Michael Hansen, age 45, is not alone in thinking that national politics has become "almost like a slow-motion car wreck." Every week brings another seeming crisis from Washington, D.C.—the congressional showdown over the continuation of funding for the Department of Homeland Security was just the latest. It's enough to turn off ordinary Americans from the down-to-the-wire negotiations and theatrics.
"After 10 years of paying attention to politics, I just prefer state and local government," says Hansen, an independent voter who works in food sales and lives in Idaho, just outside of Sun Valley. "I think local and state politicians actually listen more. They have to live within the same rules that they create."
The most recent results of the 22nd Heartland Monitor poll, sponsored by Alllstate and National Journal, bear out Hansen's assessment of who is best suited to lead the U.S. Years of federal gridlock and dysfunction have left the public favoring state and local institutions over the federal government as the places best equipped to offer solutions to the country's ongoing economic and social challenges.
And federal government? Well, it just leaves people wanting more, according to the polling data. Of the 1,000 American adults surveyed, just 26 percent said that national-level institutions were making progress, compared to the 64 percent who favored the state and local levels. This conclusion cuts across the lines of gender, education, socioeconomics, and even different regions of the country. In short, Americans are fed up with the sniping and paralysis at the federal level and instead are turning their attention to local governments and groups for solutions.
"Changes on the national level haven't affected me," explains 22-year-old Hailey Kenkel, a Democrat and graduate student from Maryville, Missouri. "I don't know how people are supposed to make big changes with how hard Congress makes it."
The preference for governance that is closer to home carries across people of various ages and genders. Sixty-seven percent of men favored state and local institutions over national ones, compared to the breakdown among women of 61 percent for local and state level versus 27 percent for national. Poll participants who identified as Republicans expressed some of the least regard for leadership at the national level. Just 14 percent of Republicans said the national level was marching ahead toward its goals; Republicans, who have long advocated for a smaller footprint for the federal government, overwhelmingly favored the activity of state and local institutions.
But not all poll respondents disliked national-level institutions and leadership in such an extreme fashion. The youngest generation, combined with the 60- to 64-year-olds, expressed the greatest amount of hope in progress at the national level. Thirty-one percent of adults ages 18 to 29 favored national institutions over local ones, while 34 percent of adults ages 60 to 64 preferred the national level.
Democrats also viewed the national and local divide in a less-skewed way, with 44 percent of them favoring national-level leadership and 48 percent preferring local and state. African Americans were the only group to praise progress at the national level more than progress at the state level; 50 percent of them preferred national-level leadership and institutions, compared to 43 percent who preferred state and local.
That's the stand of 60-year-old Waverly Bodden, an African American who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Bodden, a Democrat with some college under her belt, works as a home healthcare aide. She appreciates the federal government, she says, for its large-scale policies such as the Affordable Care Act. "People who have not had health insurance for so many years have now been able to get it," she says. She faults some states for the lack of progress across the country—for dragging their heels in setting up healthcare exchanges as part of the Affordable Care Act and, in her home state of Florida, for not taking greater care of the poor, homeless, or hungry people. "There are lots of people down here not working and begging for food. You see them with a cup begging for money," she says.
The polling did not just show the lack of faith in national institutions and leadership; it also shows that people increasingly feel that the best solutions for the country's problems will come from local communities, state governments, and institutions. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said that state and local institutions—from governments to businesses to community groups and volunteers—offer the best new ideas because they were closer to the problems, more adaptable, and had a greater stake in finding solutions. Just 22 percent of respondents thought the federal government and big business were better equipped to solve the country's challenges.
To varying degrees, that attitude remained constant across gender lines, age, race, and party affiliation—reflecting respondents' strong preference for state and local institutions and solutions. "The federal government is too big and too slow. I think it needs to be cut down," says Luke Roberts, a 30-year-old Republican from Littleton, Colorado, "I just think that less is more right now with the federal government."
Overwhelmingly, poll respondents said that state and local governments, nonprofits, and institutions were best equipped to handle the majority of problems that the country faced: everything from making neighborhoods more attractive places to live to improving education, helping poor people, and developing new products and services to create jobs. Respondents even believe that fair regulation of businesses would fare better under local and state oversight, according to the polling data.
The lone arena where respondents thought that the federal government could do a better job was in improving the environment and finding new ways to save energy. Fifty-one percent of people surveyed thought that national institutions would do a better job on this front than state and local institutions.
The people who still held onto the greatest faith in the power of the federal government, national nonprofits, and major businesses included Democrats; they still believed that national-level groups could best solve problems such as improving wages; creating jobs, regulating businesses; and protecting the environment. African Americans also continued to believe in the power of national-level leadership in improving all policies, except for making neighborhoods more desirable places to live.
Still, for the majority of the Americans surveyed, the federal government, major businesses, and national nonprofits were no longer the most fertile places for leadership and solutions. That's a surprising data point to consider as Republicans begin their control of Congress and as both parties look ahead to the next presidential election. It shows the extent to which people across demographic groups are turning away from the federal government, including people like the Hansen, who doesn't even adhere to a particular political party.
"I can't say whether I'm a liberal or conservative," he says. "There's a lot less conflict at the state and local level. People are not just toeing a hard line or refusing to work together."