Americans don’t like the idea of “big government”: That’s been an assumption of U.S. presidents for decades, at least since Ronald Reagan declared “government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Bill Clinton said “the era of big government is over”; Barack Obama insisted the question wasn’t “whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” Most citizens told pollsters, at least in the abstract, that they wanted government to be small. But in the midst of the pandemic and attendant economic crisis, surveys show significant public support for President Joe Biden’s spending plans and the idea of more assertive governance generally. Are these signs of a lasting shift in Americans’ sensibility about the role of government in their lives?

Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, notes that the increased enthusiasm for government in the U.S. is significant but small, though Americans have long supported more government to address particular social problems. With a closely divided U.S. Congress, she argues, it’s “simply not realistic to expect much success in the enactment of new laws”—or certainly to assume the country is entering a new pro-government era. Republicans performed well in the 2020 election, despite Donald Trump’s loss, and they have a good chance to retake Congress in 2022. Still, Mettler says, the enactment of some of Biden’s proposals—including paid leave, free universal preschool, and free community college—“would be hugely significant” and “could be transformative,” potentially changing expectations about the social contract between the American government and its citizens. This has to do less with events like the pandemic as such, and more with how political leadership responds to them, including how effective it is at enacting new public policies that can reshape U.S. politics over the long term.

Graham Vyse: More than a year ago, at the start of the pandemic, you told NPR that the way COVID would shape attitudes toward government in the U.S. was “all going to be a matter of political debate and how policies are framed, how visible government's role is and then, of course, who wins elections.” What effect did the past year have?

Suzanne Mettler: If you had asked me early in March of last year, “What could help dissipate political polarization in the United States?” I would have said, “Some major national crisis like a pandemic.” That would have been wrong. Polarization only became more intense leading up to the 2020 election and remained afterwards. At the same time, Biden is getting a lot of credit for how he’s handling the pandemic. A lot of Republicans don’t think Biden was legitimately elected, but he’s actually quite popular, which is striking in a time of high polarization.

This article is for members only

Join to read on and have access to The Signal‘s full library.

Join now Already have an account? Sign in