What now?,, 7/1/15)
“The people elected aren’t working together to do what’s right for the people they serve,” says [Charlotte NC voter Lynette] Sisson, 64, a retired nurse. “They need to serve all the people, not just their party.” (Solving Washington gridlock is key issue in harsh Senate race, Charlotte Observer, 11/1/14)

Other stories about government ineffectiveness focus on ideas such as waste or incompetence. (Note that several of the following examples are from commentaries rather than “straight news” coverage.)

We can talk about incompetence. Or indifference. Or bureaucratic intransigence. Most likely, it was some combination of the three that created the tragic wait times and falsified reporting at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) ... (The real cancer that caused the VA scandal, USA Today, 6/13/14)
New Jersey's pension hole is a monument to avoidance, dishonesty, and dysfunction, like the unfunded liabilities that helped bring down Detroit and that may cripple other states as varied as Illinois, Kentucky, and Hawaii. (Unexpected legacy in N.J., Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/18/14).
The Congress has taken on the characteristics of a failed institution with mediocre leadership from both parties. The list of put off "to do" things gets longer every week. Fewer and fewer bills are being introduced and less and less time is being spent in session. (Congress well past the point of harmless inaction, San Jose Mercury News, 6/3/14)
The [Massachusetts] Legislature ... is betting its chips on the vast convention center in South Boston, and appears to be on the verge of throwing another $1 billion at the sprawling building in hopes of attracting more conventioneers. (Convention center expansion questions loom, Boston Globe, 6/15/14).
[According to Peabody MA School Committee member McGeney:] “I just think that there’s always a predisposition to building fiefdoms and kingdoms anytime a government agency is established, and I think that’s something that as citizens we need to constantly have to guard against.” (School group to get reply from state Monday on student data, Boston Globe, 6/15/14)
The bureaucratic and technical challenges [involved in enrolling Alameda County CA residents in Medi-Cal] are immense ... (Obamacare: Leaving jail doesn't mean losing health care anymore, San Jose Mercury News, 5/27/14)

Reporting on government failures is a valid and even critical function of journalism. But in the current cultural context, stories like these probably reinforce the sense that government works more against rather than for our interests – and distance us from it even further.


Freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and the press is afforded various other legal protections, on the basis that news coverage is, in principle, critical to the functioning of a free democracy. How then can it be that this coverage could end up working against such a basic idea as government “by the people”?

Many studies – such as Iyengar’s, cited above – have looked at strengths and weaknesses of news coverage, so we only offer a brief discussion here of the possible roots of the problematic patterns described earlier in this section.

Business survival vs. public function – Most obviously (and most frequently discussed), the business realities and profit motives of news outlets can create pressures at odds with their public function. To take one simple example, if readers are more drawn to shorter, more negative or more sensational stories, then news outlets have a powerful incentive to offer these in order to stay in business, whether or not they “connect the dots” in a helpful way.

Neutrality and descriptiveness – Offering mere description of government actions – Who? What? When? Where? Why? – may be seen as more in keeping with the role of an “objective” press than judgments about whether those actions actually reflect the public will. (Not to mention that, as has already been noted, the “why” often amounts to the will or interests of a given official.) And besides the goal of providing neutral coverage, it is probably simply easier to describe the immediate facts than to tie this description to an underlying story about what the public wants.

Assumption of informed readership? – It may also be the case that journalism practice assumes an informed readership that is versed in the principles of democratic government, so that constant reminders of the hypothetical link between government actions and the public will are simply unnecessary. In this case, however, the professional assumptions would certainly need to be questioned and updated in the light of cultural realities.

Effects of “watch dog” role – As mentioned earlier, the Constitution offers explicit protection to a free press, partly so that attentive journalists can act as a check on incompetent or self-interested leadership, shining a light on failed actions or misguided decisions. Everyone would agree this is a critical role in any democracy. But the cumulative effect of such pieces, in the context of a culture where people have lost connection with government for other reasons, may be toxic. In the absence of either an apparent solution to the problem discussed, or shared understandings about the aspects of government that are working well, the collective effect is to reinforce the sense that government can’t do anything right and we can’t do anything about it.

This last observation, of course, points to one of the most basic challenges confronting communicators who are interested in revitalizing the sense of government by the people – how to promote the important role of government in American life without ignoring very real problems in present-day politics and governance.


The discussion in this section has focused on the unhelpful patterns that are present in news media coverage related to government. But it is also worth considering the kinds of stories that don’t appear, or hardly appear, and what constructive journalism looks like from the perspective of broader problems discussed in the report.

As the discussion has already pointed out, one of the key shortcomings of much of the coverage is that stories do not help audiences connect the dots between public will or priorities on one hand, and government actions on the other. In principle, democratic governance is always about this connection – the public asserting itself, via representatives, and taking action to promote the common good or the majority agenda (with provisions for protecting the rights and interests of minority factions, of course). The research suggests that Americans need reminders of this basic idea.

So it is helpful anytime a story does draw this link, for instance by explicitly discussing facts about what the public wants or needs in connection with any actual or contemplated step by the government. This might take the form, for example, of stories about public deliberations about a given topic (see a later section on signs of hope for an example). Especially strong and empowering stories along these lines would include ones about public actions or groundswells leading to changes in laws and policies. Even when rallies and other public actions are covered, the focus is often on the size of the crowd or potential for violence, rather than the substance or content of what people want.

Other stories we see too little of in the media include coverage of government successes, showing that government is a mechanism for improving quality of life, for protecting us from risk, for generating prosperity – the flip side of the critique stories that are so relatively common.

Ultimately, we hope that the results of the next phase of research – focusing on identifying compelling narratives – will offer even more guidance about the types of media coverage we would like to see and can work to promote.


Press conference Two young women giving us an interview

So far this paper has focused on a bleak, if accurate, assessment of Americans’ lived experience as subjects rather than citizens.

