March 18, 2012 at 4:20PM
by Jim DiPeso
Americans don't like regulation. By a hefty margin of 12 points, a recent Pew Research Center poll showed, a majority believes that government regulation of business does more harm than good.
Except a significant majority of Americans want to strengthen environmental protection regulations or at least keep them as they are. Same for car safety and efficiency regulations. And workplace health and safety regulations. And food production and packaging regulations. And prescription drug regulations.
So, what's a confused politician supposed to do? Attack regulations as a socialist plot or demand that the government slam its boot on the necks of industry greedheads?
What they can do is understand that most voters are not the monochromatic simpletons that ideologues on both sides of the aisle treat them as. People can have complex, measured views on public policy issues that resist easy categorization. Answers to polling questions depend mightily on how those questions are asked. Words matter. Different words in different orders elicit different emotions and trip different breakers in our mental circuits.
Here are the details from the Pew research:
Over the past two decades, the public's general view has shifted back and forth in response to two contrary propositions: 1) Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good, and 2) Government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest.
Majorities in favor of the first proposition peaked at 54 percent in the mid 1990s, plunged to a low of 36 percent shortly after the turn of the present century, and now stands at 52 percent. In contrast, majorities favoring the second proposition followed an obverse track: peaking at 54 percent shortly after the turn of the present century and hitting a low of 40 percent this year, beating the low of 41 percent notched in the mid 1990s.
When you get beyond general propositions and ask about specifics, however, views shift dramatically. Different words elicit different reactions. Take environmental protection, for example. Fifty percent of those who responded to Pew's most recent survey want to strengthen environmental regulations. Another 29 percent want to keep them as they are. Only 17 percent favor reducing environmental regulations.
To be sure, there are significant partisan differences on the environment. Compared to the overall figures, a higher percentage of Democrats want environmental rules strengthened and a higher percentage of Republicans want them reduced. Even so, the percentage of Republicans who want rollbacks is a distinct minority of 36 percent. The numbers for independents, the gatekeepers to Congress and the White House, are closest to the overall results.
Pew also has found that voters' response to specific regulations hasn't changed much since 1995. Large majorities support either strengthening regulations or keeping them as they are.
What are lessons to be drawn from these startling results? A reasonable conclusion is that a goodly number of Americans are generally skeptical about government, a belief deeply rooted in America's political chromosomes. Yet when they think about tangible matters that affect their everyday lives, Americans see the value of standards that keep the air and water clean, and that keep food, drugs, cars, and workplaces safe.
Most Americans are pragmatic most of the time. If only politicians were so.