Story Highlights

  • 51% say government should not promote any set of values
  • Americans long have said government should promote traditional values
  • Americans still favor reduced government role in solving problems

PRINCETON, N.J. -- More Americans say the government should not promote any set of values (51%) than say it should promote traditional values (43%). This is the second time in the past four years Americans have tilted toward saying the government should be neutral on values. For most of the past decade, the public has been divided on what the government's role in this area should be. But even this was a shift from pre-2005, when Americans consistently favored the government's promoting traditional values.

Trend: Preferred Government Role in Promoting Values

The movement away from government upholding "traditional" values is in keeping with recent Gallup trends showing Americans becoming more liberal in their views on many specific issues, most notably same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana.

Democrats (62%) are much more likely than Republicans (39%) to say the government should not promote any set of values. Democrats have consistently been more likely to hold this view over time. But one reason Americans as a whole are more likely now than in the past to say government should not promote any set of values is that an increasing number of Republicans hold this view.

Trend: Belief That Government Should Not Favor Any Set of Values, by Political Party

The percentages have varied a bit from year to year, but the Republican trend is unmistakable. Whereas an average of 22% of Republicans from 2001-2004 thought government should remain value-neutral, this has increased to 34% since 2011.

That 12-percentage-point increase compares with an average four-point increase among independents (from 46% to 50%) and a seven-point increase among Democrats (54% to 61%) over the same time periods.

Want Gov't to Promote Traditional Values, 2015

Americans Continue to Say Gov't Should Do Less to Solve Problems

While Americans' views have shifted toward favoring a reduced government role in morality, they have maintained a preference for less government involvement in solving the country's problems. Currently, 55% say the government "is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses," while 40% believe the "government should do more to solve our country's problems." Those percentages are similar to the averages of 53% and 39%, respectively, since 1993.

Only once -- shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that spurred a rally in public support for government institutions and officeholders -- did Americans clearly favor a more active government role over a more limited one. The public was closely divided in its preferences briefly at the beginning of Bill Clinton's presidency in 1993, and favored limited government by a smaller margin from 2006-2008 near the end of George W. Bush's administration, when his approval ratings were very low.

Trend: Preferred Government Role in Solving the Nation's Problems

The relative stability in the trend for all Americans masks movement among party groups, reflecting the increasingly homogenous views on this attitude within each party. A majority of Republicans have always believed the government is doing too many things, but that percentage has grown from an average 68% in 2001-2004 to 83% since 2011. Independents have also shown an increase in this sentiment, from 49% to 58%. Meanwhile, Democrats' preference for a less active federal government has declined from an average 37% to 27%, with the change more pronounced since 2012.

Trend: Belief That Government Should Not Favor Any Set of Values, by Political Party

Implications

Americans' growing belief that the government should not favor any set of values represents a shift from the past, and is further evidence of a leftward tilt on matters of morality. That certainly creates a challenge for Republican presidential candidates heading into the next election, particularly for those who emphasize moral values issues in their campaigns. And while a values-centered campaign still would appeal to most rank-and-file Republican primary voters, a growing minority of Republicans say the government should not favor any particular values.

At the same time, Americans retain their preference for a more limited government role in solving the nation's problems, inconsistent with the preferences of the Democratic candidates. Although rank-and-file Democrats are more likely to favor government activity to solve the nation's problems than they were in the past, a solid majority of independents and the vast majority of Republicans do not.

These attitudes will help frame the 2016 election but may not decide it, as the state of the nation at that time and the candidates' backgrounds and personal characteristics will also be important. Americans' preferences for the government's role could change, at least around the margins, between now and next November. And the parties' nominees themselves could help shape Americans' views on the proper roles of government if they are able to articulate their messages in ways that resonate with the public.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 9-13, 2015, with a random sample of 1,025 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 60% cellphone respondents and 40% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how Gallup Poll Social Series works.

Gallup