But the researchers were also looking for, and found, signs of hope in the data – relating both to what Americans want from their government (e.g. it should work “for the people”), and what they believe they should do about it (e.g. take a more active role in public debate).


There is a great deal of evidence from both qualitative and quantitative research that people want government to promote the common good, serve the public interest, and solve problems that we, collectively, face. This desire for government “for the people” stands in stark contrast to those who promote a vision of limited government that gets out of the way so individuals can achieve personal success.

For example, more people agree that government should serve collective interests than that it should promote self-reliance:

The role of government should be to promote the principle of the common good because America is most successful when we pursue policies that expand opportunity and create prosperity for all, not just a few. 58%
The role of government should be to promote the principle of self-reliance because America is most successful when we have a limited public role allowing businesses and individuals to prosper. 39%

They are also clear about the idea that government should serve average people, and simply solve problems and get things done.


Of the following potential changes in government, which two or three would be most important to you personally? (multiple responsese allowed)

Graph: What you want from gov

And a chart repeated from earlier in the report illustrates (in the orange line on the graph below) a wide range of public-interest functions that Americans feel are an important part of what government should be doing. In fact, majorities say every function is important.


When it comes to the various roles for government: How important are each of the following? How would you rate government’s performance?

Graph of government roles

References to “The People”

Interestingly, phrases like “the people” and “for the people” come up often in discussion of whom government should work for.

The way it’s supposed to work is to look out for the best interests of the people. (Liberal White Man, 34 PA)
I think it’s a great idea that a politician would have to tell where they’re getting their money from and what backers they’re getting their support from. Open disclosure to me is a great idea, especially any time you’re dealing with politicians or representatives that are for the people and of the people. (Moderate African-American Man, 33 PA)
Q:  Who benefits most from having a government?
A:  Oh, gosh. I can’t honestly say the people. Honestly, the Senators and the Congress. (Moderate White Woman, 67 PA)

The anthropologists on the research team believe Americans’ references to “the people” reflect a helpful and distinctive cultural pattern. Unlike many Europeans, for instance, who may see society as fundamentally riven with conflicting interests and urges-to-power, Americans assume (perhaps naïvely) that there is a collective good that could easily be discovered if leaders only focused on it.

How does this collective, civic sense square with earlier comments about the lack of a lived experience of a “body politic”? Put briefly, Americans are not inclined by default to reflect on ideas like shared stakes, shared enterprise or interdependence across society. But in the context of complaining about the government, this idea comes naturally to the surface. As was discussed earlier, it is almost as though when thinking about government, we are united by a common “enemy,” in a pattern very analogous to the economic populism that can seem to erase political differences as both liberal and conservative Americans complain about unfairness that favors the wealthy against “the rest of us.”

The insistence that government is supposed to be for the people is potentially an important building block towards the idea that it should be by the people.


Particularly in response to survey questions, Americans express the view that we need to pay more attention to government, and in other ways take a more active role.

We should be focused on what we want government to be and hold elected officials accountable to that goal. 88%
Being a responsible citizen means helping create the kind of government that serves our country as a whole. 56%
Being a responsible citizen means looking out for yourself and not depending on government. 40%

While the research as a whole makes it clear that people don’t by default take an active role in this way, survey responses suggest that a “cultural push” in this direction could find a receptive audience.


Though Americans have a lot of concerns about government, many also seem to want to move beyond bitterness and negativity, and various survey numbers suggest room for a more positive dialog about government.

Significant percentages of Americans agree, “I wish more people would talk about the good things government does instead of complaining all the time.” (52% agree). And nearly 4 in 10 (39%) think, “Ideologues have gone too far in attacking government.” Americans who agree with this statement certainly don’t have such a negative view that they would want government dismantled. In fact, a slim majority of survey respondents side with the view that “Some elected officials try to dismantle government, to undermine public support for government services” (54%) over the idea that “Though they may disagree on some things, elected officials want government to function well.” (42%)

Importantly, this doesn’t mean that people simply want to hear happy talk and pretend that everything is OK. As illustrated by the survey finding below, they want people to speak up when things are wrong, but presumably in a constructive way that leads to progress.

“I wish more people would speak up about what’s wrong with our government.” 64%
“I wish more people would speak up about what’s right with our government.” 32%

In fact, recognizing that government needs improvement makes it a bit easier for people to also agree how important government is. In a split sample experiment, people are more likely to side with the pro government view when it includes the recognition that government isn’t working as well as it should.

+8 margin
There are basic things individuals cannot accomplish alone; it takes citizens joining together. Through government, citizens combine efforts to protect public safety, build public structures like roads and schools, and improve quality of life for all of us. We need government; the problem is that it isn’t working well right now for average people. 52%
Government has gotten too big and is inserting itself into areas that should be left to individuals. We need to stop going down this path where government takes care of everybody. We need to limit government and promote individual responsibility. 44%
There are basic things individuals cannot accomplish alone; it takes citizens joining together. Through government, citizens combine efforts to protect public safety, build public structures like roads and schools, and improve quality of life for all of 48%
Government has gotten too big and is inserting itself into areas that should be left to individuals. We need to stop going down this path where government takes care of everybody. We need to limit government and promote individual responsibility 49%

A lesson for going forward may be that it is helpful to condemn negativity about government. That is, while people may tend to take negative views themselves by default, there may be room to encourage more constructive views by explicitly contrasting these with negativity and complaining.


Another positive sign from the qualitative and quantitative research is that Americans express strong support for the idea of cooperation – working together and putting aside differences, in order to get things done and make things better.

While most believe that “Americans are greatly divided when it comes to the most important values” (73%) rather than “Americans are united and in agreement about the most important values” (26%), that is not the vision of America they aspire to. Instead, Americans believe the way we SHOULD relate to each other is to work together, to make communities better. As the chart on the next page illustrates, people are more likely to take a cooperative stance (“working together...”) than one that focuses on responsibility for ourselves or responsibility only in times of crisis.


