SUBTLE, CONTRADICTORY NUANCES…. A new study is available from the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University on Americans’ attitudes about the size and scope of government. It may not surprise you to learn the public’s demands and expectations aren’t always consistent.

Indeed, given the way the political winds are blowing, it’s tempting to think Americans have become reflexively anti-government. And in the abstract, they are — spending cuts and limited government continue to poll quite well. It’s those subtle, contradictory nuances that matter.

[M]ost Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare “very important.” They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care. […]

Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, they must contend with the fact that most major government programs remain enormously popular, including some that politicians have singled out for stiff criticism.

When it comes to handing out letter grades, no one and nothing in Washington fares well, though the worst grade went to congressional Republicans — you know, the ones poised to make huge gains in the midterm elections.

It’d be unfair to characterize the results as necessarily left-leaning, because that’s not quite the picture the numbers paint. People blame the government for the country’s current predicaments — reality suggests the opposite is true, but the public can sometimes get questions like these wrong — and perceive the government as being unable to solve problems and having a negative impact on their daily lives.

But the attitudes of the Republican base are still far from a majority. An active government involved in defense, health care and combating poverty enjoys broad support. They also believe it’s better to have the government spend to boost the economy than to focus on the deficit.

Just as importantly, while a majority of Americans in 1994 wanted their congressional representatives to cut spending in their area, regardless of economic consequences, nearly six in 10 now want their lawmakers to “fight for additional government spending in their districts to spur job creation.”

Indeed, the differences between attitudes now and the last time Republicans seized control of Congress are pretty interesting.

Americans are divided almost evenly on whether Washington should provide more services, even if it means higher taxes, or should reduce services and collect less in taxes. The split on this question is similar to what it was in 2003, and is a striking contrast to public views in 1994, when most voters preferred a smaller government and Republicans rode the discontent to take control of Congress.

So, to summarize, Americans want less government spending but “continue to see major areas of government spending as essential.” They don’t like government in their daily lives, but don’t want government to retreat from their daily lives. They want spending cuts, but not to anything in particular, and certainly not to their local areas.

There’s a reason our discourse isn’t more constructive.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.