Americans mistrust services provided by the public sector, even though they increasingly rely on government programs. Amy Lerman finds that citizens perceive public services as inefficient and lower quality, causing them to misperceive good services as private and opt out of public services. Suzanne Mettlerfinds that Americans increasingly rely on government for their income. But because programs are hidden, their views of government don’t become more positive even if they directly benefit. Both agree government is facing a reputation crisis, even where it is succeeding.

Studies: Good Enough for Government Work and The Government-Citizen Disconnect

Interviews: Amy Lerman, University of California, Berkeley; Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University 


Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics; why Americans dislike government even when it works. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. 

Americans notoriously mistrust government and services provided by the public sector, even though they are increasingly relying on government programs. That makes the public skeptical of our collective ability to solve problems, looking instead to the more lauded private sector. Today I talk with Amy Lerman of the University of California, Berkeley, about her new Chicago book, Good Enough for Government Work. She finds that citizens perceive public services as inefficient and lower quality, causing them to misperceive any good services as private, and opting out of public systems.

I also talk to Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, about her new Russell Sage book, The Government-Citizen Disconnect. She finds that Americans increasingly rely on government for their income. But because programs are hidden, their views of government don’t become more positive even when they’ve directly benefited. Lerman sees government, now facing our reputation crisis, not unlike those in business scandals.

Lerman:We’re really in a reputation crisis, which goes beyond what we think of as the usual low-trust in government, and is really this downward spiral, a cycle of public opinion that is self-reinforcing, and that ultimately becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy about the nature of government and the ability of government to solve social problems. So I think of this as being a lot like a reputation crisis in the private sector, which is really where this framework comes from. There’s this model in business, or in the private sector, about a reputation crisis, where some event or series of events gives a particular company of reputation hit. So something happens and people start to doubt the quality of what the company produces, or the ability of the company to produce high quality goods. And then people start to have this perception of this company and they start to defect from the company, right? They start to go to its competitors, which then means that the company has to cut costs, or cut corners, which leads to an objective reduction in the quality of what that company can provide.

And I think that that’s the starting point for what I think of as the public reputation crisis. So large groups of citizens have come to hold really negative perceptions of government. These beliefs are common knowledge. They’re widespread beliefs that what government does, what it produces, its programs are really just not as high quality as what you can get in the private sector. For some liberals, they might still be worth doing, but they’re never going to be what the private sector can produce.

And those perceptions are really resistant to change. So even when you give people new information about the quality or effectiveness of what government can do, these negative beliefs about government are really persistent. And so what happens is those people who hold particularly negative perceptions of government start to opt out when there are alternatives, particularly private alternatives. So when given the opportunity, individuals who think government is low quality, or inefficient, will choose to move from public services to private alternatives when that’s feasible for them. And of course when large numbers of people opt out of public programs, the result can be a decline in the objective quality of public provision.

Grossmann: Mettler finds that although Americans don’t like government, they’re relying upon it more than ever.

Mettler: There is a paradox in American life today. On the one hand as is pretty well known, Americans don’t like government. They don’t trust the federal government in Washington to do what is right, most or all of the time. And you know this has been a trend that’s been on the rise for decades. They don’t feel that government officials are responsive to people like them. On any measure you look at about attitudes about government, generally, people have bad attitudes and they’ve been getting worse. And yet, at the same time, ordinary citizens rely upon government more than ever for social benefits. By which I mean, public policies that help people to pay for health care, to go to college, to afford housing, and to get through times of unemployment and so on. When you add all of these together, the average person is using plenty of government programs, but at the same time not liking government. So that’s what about the Government-Citizen disconnect.

Grossmann: Lerman says it’s broader than declining trust in government or concerned with the size of government. It’s about perceived inefficiency.

Lerman: We have now decades of research on declining trust in government and perceptions of government that are increasingly negative and the deeply-rooted pessimism about what government can do, and government polarization. And I think the primary areas that have been the focus of this research is really thinking about things like partisan polarization, right? That people see government as increasingly a place where people are just in their partisan camps. And I think one of the really striking things about the data that I’ve looked at for this book is that, disagreement over what size government should be, has always been really, a big divide in American life. And certainly, when we think about the big party arguments of conservatives wanting small government, and Democrats and Liberals wanting government to be more robust. That’s absolutely a part of what drives the negative views of government that I’m looking at.