When you think about America, which of the following images comes closest to your ideal of how the nation should be, in how we should relate to each other?

Graph: Relating to each other

Americans want to work together, and this desire provides the potential foundation for narratives about government as a mechanism for doing just that. Determining exactly how to communicate that idea would require careful exploration, as there are partisan differences in how people respond to questions like the one above – Democrats focus on togetherness (52%) while Republicans focus on families (40%) – and these dynamics are likely to increase when government is added to consideration.

On the other hand, the basic idea of putting aside differences and cooperating is a strong theme as people talk about how things could (in principle) get better.

It’s almost like a marriage. You’ve got to have a little bit of give and take. You know, one side’s got to give a little. One side’s got to take a little and vice versa, you know, and say, “Okay, well, if you’re gonna do this, we can do that.” And they just need to come together and do stuff like that. You know, give a little bit and take a little bit. And I think our government and everybody would be much better off. (Conservative White Man, 34 PA)
I have always found in the past, in any situation, government or non-government, sit down at the kitchen table, sit down at a neutral place and discuss. That’s the only way it can be done. (Moderate White Woman, 67 PA)
That comes down to even just on an individual level, when you have a conflict with another person. Sometimes in a compromise, neither one of you is ever satisfied, but nonetheless, it resolves a major disagreement that could escalate to something far worse without that compromise in place. (Moderate White Man, 42 NC)
[Doesn’t compromise mean giving in to the other side?] No, it doesn’t. We were having this discussion earlier today, and it didn’t necessarily have to do with government, but it had to do with – It was more on a domestic level, but we are all going to have to deal with each other for the rest of our lives. Don’t you think we ought to be nice about it? That would just make things just a little bit better. Sure, all right, I may have to give up a little bit of this so that you can have that, and you may have to give up a little bit of this so that I can have that, but that’s pretty much human nature. It’s pretty much that’s the way democracy is supposed to work. That’s the way I always thought it was supposed to work... we’re always going to have something that we don’t necessarily agree upon. It’s just so much easier to compromise and find a middle ground. (Conservative White Man, 49 PA)
The people that you hear from are the very, very vocal minorities, unfortunately. You hear from the 10% on the left and the 10% on the right that are incredibly... that are very vocal and very loud and very obnoxious and very set in their ways and their beliefs, and have no interest in changing, and have no interest in hearing or listening to the other side or what the other side has to say. (Liberal White Man, 34 PA)

More specifically, there is a fairly common idea that one of the basic functions of government is to be a place where people with different opinions come together to hammer out solutions, especially when that means reaching compromise. Although people generally complain that government leaders have lost track of this, it is an ideal people would like to hold their leaders to.

I think that’s exactly what government should be, an open exchange of ideas and people listening and hearing one another and trying to find the best solution, and people being open-minded, but I don’t think that’s at all what actually happens. I think people are... most government officials are incredibly close-minded, very opinionated on one side or the other, depending on what their interests are, motivated by self-interest, motivated by personal gain, motivated by getting elected again, influenced by money and wealth and power and big businesses, so in theory, I think the idea is a good one, but, no, I don’t think that that’s what actually does happen. (Liberal White Man, 34 PA)
I look back and to earlier generations and I think even though there were different political ideologies, the individuals still respected each other. They knew how to sit down at the table and reach consensus. They didn’t necessarily evolve into name calling or a lot of the finger pointing. And it seems like much within kind of this current generation of politicians and government officials that a lot of that ability to kind of meet half way and figure out agreements and consensus on some very difficult issues, it seems like that part has really been lost. And I think as a government we’re worse off, because a lot of times it ends up being it’s my way or the highway. I’m not sure anybody necessarily wins in those types of situations. (Liberal White Man, 47 CA)
The government was created for that reason for people to get together and discuss their opinions and come to some reasonable conclusion for the benefit of everyone. I mean, everybody knows that we can’t have it our own way... That’s how our government was started. (Moderate White Woman, 58 NC)
I always feel that there’s a middle ground somewhere, and that people just have to sit down and figure out where that middle ground is. And I believe that’s what’ll happen with this issue. I believe someone, or eventually everyone will get together and they’ll find a middle ground that works for all sides involved as opposed to one side trying to have it their way as an all or nothing, or take it or leave it. (Moderate African-American Man, 33 PA)
I once heard somebody say that a good political deal, both parties should not be happy with it, but they should be able to live with it. And I think what you have right now is both parties don’t want to give. They want to be totally happy with whatever happens, and that’s not politics. You’re not going to be happy with every legislation, or everything that gets through Congress. If you’re not upset about part of what gets through, then you’re not really doing... you’re not really compromising. And I think they’re just so stratified right now, and they’re not willing to give an inch, either side. (Moderate White Man, 51 OH)


Finally, the media review offers signs of hope in the form of certain stories that do illustrate how coverage could help promote a sense of government by the people. A number of stories in the collection focus on people deliberating about the laws, policies or public investments they prefer.

Does discrimination exist in Bozeman? City commissioners and residents have asked the question for months as conversations have intensified around the possibility of the city adopting an ordinance to protect people from discrimination in housing, the workplace and public accommodations based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. (NDO backers talk about discrimination, Bozeman Chronicle, 5/14/14)
News cameras

And other stories present statements, such as quotes from elected leaders, that frame policy in terms of collective choices and actions – things “we” can or should do.

"We have the ability to prevent this type of tragedy [i.e. drug overdoses] and help save lives," the Republican governor [Christie of New Jersey] said at a news conference outside the Rescue Mission of Trenton, which provides addiction treatment. "We need to be involved in doing it." (Christie expands heroin-overdose pilot program, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/18/14)

Stories of these kinds tend to refer more to the local or state level than the national level – probably for the simple reason that such discussions are easier and more common at this level. But they provide a model for what coverage at all levels could helpfully focus on.


