Bureaucracy, what many consider the fourth branch of the United States government, is not typically viewed as popular among Americans. Indeed, in her book, The Politics of Resentment, Katherine Crammer identifies public employees as the perceived enemy of rural Wisconsinites. These rural communities view public employees as lazy and undeserving of their pay and benefits. Richard Hofstader characterizes this uncharitable view of the bureaucracy as paranoia, one that has existed in America since its conception. He says that this paranoid view comes from a distrust of authority in which people believe that their vote has no impact. Instead, elites behind the scenes are putting on a show of democracy and representation. A recently released poll from Pew Research, though, shows how Americans instead view most federal agencies favorably (save the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Education), while accounting for partisan identification.
Through an online survey in March of 2023, Pew saw that Americans continue to view 14/16 federal agencies in a positive light, with 11 having net positive ratings of 15 or more percentage points (see figure 1). The three most positively rated agencies, the National Park Service, the USPS, and NASA, though, have very uncontroversial goals and do not often arise as actors in political discussions. Indeed, only the two agencies mentioned above, the IRS and Department of Education, had a net negative favorability, and their missions have been increasingly political over the years.
Once the survey results are divided on partisan identification lines, it becomes evident that party affiliation and ideology inform the respondents’ views of their agencies (figure 2). Democrats and independents who lean Democrat view all 16 agencies favorably, although some are more favorably viewed (e.g., National Parks with 84%) than others (e.g., IRS with 53%). Republicans, though, did view more federal agencies negatively than the Democrats, especially the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Indeed, they only see six out of sixteen in a positive light. Pew noted in the article that this distrust of institutions has grown since they last conducted this survey by telephone, showing that some conservatives have begun to ally with the Radical Right (Delange). This “Radical Right” prevents conservatives from allying with more center left parties or organizations and pulls apart the center on both sides. Conservatives, as defined by Lipset, are not the same as the Radical Right. While conservatives wish to conserve the good of institutions, the Radical Right believes that institutions are fundamentally damaged and must be destroyed. They are also willing to abandon the democratic principles which conservatives so ardently defend. The distrust of agencies like the EPA is shown in Arlie Hochschild’s book, Strangers in their Own Land. Hochschild is able to effectively discern what people in rural Creole communities believe about some of these agencies: namely that the regulators cause the economic problems and are not welcome, but also that when they are asked to help they fail to do so. Combined with the value of small government and self-reliance, these people see the entitlement programs as taking from the hard workers and giving to those who do not deserve the help. Streeck also analyzes how anti-government sentiment arises, stating that increasing inequality causes anti-government and anti-tax ideals. Once people become dissuaded with the government and its institutions, as seen in the survey, their participation lessens and thus democratic erosion occurs. This literature is integral in understanding why such a divide has occurred between the left and right and the institutions which govern the United States.
Pew’s poll regarding popular views on US federal institutions is key to understanding the partisan nature of the US and how partisan identification influences the people’s views of the government. However, while partisanship did affect which agencies were viewed better, both Democrats and Republicans saw government organizations such as the Postal Service and NASA favorably. These similarities show that not all hope is lost for less polarization in the country.
Found this article very interesting, especially as bureaucracies have become increasingly politicized over the past few years. It seems to me that every 5 years, a bureaucratic organization becomes the heart of a national political debate. During COVID, it was the CDC, and in the early 1970s, it was the CIA. But the growing negative opinion on the right in America, especially regarding the CDC and IRS, is quite frightening. I personally think that many bureaucracies have lost power over the past two or three decades. It annoys me that the IRS continues to be underfunded despite an increasing level of income inequality in the US, and organizations like the CIA, with its horrendous track record, have received a pay raise. Do you think that bureaucracies in the American government will become more or less powerful in the future? If they do become more powerful, which organizations do you think will receive more funding?