But public opinion isn’t uni-dimensional. And so, it’s about disagreement about what government should be doing, its priorities, what kinds of problems it should be focusing on solving, but then also what it’s actually capable of achieving. It’s competence. It’s ability to do anything, even if we believe that government should solve problems. The question becomes, is it actually capable of doing that? And I think it’s this second dimension that hasn’t received as much focus as the first, the priorities dimension. So there’s this great study from Pew Research where they asked Americans, “What is the bigger problem with American government? Is it that it has the wrong priorities or is it that it isn’t efficient at solving problems?” And a majority of people chose an efficiency, right? It isn’t that it’s not focusing on the right things or that when it does things, that those things aren’t what we would like them to do. It’s that even if we want it to solve problems, it just isn’t capable of doing that in a reasonable way.

And what I think is the most striking is that 39 percent of Republicans also chose this inefficiency over priorities as the bigger problem with American government. And actually, when people are forced to choose what they think should be the highest priority, the Americans really are focusing on improvement. So in this same study, when they asked Americans, “What should be the highest priority for improving government? Should it be reducing the scale of government? Making it smaller”, which we think of as the traditional conservative position, or improving its operations, right? Improving its efficiency, reducing waste, increasing its competence. Sixty two percent of Americans chose improving operations. And non-trivial proportions of Republicans, about 40 percent, and Conservatives, about 45 percent, also prioritized better government rather than simply smaller government.

And the conclusion, I think is a really important one, which is, it’s not necessarily that Conservatives and Republicans want smaller government because they believe ideologically that government shouldn’t be doing as much. They also believe government is not capable of doing things even if they had wanted government to do those things. And so I think that second piece, that driver of small government, really deserves our attention.

Grossmann:From local garbage collection to Obamacare, Lerman finds that people misperceived good public services as private, and see public services as worse than private.

Lerman:This evidence really is at the heart of what I think is going on. And so I choose policy examples, trying to be really careful to think about different dimensions of the political world. And so throughout the book, I use lots of different kinds of policies. Because part of what I’m trying to argue is that this is a very general and generalizable phenomenon. So I talk about cases that are in the national political world like Medicare, others that are local like sanitation and waste management. I talk about some really contentious and polarized policies, the obvious one being the affordable care act, which comes up quite frequently in the book. While other policy cases that I talk about are things like highway infrastructure and street repair that are much less polarized and contentious.

Lerman:I talk about some cases where Democrats have generally been the champions of more government activities. So things like public health and public education. Other cases are domains where Republicans are the ones who’ve backed larger public spending like prisons. And then some policies that have already experienced a great deal of outsourcing and privatization, things like garbage collection, where many localities are using private contractors, and other areas that are primarily provided by government like policing, which though not exclusively public, we still think of as very much a product of public sector provision.

And so in all of these different kinds of cases, I’m trying to think about this question of people mistakenly misperceiving services as private. And the argument that I’m making is that there is what I called reputation-motivated reasoning, which is the idea that people aren’t misperceiving services because they have no understanding of what government does. And this is clear from decades of research in political science that most Americans have very little information about what government is doing. Americans by and large, are busy with other things and so don’t have a lot of information about what specifically, government policies look like or how government programs are administered.

But that’s one piece of the puzzle. But the other is this reputation problem. And so what I find is that when individuals perceive a program or policy as being high-quality, they’re systematically more likely to be perceive that policy or program as being privately provided. And the reverse is also true. When they see a program or policy as low quality, they’re more likely to perceive that, whether it is publicly or privately provided, as a public program. And this is true no matter how it’s actually provided. And it’s also independent of the objective quality of public and private service provision.

So I show through a series of survey experiments where we give people information about programs or policies, and we then ask them whether they remember if this was a public or private policy. We also do it the opposite way where we give people information about whether a program is public or private. And we ask them to describe the quality of that service. And what we find is even if we don’t give people the missing information, they fill in the blanks according to what their general perceptions are of the quality of public versus private revision.

What happens is, when individuals perceive a program or service to be low-quality, they assume it’s provided by government. The result is that this sometimes moves people in a really counter-intuitive direction. So someone who receives a public service that he or she perceives to be a really high quality, is likely to mistakenly believe that she’s receiving a high-quality private service, because of this reputation-motivated reasoning. And as a consequence, she then becomes more supportive of having that service turned over to a private firm. She becomes more supportive of privatization in that area. And so it becomes this cycle where people, even if they’re getting high quality public services, because they’re misperceiving them as high quality private services, they become more supportive of privatization.