Young man on stairs Woman at bus stop

The discussion so far in this report has applied to all Americans.

In particular, the fundamental tendency of Americans to feel, think and talk as though they were subjects of some other kind of country transcends race, age, political orientation and other demographic factors. And a communications strategy designed to address this lamentable dynamic should, likewise, have traction across groups.

That said, there are also meaningful differences worth paying attention to – specifically, differences that characterize the views of people of color and Americans under thirty, demographic groups identified at the outset as important audiences and potentially important allies.

In this section we discuss ways in which the thinking of people of color differs from that of the overall sample, based on both quantitative and qualitative data.


Our research confirms the finding reported by others that non-White Americans – and particularly, African-Americans – tend to express a more positive outlook overall towards government than Whites.

Responses to one survey question neatly sum up this aspect of the findings. When asked whether government has a positive or negative aspect on people’s lives, Whites are the most likely to say “negative” while African-Americans are the most likely to say “positive” and Hispanics fall in the middle[11].


Overall, what kind of impact do you think the government has on most people’s lives?

Graph: Government impact 2

In the qualitative data, too, people of color were more likely than whites to offer general, positive assessments of government.

There’s always ways to improve the system. I believe in the system. I believe that the system and the founders had great intentions. (Liberal African-American man, 30s OH)
It’s not the best system, but it is a system that works. And we need something that works. (Moderate African-American Man, 52 CA)
Every country has ups and downs, but I think we are doing fine. (Pakistani Man, 70s CA)

These findings are certainly not to be taken for granted, even if similar patterns have been reported before. After all, given events such as those in Ferguson (which preceded the survey) and the disaster following Hurricane Katrina, it might be expected that African-Americans in particular would hold a negative view of government’s “helpfulness.” But while there are some important negative aspects of their views, discussed later in this section, the positives such as the response pattern above are striking.

Dorian T. Warren (Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Columbia University) offers an insightful discussion of this dynamic in his piece “What Race Tells Us About Anti-Government Attitudes.”[12] Here he summarizes reasons why African-Americans might have positive feelings towards the federal government specifically:

... [D]espite a long history of exclusion and neglect, the federal government has provided the most mechanisms for protecting blacks from hostile state and local governments during the high moments of progressive reform – from Reconstruction to the New Deal and Civil Rights movement, to the Great Society. Also, African-Americans have historically sought out public sector jobs, which ... provide the most stable route into the middle class.

Historians such as Harvard Sitkoff (A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade, Oxford University Press, 1978) have explored how actions by the federal government in particular created distinct improvements in the lot of African-Americans, and created new expectations for continued progress.


As the passage just cited reflects, African-Americans, as well as other people of color, have a stronger enthusiasm than White Americans for the “helping” functions of government.

In a survey question asking about important roles of government, several aspects differed significantly based on the race of respondent. Specifically, people of color were more likely than the overall sample to be interested in functions like “taking care of people” and “ensuring that nobody goes hungry,” as well as functions related to economic security and inequality. (See table on next page.)


When it comes to the various roles for government, how important are each of the following? (Extremely + Very)

Being forward thinking and helping create a better future for all Americans 80% 66%
Addressing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and growing the middle class. 75% 47%
Improving quality of life, for example, by supporting efforts to improve health, create thriving communities and so on. 75% 55%
Creating rules that protect the public from the actions of powerful corporations. 74% 59%
Taking care of people, especially those who cannot care for themselves. 73% 55%
Ensuring that nobody goes hungry and everyone has an opportunity to live a decent life. 72% 59%
Regulating to protect people’s health and safety 72% 54%

African-Americans were also significantly more likely than Whites to say that government should do more to solve problems, with Hispanics falling in between.

Graph: Do more or too much?

African-American survey respondents were also especially likely to favor government that promotes the common good over the principle of self-reliance.

The role of government should be to promote the principle of the common good because America is most successful when we pursue policies that expand opportunity and create prosperity for all, not just a few. 69% 55%
The role of government should be to promote the principle of self-reliance because America is most successful when we have a limited public role allowing businesses and individuals to prosper. 31% 41%

This type of “for the people” perspective comes up regularly in qualitative data as well.

The government should protect people. It should pass laws that are in the interest of the people, and make sure that those laws are implemented fairly across the various states of the country. ... I think the government should help with job creation, I think that we should not just have Obamacare but national health care. There’s some housing needs that aren’t being met by private sector... (Liberal African-American Woman, 50s PA)

These patterns are all consistent with earlier research, as reflected by further commentary from Dorian Warren, in the Nation article cited earlier.

Decades of data surveying blacks and whites about the role and scope of government show persistent differences: blacks are much more likely to believe the federal government is obligated to provide basic services for citizens, provide social protections and economic security and, through intervention, address the country’s major problems – including but not limited to racial inequality.

When asked about who benefits most from government programs, people of color agree with White Americans that the chief beneficiaries are wealthy elites and politicians themselves – as discussed in earlier sections of the report. But they are also more likely than Whites to believe that “regular people” benefit from government action – including children and youth, the middle class, and “the American public”. In short, people of color not only believe government should help, they appear to believe it often does help.


Survey results suggest that people of color – and particularly Hispanics and people with less education – are more inclined than Whites to think in terms of “our government,” or even more strongly, to feel that “we are government.”


Do you tend to think of it more as THE government, more as OUR or as WE, we are government?

Graph: Connection to government

In a seemingly related pattern, African-Americans are particularly likely to believe various public actions can influence the course of government. (See graph below.)


When you think about the ways people can influence the decisions of government, generally, how effective do you think each of the following actions are?

Graph: Effectiveness

This pattern seems at odds with responses reflecting disappointment about who benefits from government and where government focuses its attention (see later discussion) – but is consistent with a persistent expectation among African-Americans in particular that government is supposed to listen to us, even if it often doesn’t.

