NBC/Wall Street Journal polls always ask an interesting question that doesn’t pop up much elsewhere:

“I’m going to read you two statements about the role of government, and I’d like to know which one comes closer to your point of view: ‘Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people’ or ‘government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.’”

The conventional wisdom would suggest the latter should win easily. After all, if we’re a “center-right” nation that loathes and distrusts government, the notion that the state “does too much” should be extremely popular.

And at various times in recent history, that’s certainly been the case. But in the newest results (pdf), released this week, 51% said “government should do more,” while 46% said “government is doing too many things.” The 51% majority is tied for the most support government activism has seen in three years.

Greg Ip did a nice job charting the results.

It may be a little hard to see, but the lighter purple line shows the percentage of Americans who believe the government is doing too much, while the darker blue line shows the percentage of the public who wants more government activism. Back in the mid-90s, anti-government sentiment was much stronger, and clear majorities wanted to see Washington doing less. That’s clearly changed.

Reports of the ascendancy of the far-right Tea Party message may have been exaggerated. For an overreaching, radicalized GOP, this isn’t good news.

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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.