Grossmann:But compared to Lerman, Mettler found that people do like lots of government policies.

Mettler: I’m very excited about Amy’s book project, and I think that our findings are quite complimentary. But one thing I did find is, in the survey that I did, I asked people about their use of 21 different social policies. And for any policy that a person’s indicated that they had used at some point in time, then I asked them a bunch of followup questions. And included in that were questions about the value of the program in their life, and how they felt that it was run and so on. And people evaluated programs very positively, particularly, the programs they themselves have used. Elsewhere in the survey, I asked people some questions about policies, generally, whether or not they had used them. And not surprisingly, given public discourse, people rated welfare poorly, particularly if they had never used it.

But I think that means that the plot thickens somewhat, that people like these policies. But I would agree with Amy, that government overall has a reputation crisis.

Grossmann:Mettler says that people don’t notice all the policies that benefit the middle class.

Mettler: There are two things that were really surprising, I think, in the data. So one is, I think when most people think about government social policies, they think, “Well those are policies that help poor people.” Well when you look at the full array of government social policy, it turns out that we all benefit from these. And we all benefit at rather comparable rates when you add up all the different kinds of policies that people use. And so what I would say is, “We are all beneficiaries now.” When you look at low income people, of course they’re more likely to be using means-tested policies. But high-income people are likely to be using policies that are not means tested.

And so any way that I looked at the data by all sorts of of group divisions, in fact people had more in common than what separated them. The other thing that was striking to me is that I think there’s an assumption that because Democrats have been more supportive of social policies, that probably Democrats are much more likely to be using social policies, and that States that are what we’d call “Blue States”, would be using them at higher rates than so-called “Red States”.

And that’s just not the case. It’s not true geographically, by state governments. In fact, there are plenty of States where Republicans dominate, and in fact people are using government social policies for a pretty high percentage of their average income. And then when you look at individuals, Democrats are more likely to be using social policies that are what I call, “Visible”, things like food stamps for example, and unemployment insurance and so on. But Republicans are using equivalent numbers of social policies on average. They’re just more likely to be using policies that are hidden in the tax code. So things like the home mortgage interest deduction, and 529 accounts to help pay for kids’ college, et cetera. And so overall, people at both ends of the partisan divide use a fairly comparable number of policies.

Grossmann:Her work builds out of an effort to see why today’s programs aren’t having the same positive effects on views of government as the old popular programs like the GI Bill.

Mettler: The project itself grew out of my work on the GI Bill. So I wrote a book called Soldiers to Citizens, about the GI Bill, in which I found that people had, in the middle of the 20th century, through the GI Bill and other policies as well, were having very positive experiences of government. And in the case of the GI Bill, it’s for their greater civic engagement and political participation. And so when I wrapped up that project, I was starting to think more about contemporary politics, and I was really intrigued to find out what was that relationship today between people’s use of social policies, and their attitudes about government participation in politics.

Grossmann:Like Mettler, Lerman finds that people don’t connect their own benefits to government.

Lerman:Suzanne’s work has been incredibly influential, and in my thinking and in the thinking of a lot of people who are trying to understand this important set of questions. And I don’t think there’s conflict between what we’re saying. I think coming at the same set of questions from different angles. One of the things that I think is really important about her work really is this focus on how people think about the benefits that they receive. And I find really similar results that people are really unwilling or incapable of recognizing when they are personally benefiting from high quality programs. I think our explanations differ somewhat, in why people are resistant to recognizing what they’re benefiting from when it comes to government programs.

But I think what comes through really clearly in Suzanne’s work is that there is this need to help people connect the benefits that are being provided from government, with their own lives. And one of the ways that we do that is by focusing on this general social good. I think Suzanne’s work really emphasizes that people are able to see when government is benefiting other people, and not willing to see or able to see when government is benefiting them. And similarly, I focus a lot on the ability of people to see the costs of government, and not as much to focus on the ways in which government has many, really successful programs.

If we think about infrastructure or public health, the ability of government to collect our trash every week, the World Health Organization and the World Bank both described this as one of the really critical aspects of development. And in some ways, because in the United States we’re so used to these things functioning well, we don’t even recognize them as things that are public goods. And so helping citizens to see all of the positive ways that government influences their lives is a really integral part of solving the problem. And I think Suzanne’s work, and my own book really speak to that.

Grossmann: Both agree that successful conservative messaging against government played a big role in the views they’re seeing.