One voice can make a change ... [but only] if you’ve got somebody listening. And the government doesn’t listen, except when they want to. (Liberal African-American Man, CA)
It goes back to the people. I think we need to have more say so. I think maybe it shouldn’t just be activists, or it shouldn’t just be buddy-buddy. The people are like, “You’re in Washington, and the only person that has a voice is the person that you know.” ... [I]t doesn’t matter what I say. It doesn’t matter what you say. At the end of the day Washington is going to do what they want to do anyway. You know that just as well as I. I mean, you can say yes. I can say yes. But we all know that at the end of the day Washington is gonna do what they want to do. (Moderate African-American Man, 52 CA)


On the other hand, much of the data also reveals a deep sense of disappointment among people of color regarding government’s priorities and effectiveness.


Rate how often government programs benefit each of the following groups:
% Usually + Often

Graph: Programs

As was already mentioned, the upper part of the chart above reflects strong resentment of government’s focus on the interest of elites, including politicians themselves, as well as a sense that government benefits Whites (who are sometimes equated with well-off elites) more than minorities. Qualitative data strongly confirms the same patterns.

Q:  Right now who do you think benefits most from government?
A:  The ones that are on top... They’re taking from the poor and giving to the rich. ... You really want me to answer that? The white people. The whites while blacks suffer. I don’t know. I think it’s really a racial issue. If we can just [get] together and help each other, we’d have a better world. (Apolitical African-American Woman, OH)
They’re looking out for themselves, they’re looking out for the lobbyists, their own constituents and so forth. The common man is just there [waiting for attention]. (Liberal African American Man, 53 OH)
They’ve been selfish, thinking about themselves. (Conservative Kenyan imm Woman, CA)
I never understood why they get to lie and get away with stuff... We’re counting on them. I’m counting on them! I elected... I vote... we all [count] on the people that we elect to do what they say they’re going to do and they don’t ever do it... (Liberal African-American Man, CA)
[The] people with power, the people with money, they’re catering to their needs, but the people who are like the everyday people, the working class people, they’re not really getting taken into consideration, they’re kind of like a second thought. (Liberal African-American Man, 20s PA)
Q:  Do you think that there’s other people or certain groups of people who do benefit from having a government?
A:  The rich people do, yeah. (Liberal Hispanic Man, 32 CA)
I just think, as far as the judicial branch, it’s out of hand. I think money rules that branch of government at this point in time, because if you make a million dollars you can kill somebody and get away with it; if you take a pair of sneakers you’re going to jail for life. That’s not a proper way to run it. (Liberal African-American Woman, 32 OH)
Whoever has the most money has the most influence and controls the government. (Moderate African-American Man, 33 PA)
Q:  Who do you think benefits most from government the way it works nowadays?
A:  Well, I think people who have money. I think common man is... we’re all essentially in the same boat. I don’t care what race, nationality, ethnicity, there’s a small group of people at the top, and the color is green. (African-American Man, PA)

A variant on the same point is expressed in comments about government focusing too much attention abroad:

You’re supposed to take care of home before you can take care of your neighbor... I mean, in my opinion, a lot of problems with the people here in the United States that don’t like what the government is doing, [is] because they send so much elsewhere. (Liberal African-American Man, CA)
I think one of the worst things we’re doing is involving manpower and resources into foreign situations that are best left as they were. (African-American Man, PA)

The tone and content of comments like all those above seem to reflect a pattern of perception that is subtly different among Americans of color as opposed to Whites. For African-Americans in particular, government seems to be a more visible presence – not a bureaucratic abstraction, but a figure with a real moral obligation to do right. Going along with this pattern of perception, there are hopes and even expectations that government will be attentive and helpful, and corresponding feelings of resentment and betrayal in the frequent cases where expectations are not met. It is as though Whites have a relatively distant and impersonal sense of government, compared with people of color, and particularly African-Americans, who have a more vivid sense of a relationship that is supposed to work in a particular way, but too often falls short.

This pattern might hypothetically reflect aspects of history unique to people of color and indirectly alluded to by Dorian Warren: Minorities in the U.S. have sometimes experienced the (federal) government as a protector who defends them against other Americans. While Whites have experienced (and appreciated) a government that acts as a protector against foreign threats, natural disasters and so forth, people of color may have experienced government intervention of a different kind, which reduced discrimination or inequality. Perhaps it is this history that helped establish the sense of a closer (if still very problematic) connection between people of color and government – minorities have sometimes turned to government when they could not turn to their fellow Americans.


In the end, reflecting a higher-highs and lower-lows pattern, qualitatively it is more common to hear people of color than Whites express such total disappointment and disaffection that they basically write off government explicitly as anything that could be meaningful in their lives.

Up till now I’d have to say I’ve been more Democrat but more conservative... although it doesn’t serve any purpose. (Conservative Hispanic Woman, 44 CA)
I don’t know a difference between Democrat and Republican. Basically there is really not any difference, because at the end of the day everybody is for themselves. (Apolitical African-American Woman, OH)
Q:  Do you lean more towards conservative or liberal on politics?
A:  You know, when it comes to politics, I’m not really no politician. I leave the politics to the politicians. You know, / I mean, I’m just one person. I’m African-American, so, you know, you already got that against you being black, especially in the United States, because you can have racism everywhere you go... I leave the politicians to what they do. They went to school for that. That’s what they do. Let them do what they do. I want to live, survive. (Liberal African-American Man, CA)
Q:  How would you explain to a kid why we have government?
A:  I wouldn’t be able to, ‘cause I don’t understand the government. The word government I don’t really understand, so I couldn’t explain it to them. (Apolitical African-American Woman)
I don’t really know who my representatives are. I would have to look into it and see what they’re doing and what they’re about. As far as like representing me well as far as my interests, my interests have mainly just been to pay the bills. (Liberal African-American Man, 20s PA)


People of color tend to express a greater sense than Whites that collective action is important and effective. African-Americans, in particular, tend to favor a vision of cooperation for the common good even more than other Americans.


