ARGUMENTS over whether the American public is ``swinging to the right,'' to the left, or ``returning to the center'' have gone on almost continuously during the past 15 years. While right and left have an abundance of meanings, more than anything else in this context they raise the issue of the public's confidence in governmental action. In the current presidential campaign, a common interpretation holds that Americans are again becoming more receptive to government - moving back to the center - after an era of Reaganism that was ushered in by their finding the state more problem than solution. These arguments ignore what the public has actually been saying. A lot of change has occurred since the early 1970s in politicians' and scholars' thinking about government. Almost nothing has changed, however, in the general public's views on these matters. Indeed, most Americans don't see the issue as one of either affirming or rejecting governmental action.
Last spring the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center asked respondents to locate themselves on a scale: Choosing one end affirmed that the national government should do everything possible to improve the living standards of all poor Americans; selecting the other end was to insist that this is not government's responsibility, that each person should take care of himself. Twenty-nine percent put themselves in the first camp, 24 percent in the latter; 44 percent, however, put themselves at a midpoint, labeled ``Agree with both positions.'' Other surveys show the same thing. Pollsters - and politicians - keep trying to get the public to declare themselves as pro- or anti-government. The public keeps answering that they are neither, or both - or, more precisely, that they don't see why the issue must be cast in such terms.
Americans have always been pretty pragmatic on questions of government's role, not seeing state action as inherently good or bad, but rather judging on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, role-of-government issues became more salient in the 1960s as a result of the vast expansion of domestic government. The huge postwar increase in national wealth - which saw real, inflation-controlled income double in just a quarter century - had produced an explosion in expectations. The purely material side of this was that individuals came to expect a lot more goods and services than they ever had before - much of this ``more'' from the private sector, but some through government.
The public that thus welcomed more governmental services had no special liking for government. It endorsed more government not because it wanted more government but because it wanted more things that government could provide, in just the same way it wanted more that the private sector could furnish. Moreover, the state that was doing so many things that the public wanted was also doing many things it disliked, or doing them in a way it disliked. The bigger government grew as a service-provider for individuals, the more frequently it banged into these same individuals - taxing them more, regulating more, simply making more-visible mistakes.
``We Americans have always been ambivalent about government,'' former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker remarked recently in his new role as chairman of the National Commission on Public Service. In an age when government was doing a lot, however, this old ambivalence took on new political significance. The Democrats had gained politically in the 1930s by championing governmental initiatives, such as social security, that quickly won widespread public approval. The Republicans gained politically in the 1970s when the sense of governmental actions as problems became as vivid as the view of government as the provider of desired services - leading to the Reagan election in 1980.
In the 1980s, Americans have not changed their minds on any of the central elements of the role-of-government issue. Moreover, it is hard to see where any change might now occur, because the public's backing for government-provided services and its unease over government-induced problems are both so highly developed. A survey taken by the Roper Organization in October 1986 found that 80 percent said cuts in government social programs threaten the American dream - and 88 percent said that government interference in people's lives threaten those same aspirations. Americans are not likely anytime soon to endorse large departures from the governmental status quo.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.