Mettler: Attitudes about government have been heading downhill since around Watergate and Vietnam, et cetera. But I think what has been operating in particular, over the past few decades, is really a war on government. I think that conservatives have tried hard to discredit government, because by doing so, then you can make the argument for low taxes and less regulation. So I think that if we try to explain, how is it that people’s experiences could be so out of sync with their attitudes? So people’s experiences are, they use government policies and they like them for the most part. They speak highly of them, they rate them quite well, and yet overall they rate government poorly. How do you explain that disconnect? I think that that is what’s been going on that explains it. So there’s been elite discourse and organizations that have worked hard to promote that anti-government perspective, and people have absorbed it even though it’s out of sync with their own experiences.

Lerman: I actually trace the roots of what I think of as the modern reputation crisis back to the 1930s, to the new deal policies that are launched, then World War II that necessitates government intervention in the economy. And at that period, elites generally are championing the public sector as having a really important role to play. But that is also when you start to see a real intellectual libertarianism, who are seeing this expansion of government as deeply problematic. And even into the 1940s and 50s, this intellectual libertarianism starts to gain influence in Republican circles.

And so, Barry Goldwater talks about government overreach and incompetence in 1964, and the message really resonates and provides conservatives and Republicans with the language to critique government policies and a framework for thinking ideologically about why government policies and programs are deeply problematic. And so there are certainly historians who say, “We think of Ronald Reagan as being the anti-government program president.” But that actually, Jimmy Carter in 1976 campaigns with lines like, “Government cannot solve our problems. It can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision.” Many historians think of Carter really as the first president who popularizes this rhetoric, that actually comes from this much earlier libertarian intellectual concern about whether government is capable of being at the root of problem-solving.

Grossmann:“The reputation crisis is harder to solve”, Lerman says, “because politicians have incentives to make it worse.”

Lerman:Private companies, when they face a real persistent reputation crisis, it would never go decades the way it has in the public sector. Private companies facing this same set of challenges would run a significant risk of eventually going out of business. And that’s just not going to happen for government. So you can put the party in power out of business, but changes in the composition of elected officials are not going to successfully repair the standing of government. And I think some of the other big challenges are corporate leaders, they have an incentive to improve the reputation of their company. But government leaders often have an incentive to denigrate the reputation of government.

Certainly, there are many people who have made this argument that about Conservative legislators who can emphasize the incompetence or the waste of government in order to move forward an ideological agenda around small government. They have a, a real incentive to push this poor reputation of government. But even Democrats might find reason, and I think we have seen this in recent years, to describe government dysfunction as being part of the root of persistent inequality. And this allows them then to crane claim credit when they can improve the situation or to push new legislation as a way of resolving social problems.

And criticizing government can help establish the outsider persona. So as government has increasingly established this swamp reputation, nobody wants to be seen as part of the swamp. So there’s this idea that new ideas, or outsiders, can be strategically useful persona for politicians to take on in order to attract voters who are disgruntled and frustrated with the current state of government.

Grossmann: Mettler looks at Kentucky to find out how a state could be simultaneously gaining lots of government benefits while moving rightward, politically.

Mettler: I was really struck when I started looking at the data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and then producing these maps, that showed that lots of States that are Republican strongholds are using a government benefits at really high rates. And I focused in on Kentucky because I think it really epitomizes this paradox. So if you go back to the 1970s and 80s, Kentucky is sending Democrats to Congress. And they tend to be moderate Democrats. And some of them in fact, for people like Carl Perkins, who’s working on behalf of progressive social policies. But then things began to change in Kentucky once you get to the early 1990s, where they start electing moderate Republicans instead. And Mitch McConnell actually used to be a moderate Republican, and they increasingly then as the 1990s went on, moved toward electing more Conservative members of the Republican party, and today, lots of members of the Freedom Caucus.

But at the same time, as all of this [inaudible 00:26:08] they’re sending very conservative folks to Congress now. At the same time, the average person in Kentucky, the amount of their income that comes from the federal government increased from 10% of their income in 1970, 23% as of just a few years ago, 2015. And in some counties, it’s a much higher rate of average income that comes from government social transfers. Over 40%, where Congressman Andy Barr, for example, is the Congressman. He’s someone who’s a proponent of making food stamps contingent work requirements and time limits. And I could give you all sorts of examples along those lines.