When you think about America, which of the following images comes closest to your ideal of how the nation should be, in how we should relate to each other? (In Percent)

Working together to make our communities better 40% 52% 47%
Focusing on strong, independent families 32% 22% 33%
Minding our own business, but helping each other in times of need 26% 24% 19%

And people of color generally are inclined, more than Whites, to believe that acting together can make a real difference.


Thinking about problems facing the country, how much difference do you believe that people working together [as a group/with their government] can make in solving the problems you see?

Graph: working together

More specifically, African-Americans are more likely than White respondents to see the effectiveness of working together with various groups – friends, fellow church members, etc.


To make a difference on problems you see in your community or state, how effective is it to work with each of the following groups:
% Extremely+Very Effective

Graph: working with groups

Perhaps not surprisingly given the previous discussion, this relative optimism about working together even extends to cooperation with elected officials.


Finally, people of color are more likely to have an image of government oppression. When asked which images reflect what comes to mind for them, overall 13% of respondents selected a picture of oppression. Response was higher among men of color (20%), people of color under 30 years old (19%) and Hispanic respondents (19%).

In conversations too, people of color expressed concerns about the force of government being used against people, sometimes specifically in connection with race.

There shouldn’t be like any repression of minorities or gender or sexuality or anything like that. (Liberal African-American Woman, 50s PA)
It’s just unjust, it’s unfair. There are so many unfair, you know, laws and rules and regulations in the way that we run our country, I just think where is the fairness? We always say this is the land of the free, but how free is it, really? How free is it, really? Yeah, it’s free for the person that makes a trillion dollars and can go off and get away with something, but ... I just think we live in a very unfair, unjust country with our government. (Liberal African-American Man, 53 OH)
People are scared of the government these days. What’s gonna happen tomorrow? We don’t know. So, they should give people some leeway to think on their own and do their business. (Conservative Kenyan imm Woman, CA)
[In] reality the Hispanics don't really use [government] benefits very much because of fear or because they don't have papers from immigration. That is why many Hispanics do not use these benefits. (Hispanic Woman, 23 CA)
Somewhere along the line – he’s only four – somewhere along the line between preschool and me someone has convinced [my son] that half of the police is bad, because now he tells me the police are bad... So, not just him, but even in school, whether it’s on a preschool playground or inside of a classroom, they’re convincing kids that the police is bad. Why? So, that means that when he’s at / when his life is at a threat, who does he go to? As a four-year-old he’s not gonna go to the police. (Moderate African-American Man, 52 CA)

By contrast, other complaints of Whites – about government “inefficiency” or “intrusiveness” or “handouts” – were not heard much among people of color.

In sum, Americans of color express a very mixed and complex set of views related to government. On the positive side, they have a strong sense – perhaps informed by critical moments in their own cultural history – that government can and should be an extremely helpful force on the side of the people. Yet this relationship between government and public, when betrayed, can also lead to a powerful sense of abandonment. This mixed picture – disappointed yet still hopeful – also includes an element of anxiety about - being listened to and even about basic freedoms.

But despite these negatives, perhaps the most important takeaway is that Americans of color retain a model, or at least a memory, of government that works with and for people, that promotes the common good, and that responds to the people’s voice. This is valuable cultural capital to build on in the coming phases of work.


Two college women College man

As is the case with Americans of color, Americans under thirty share the same broad patterns of perception discussed earlier in the report – feeling more like subjects than citizens, resenting the wealthy elites that seem to run the country, and so forth.

But in this section we discuss some dynamics that characterize their thinking in particular. These patterns may or may not be distinctly characteristic of today’s young people – as opposed to those of past generations – but in any case are important to consider as we work towards a narrative(s) that can bring all Americans into closer engagement with government.


In both quantitative and qualitative research components, Americans under 30 reflect less interest in and engagement with government, and less sense of its importance, than their elders.

Fewer are registered to vote: 61%, – and only 49% of those with a high school education – compared with 83% of those who are 30 or older.

Fewer are critical of the public’s lack of involvement: Only 51% agree that “We get the government we deserve, because so many people do not make the effort to vote or get involved” – compared with 66% of those 30+.

And (even) fewer explicitly acknowledge being interested and paying attention:

Which comes closer to your own views – even if neither is exactly right? UNDER 30 30+
I generally pay attention to government actions and debates, and often have a point of view about the kinds of policies we should have. 38% 53%
I generally live my life, don’t worry very much about government actions and debates, and hope the government does a good job. 58% 43%

On a very related note, only 57% say that is it very or somewhat important to follow the news – compared with 78% of those 30+.

Of course if these patterns were to continue into the future as this population enters its thirties, forties and beyond, it would imply an American public even more alienated from government.


In qualitative aspects of the research, young people were particularly inclined to express general pessimism about government. Seemingly, a sizeable minority feel that nothing is really likely to change for the better, and that dysfunction, corruption and partisan infighting are to be expected as the norm. While they are not very inclined to express partisan, principled objection to government, many seem to have little sense that is likely to be a positive force.

The government. I think they’re doing a good job but like I said, they can’t please everybody. Whatever they try out is not going to work out the way they wanted... So they just keep going. (Moderate Hispanic Man, 20s CA)
I’ve heard things like [how] they want to limit contributions from companies, or groups, or certain people. But I haven’t really paid attention to it, because I think everything they say is not gonna happen. I think they claim that they want that just because the public sees it, but I don’t think that they would actually vote to really end it. (Conservative White Woman, 26 OH)
I think they’re trying to achieve these many different things, like healthcare and whatnot, but it’s very hard to do. You’re working around like loopholes and whatnot, and so you have to make compromises, and it might be hard, because in the end, the goal that you had at the beginning might not be the same at the end. (White Man, 20s OH)

Perhaps surprisingly given the youth energy that helped put Barack Obama in office, the research often gives the impression of young people who have never seen an example of positive government action.


