Hate the Government, Love the Bureaucrats

Most of you are probably familiar with the perpetual disconnect between abstract dislike of “government spending” or “government programs” and the concrete affection, and even fierce loyalty, Americans express if you discuss particular forms of federal spending.

Well, as Pew demonstrates today in the most interesting of post-shutdown polls, that same disconnect applies to executive-branch agencies and the “bureaucrats” who staff them.

Unsurprisingly, the survey shows terrible ratings for “government” and “Washington.” Only 12% of respondents register satisfaction with “the federal government.” But 62% have a positive opinion of federal workers. And when you look at individual agencies, only the IRS is underwater (44% favorable, 51% unfavorable). Such perpetual conservative targets as EPA (62/30), HHS (61/30), Justice (61/33) and Education (53/42) do pretty well.

When the numbers are broken down by partisan self-ID, some interesting splits–and non-splits–occur. IRS, HHS, and Education elicit less than majority favorability among Republicans. Indies like the Fed, NSA and DoD less than Democrats or Republicans. Given Democrats’ rep for harboring a lot of surrender-monkey peaceniks, it’s interesting that Ds and Rs have an identically high opinion of the Pentagon (77% favorable). And 64% of Democrats (compared with 55% of Republicans) feel warmly towards the data-sucking folk at NSA. In virtually every category, though, dislike of agencies individually falls far short of dislike of government as a whole. This really does seem to be a national phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, and helps explain why Republicans get into trouble when they try to implement their anti-government messaging.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.