So I’m going into some detail here about this one state that raises the question for me, “How did this happen?” And I’ve looked somewhat at politics in Kentucky. I think that the Republican party there, under McConnell’s leadership, has been quite ingenious in directing voters attention to other issues and saying to people, “We’ve lost jobs in the coal industry here, because of the Democrats, because of their environmental policies.”

Grossmann:One reason is that people who know that they benefit from government are less likely to participate in politics.

Mettler: What I find is that people who are lower income and use lots of means tested policies tend to have pretty positive attitudes about government, and they tend to want social policies to be strengthened overall. And yet, they’re much less likely to participate in politics for reasons that are well known by scholars of political participation. They’re less likely to be mobilized by political leaders to vote. They’re less likely to be registered for a variety of reasons. They might be moving more from place-to-place, et cetera. And so they’re less likely to participate.

Whereas, higher income people, people who are higher up the socioeconomic scale are more likely to be using these submerged policies. They’re less likely to be thinking that government really helps them, and they’re less likely to be motivated to vote because they think that these policies should be strengthened. But they show up to vote. They have plenty of capacity to participate. They’re motivated to participate. They’re more likely to be mobilized by groups, and for all of these reasons, they show up.

Grossmann:Trump is accelerating the trends, Mettler finds, but also causing a backlash when it comes to support for Obamacare.

Mettler: Trump is most likely accelerating these trends in some ways. When I looked at, for example, the States that voted for Trump, there were more States that had already adopted expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, than those that had not, that were among the States that flipped for him. So that was interesting. On the other hand, I am finding something new in other research that I’m doing with Larry Jacobs and Lin Xu, which is about the Affordable Care Act. We have data we’ve been collecting since 2010. Every two years, we’ve gone back to the same people and asked them all sorts of questions about the Affordable Care Act.

And what we are finding, a variety of things, but one of the things that’s interesting is that under this period of threat to the ACA, by 2016 to 2018, when finally you had a Republican in the White House, and dominating both chambers of Congress, so the bill could have been actually repealed, and the law could have been repealed, and it could certainly be weakened administratively, that what happened at that point was that in fact, finally, Republicans who had been very opposed to it in the years before that, began to soften their opposition. As did other groups of people who had not been as enthusiastic about it previously. So it seemed that once the bill was finally under threat of being on a chopping block, that that switched attitudes.

And then the effect that had on the 2018 election was that it made Republicans less likely to vote on the basis of their views about health care, whereas Democrats became all the more mobilized to vote on the basis of healthcare because they were so worried that the Affordable Care Act would be terminated or weakened. So there might be some unintended consequences of what Trump and the Republicans are doing at this stage, if they try to take things too far, where I think people will wake up and realize, “We’re actually gonna use benefits that we rely upon.”

Grossmann: But Lerman says it will still be difficult to get Republicans to recognize Obamacare’s benefits. She finds in an experiment, that you can get Republicans to sign up for it only if you make it look like a private service.

Lerman:We ran a bunch of experiments around the Affordable Care Act. So we first started by looking at a survey about support for the ACA. The ACA is a really interesting case because it’s incredibly polarized my party. So anybody who’s looked at public opinion data on the Affordable Care Act know that there are huge gulfs in support for the Affordable Care Act, by both party and ideology. But what I find is that even when we think about accounting for a political partisanship and other factors that might predict support for the ACA, citizens’ perceptions of government about its general efficiency and competence are also really important determinants of whether they support or oppose the ACA. And in fact, if we just emphasize the public aspects of the ACA, as opposed to describing it in language that emphasizes the role of private insurers, or public-private partnerships, it can decrease support for the ACA, particularly among those who hold these negative general perceptions of government. And it also decreases the extent to which people are interested in making use of the ACA marketplaces.

So we ran an experiment where we found that if you emphasize the private aspects of the ACA, Republicans and Conservatives are actually more likely to enroll. Conversely, if you emphasize the public sector aspects, if you make it clear that the ACA marketplaces are part of this government reform activity around health insurance, Republicans and conservatives are less likely to want to take advantage of the insurance that’s provided through the ACA marketplaces. And I think that’s a really important piece of this public reputation crisis. Because of course, if people select out of things like insurance pools, then we have to be concerned that the ability of the insurance pool to manage risk is a threat. And the same is true in other policy domains.