Young people’s views regarding which government functions are important tend to follow the same pattern as older Americans’ – except that in some areas those under thirty simply see less importance. Below are the notable distinctions in response.

When it comes to the various roles for government, how important is each of the following? UNDER 30 30+
Protecting Americans from terrorism. 72% 88%
Focusing on basic infrastructure like maintaining roads, bridges, and energy and communications grids. 69% 81%
Focusing on law and order and keeping us safe. 65% 81%
Including citizens in decision-making. 63% 78%

One of the interesting points here – in the bottom row – is that young people seem less interested than other Americans in being listened to and included in decision-making, perhaps reflecting an even stronger sense than their elders that they don’t have the relevant knowledge to weigh in on important topics, greater pessimism about being listened to, or less life experience helping them see that government actions matter.

Millennials’ relatively low priority on law and order may be connected with resentment of government’s “control” function, a pattern that emerges strongly in qualitative data. In ethnographic conversations, Americans under thirty often chafe at government regulation and the idea of government telling people what they can and can’t do.

I think that right now maybe government is a little too big and its role should be a little smaller. I guess it would be without trying to infringe upon the rights of a citizen... I think there’s too much red tape... The role of government... as an ideal... [should be] protecting the rights of citizens without infringing on personal freedoms... (Apolitical White Man, 20s PA)
I think morality does not work well with government ... I don’t think we should legislating things like that... Um, government exists to like keep us safe, keep order, defend us, that sort of stuff... you know help us if we’re down-trodden, whatever, disabled, elderly, young, that kind of thing... But I don’t think it’s a matter of you’re allowed to do this, you’re not allowed to do that if it’s not hurting others and if it’s not hurting yourself. So I think morality has no place in government.
Q:  ...some examples of that?
A:  Social things issues that get such – such publicity. You know like gay rights, that sort of thing. If it’s not hurting other people then why can’t people like love who [they] want or have sex with who they want... that kind of thing... Even marijuana use... why does the government feel the need to step in and tell us what to do... when they could be focusing on other things that are more important to running an effective society? (Liberal White Woman, 20s PA)
Q:  What is government for?
A:  Most basically, it just kind of like regulates your life. (Liberal White Woman, 16 PA)
What does government do best? Put a lot of red tape on everything I guess. Yeah. And trying to regulate things, ‘cause things need some sort of regulation, but then sort of complicated things at the same time... I think some of the regulations are helpful, like the FDA; you know, people watching out for, you know, food and drugs, and what we put in our bodies... You know, government gives us our traffic laws... They try to keep people safe like the highway transportation safety commissions... regulating the automobile makers, you know, having certain rules for safety. (Moderate White Woman, 27 OH)
I think sometimes government gets in the way.
Q:  Could you give me an example of government standing in the way and people could be taking care of something themselves?
A:  Privatizing health care. That would probably be a big one. That’s probably my biggest one, and same thing with Social Security. I’m not overly well versed in it, but I’m sure if they kind of put it out there, and somebody had a plan, and probably would do better [than government] with managing it and finding ways to fund it. (Moderate White Woman, 27 OH)

On the other hand, when asked open-ended questions in ethnographic and interview contexts, younger people are very likely to frame government’s appropriate function in terms of helping people.

Like I keep saying like we expect government to do these important things for us and that does take money and so if we as a people and as a country want it done, then we have to contribute some amount of money to getting that done. So, yeah, I’m all for taxes... There’s countries where they have like really high taxes but then they have free education, free healthcare and things like that... So whatever you put in the government is what they’re able to give back to you. (Liberal White Woman, 20s PA)
Q:  Is there anything you would be willing to pay more taxes for?
A:  Yeah. We always support school levies, ‘cause they’re very important. We support social services ... we always have a bill for like mental health. We support the zoo. So, things that are like cultural or for the betterment of the community. (Moderate White Woman, 27 OH)
I think just overall... providing a small amount of resources for people that can’t afford it. I think they should kind of up their contributions for like homeless shelters, and like food banks, and soup kitchens, ‘cause there’s a lot of people that are going to those now, like the food pantries. It would be nice to see more resources going to things like that that can actually help people. (Conservative White Woman, 26 OH)
[Government] should be about taking care of the problems, you know, that we have money-wise. Basically to, you know, they take care of the people... they run the money. They run the country’s money, man -everybody’s money: your money, my money. They run it.
Q:  If you had the control over taxes, what would you spend it on?
A:  Honestly giving it back to the people... so everybody would have access to hospitals, and medications, and education. That would be the main things. (Liberal Hispanic/African-American Man, 20s CA)

Given the age group in question, close to or in their college years, it is not surprising that one of the ways Millennials think government should help has to do with higher education.

I believe like the U.S. government should spend more money on programs to help people, and help people like get back to work ... [I]f the U.S. government lowered student [loan rates], let students pay to go to college, maybe more people would go to college and more people would get better jobs. (Conservative White Woman, 26 OH)
A lot of people are mostly concerned with education and taxes. I’m mostly concerned with veteran affairs. That’s the hot-button issue for me, because of my education, where during the government shutdown there was a chance that I couldn’t go to school here anymore. (Moderate White Man, 20s OH)
This community program is for free for students – it’s a really good program for me. It works for me because it’s basically preparing me and giving me courage to continue my education... if they have another kind of [similar] thing, it will be helpful for people. (Iraqi Woman [ in US 16months], 26 CA)


If younger people pay little attention to government, it is probably not surprising that they have difficulty thinking about the ways in which government is significantly different from business. In qualitative research, fewer young people cite the “profit motive” for business as a factor that works against people’s interest, and businesses are even more likely to be seen in a relatively positive light, compared with government.