So if we think about public schools, and I find similar results in public schools. Parents who are more pessimistic about the quality of public schools, and who are generally more pessimistic about the quality of government provision, are more likely to report that they send their kids to private schools. And we can think of all kinds of ways that those individual decisions to opt out of the common sector, of public sector programs, is going to threaten the ability of those programs to provide for everyone.

Grossmann: And she sees Trump continuing the pattern, taking advantage of people’s antigovernment attitudes.

Lerman:The ability to strategically use this anti-government rhetoric is a really key part of the Trump brand. And thinking about the 2016 election, describing government as a swamp, right? Needing to drain the swamp. I think this is something that resonates with a lot of Americans, and not just Conservative Americans. The idea that Washington DC and bureaucrats and members of Congress are disconnected from the lives of Americans, and that there’s a real need to change what’s happening there, resonates with people on the right and the left, in a way that can be used strategically by people who are running for office, and trying to make change in Washington.

And there was a great op ed in the New York Times. The title was something like, “Please stop calling DC a swamp. It’s offensive to swamps.” There’s just this real sense that government is broken. And I think that’s a message that is really persistent because it works. It resonates with Americans across the ideological spectrum. And Trump has used that, persistently, and in ways that both help move forward a Conservative agenda, but also continue to deepen this crisis of reputation that we’re seeing in government.

Grossmann: Mettler says the long pattern is that Democrats have succeeded on protecting their policies, without successfully selling the role of government.

Mettler: What’s amazing is that during a long period of conservative attacks on government, from the 1980s to the present, Liberals and Moderates have worked together to effectively protect government social policies. And that’s quite an achievement. And yet here’s, again, a paradox. They don’t receive credit for it. And I think that has to do with not getting the word out, and not being able to fight this dilemma of Americans being philosophical Conservatives. And Conservatives know how to play that up very effectively. But I also think it’s a mistake to think this is all just about marketing, and language, and the way we frame things.

I think it’s really important communicate to citizens in ways that they can trust, and through more everyday relationships. And I think the role of organizations is really important here. And that in the past, there were more organizations that were communicating to citizens how government matters for them, and that we do that less today, but we ought to be doing it more.

Grossmann:But that raises question for Democrats increasing ambitions. She says Democrats shouldn’t focus on policies that can be easily framed as big government expansions.

Mettler: My hunch is that it is not productive for Democrats to embrace programs like Medicare for all, and the green new deal to the extent that they can be framed as big government. Because as soon as they’re framed that way, then people tend to forget about all the reasons why they were in favor of the policy, and to focus on their more abstract ideas about the appropriate size of government in society. And what I would say is, my book really reinforced of finding that political scientists had, free and [inaudible 00:37:27], way back in the 1960s, that we are at one and the same time, philosophical Conservatives and utilitarian Liberals.

So when it comes to specific policies, we really like them. We like social security. We like Medicare, et cetera, et cetera. And yet when we’re asked questions, or our attention is driven by political leaders to broad concerns about the size of government, and the amount of taxes, et cetera, then we respond like Conservatives. And I think that it would become quite easy if Democrats are promoting a plan that can be framed as Vic government, for that to happen and for it to really hurt their candidacy.

Grossmann: And Lerman agrees that these public attitudes make it very hard for proposals like Medicare for all to pass or be implemented successfully.

Lerman:When we think about the huge reforms that came out of things like the new deal, it’s very hard to imagine parallels today, because people just don’t think of government as having the capacity to solve problems in that way. And so, new proposals, particularly proposals like Medicare for all, that look to replace private insurance with these public options are going to be problematic in two different ways. First is rhetorical. I think citizens are deeply resistant to the idea that government has something of high qualities to offer. And so, the way that many people see Medicare for all is not about high quality insurance. It’s about increasing access to insurance. And for people who have insurance that they like, or who have private insurance, or even just people who want private insurance because they believe it’s high quality, that’s not going to be very appealing.

So it’s going to be really hard to get traction on those kinds of proposals. But the other is a practical reality. And so coming back to the piece of the reputation crisis that I focus on in the second half of the book, which really is this opting out response. So when people have these really negative views of government, they become much more resistant to taking part in government programs. And when they have alternatives, when they see private alternatives to public sector options and they have the means and the resources to take advantage of those private options, whether it’s sending their kids to private schools or buying private insurance, they’re going to take advantage of those because they perceive those options, those private options, as being necessarily higher quality. And that has lots of downstream effects.

So opting out means people miss out on whatever benefits government is offering. So in the case of the ACA marketplaces, we saw in our research, many people choosing to go without insurance, rather than taking advantage of the benefits that were being offered through the ACA. But there are lots of other kinds of consequences. So when people opt out, it can short circuit the process of political learning. And that means that when people choose to select into private programs or services, they actually then don’t see what government can provide. So for instance, we know that many people who have Medicare are really happy with it. But if people choose not to take advantage of those social programs, then they don’t come to learn the kinds of things that, for instance, Suzanne Mettler focuses on, which is the benefits that can be provided to them ,or that already are being provided to them by government. And I think that’s really important.

Grossmann: American’s disjointed views do stand out internationally. But that’s probably a product of its policies. Mettler says the US stands out for hiding government and for its strikingly negative attitudes toward welfare.

Mettler:The submerged state does not exist to the same extent in other comparable nations. The U S welfare state looks smaller than that in European countries for example, if you only look at the direct visible programs. But once you bring in these policies, and the tax code, and those channeled through private organizations, et cetera, then we’re the comparable size. And so I think that that really makes the government citizen disconnect somewhat more complicated here. There’s also something we haven’t talked about, and that is attitudes about welfare. When I dug down into trying to explain why there’s this disconnect, the factor that became apparent again and again in all of the analysis I did, was people’s attitudes about welfare. So people who dislike welfare seem to think of it as a microcosm of government. They think that welfare is unfair, that it treats people who are non-beneficiaries unfairly. And then that must be how government itself works, a person would reason. And they dislike government as a result.And I think that the United States is more driven by those kinds of attitudes than people in comparable nations.

Grossmann:Lerman ads that public-private interconnections in our policies make it hard for citizens to learn about government and distinguish.

Lerman:The use of public private partnerships, there’s evidence that that has increased over time, that it’s actually not total privatization that has increased. It’s things like outsourcing pieces of public program implementation, it’s the melding of public and private. And in the perfect world, that creates the best of both worlds. You get the competition of private sector with the access of public sector. But it does make it increasingly difficult for citizens to figure out what’s provided publicly and what’s provided privately. And when things are more complicated, people fall back on these stereotypes much more. And the question of whether the US is unique, certainly we know that it’s not unique in terms of its embrace of privatization.

So when Reagan promised that privatization was going to bring all of these benefits to society, we saw similar language from Margaret Thatcher, who was really invested in selling state assets to the private sector. And we saw at the same time, France and Italy undertaking these big privatization efforts, and the World Bank embracing privatization for developing countries. So certainly, the embrace of privatization as a way to move the public sector to be both smaller and to move into a more efficient way of delivering programs and services is not unique to the US. But I do think there’s something about the American embrace of privatization that makes this a particularly entrenched problem in the US.

Grossmann: They’re both seeking to figure out how to solve government’s reputation crisis. Lerman is starting by looking at people opting out of public programs.

Lerman: Where do we start in rebuilding the perception that the public sector has something to offer? And I think there’s a number researchers now, who are really trying to figure this out. Unfortunately, social scientists tend to be really great at documenting the problem, and not so great at coming up with solutions. And I think that’s a direction that I would love to see this research go. How can we work to rebuild the public reputation? By helping people see the connection between government and the common good, and the ability of individuals to see the ways in which government intervenes in their lives in ways that they haven’t fully acknowledged

Grossmann:And Mettler is working to increase support for democracy overall, by seeing how it has reacted when under threat, historically.

Mettler:Over the course of working on these last couple of book projects, I became increasingly concerned about the state of American democracy, generally. And now I think a lot of people feel that way. It seems to me that if people are thinking of government as something that they’re opposed to, they’ve lost sight of the fact that government in a democracy, is supposed to be something that is a common good that we all share together. And if you don’t have that attitude, then democracy can really go awry. And I think we are facing a lot of danger to democracy today.

What I’m working on now is a book with Robert Lieberman, and what we’re doing is looking at earlier periods in American history when democracy, whatever state, whatever form of democracy existed in these earlier periods, it was in peril. It was being threatened by the politics of the time. And so we’re looking at these earlier periods to try to understand what actually happened, what features of democracy were endangered, which were actually harmed if they were? And then what were the overall threats? And then that leads us, I think, to a better understanding of today.

Grossmann:There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politicsis available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Amy Lerman and Suzanne Mettler for joining me. Please check out Good Enough for Government Work, and The Government-Citizen Disconnect, and then listen in next time.

Photo Credit: Sage Ross under CC by 3.0.