Q:  How does the government differ from a business?
A:  I don’t think there’s any difference. At least in a business they don’t take the money away from you. You know, you go to a business and you pay for what you want. The government takes the money, and you don’t know where it goes. That’s the difference between a business. I think a business is more legit. (Liberal Hispanic/African-American Man, 20s CA)
I think the government maybe is for like long-run, I’ll just say, happiness. I’ll use that word, ‘cause if you go into a grocery store, that’s for more like short-term. They’re still helping out the people, both of them. (Apolitical White Woman, 20s OH)
I think businesses care more about the bottom line, and as far as like they care about the people. And maybe if they do something that people don’t like that they could actually go out of business. In the past if [government workers] do something that people don’t like, it doesn’t matter, because they’re the government and they’ll always be here. Like no matter how low the Congress’ approval rating is, and the presidential approval rating is, they’re still gonna be there. They’ll still have their job. Private people don’t have that safety net. (Conservative White Woman, 26 OH)
I think if they brought private companies in to do things where there would be more competition, there would be better options for a lot of things... (Moderate White Woman, 27 OH)


Finally, Americans under thirty seem to have more of a sense than older people that government can be influenced through our actions. While they have less faith in the power of voting, survey responses suggest that they are more optimistic than older Americans about the effectiveness of just about every other means of shaping government action.


When you think about the ways people can influence the decisions of government, generally, how effective do you think each of the following actions are?
% Extremely + Very

Graph: Influencing government

Importantly, education – or other factors related to education, such as income – may play a significant role in determining whether young people will ever bother trying to influence government. Those with less education are significantly more likely to believe in the importance of self-sufficiency, as opposed to working through government to create a better society.

Which comes closer to your own views – even if neither is exactly right? UNDER 30 YEARS OLD HIGH SCHOOL EDUCATED UNDER 30 YEARS OLD COLLEGE EDUCATED 30+ YEARS OLD
Being a responsible citizen means looking out for yourself and not depending on government. 54% 38% 39%
Being a responsible citizen means helping create the kind of government that serves our country as a whole. 41% 60% 57%

And this is a pattern that is reflected in the sample overall. Among respondents of all ages, those with a college degree are more likely to believe responsible citizenship means creating the government that serves the country (63%) than those with high school or some college education (53% each).

Overall, young people’s hope that government can end up reflecting the people’s will – even if it currently does little of importance for the people – may represent a significant well of confidence to tap into.


In the decade plus since the researchers conducted a wide-ranging study of American attitudes towards government, the climate has shifted. Where core questions used to include the effectiveness, efficiency and relevance of government, a more fundamental question has emerged more strongly – who runs our country, and in whose interest. Feelings are more negative and attitudes are correspondingly less constructive.

We suspect that this shift at least partly reflects the different economic climates during which the two rounds of research were conducted. One effect of the Great Recession is that economic insecurity has crept “up” the socio-economic ladder. More Americans feel more insecure, resentful and economically powerless than they did ten years ago – and this situation almost certainly contributes to a sense of powerlessness in a political sense, particularly in the context of high-profile discussions of policies (bailouts etc.) that seem to favor the wealthy while accomplishing little on behalf of average Americans.

In this climate, it can seem that a group that formerly felt relatively comfortable – middle class Whites – have been “kicked to the curb,” to join others who were already there, such as working class minorities.

An important challenge for communicators is to navigate this sense of anger and disenfranchisement, while tapping into the more hopeful perspectives that are also still alive in American culture – the sense that government is supposed to be “for the people,” the sense – particularly strong among people of color and Millennials – that we can change things through collective protest, and so forth.

The challenge of the next phase of work will be to identify the narratives that help us move successfully through this cultural landscape, and even shift it to one that more closely resembles the one that de Tocqueville encountered nearly 200 years ago.


1. ^ Racial dynamics are addressed in the report and will be an important focus of later phases of the effort as well.

2. ^ Note that the use of “citizens” here has nothing to do with legal status, and everything to do with a sense, as de Tocqueville suggested, of being a stakeholder, with the ability and duty to help actively manage the community, state, etc.

3. ^ Note that while these and other negative views may be accurate in important and distressing ways, for purposes of the report the essential fact is that default images of what government is and does may be so defined by various negative perceptions that other ideas about what government can and should be are obscured or forgotten.

4. ^ E.g. see Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, September 2014, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens in Perspectives on Politics.

5. ^ See various discussions comparing new lows in government trust with levels during the Watergate-scandal era (e.g. “Low Trust in Federal Government Rivals Watergate Era Levels,” from the Gallup Organization, September 2007).

6. ^ For a compelling discussion see Ian Haney-López’s Dog Whistle Politics.

7. ^ Unless noted otherwise, all data cited in the report comes from the original research undertaken for this project.

8. ^ When they are focusing on local government, Americans tend to express more constructive perspectives, but federal government is the default area of focus when the topic is “government,” and conversation often drifts back to this level. Since federal government is the prototype of government in this sense – e.g. people tend to focus on the president rather than the mayor, Congress rather than the city council, etc. – much of the discussion in the paper refers to national government rather than local.

9. ^ See Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, cited earlier.

10. ^ Importantly, this pattern holds across all demographic groups – but see later in the report for discussion of ways in which responses differ by race.

11. ^ Is Anyone Responsible?: How Television Frames Political Issues, U. of Chicago Press, 1991

12. ^ The Nation, April 9, 2012

Topos has as its mission to explore and ultimately transform the landscape of public understanding where public interest issues play out. Our approach is based on the premise that while it is possible to achieve short-term victories on issues through a variety of strategies, real change depends on a fundamental shift in public understanding. Topos was created to bring together the range of expertise needed to understand existing issue dynamics, explore possibilities for creating new issue understanding, develop a proven course of action, and arm advocates with new communications tools to win support.

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