William Galston

D.C. Elites and ‘Real Americans’ Are More Similar Than You’d Think

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A recent Politico poll has opened up “D.C. elites” to yet another round of criticism. They’re so unlike normal Americans, you see. Forty-nine percent of them think the country is heading in the right direction (versus 27 percent of the general population), and 44 percent think the economy is heading in the right direction (versus 24 percent of the overall public). Only 6 percent of the elites think the downturn has affected them more than most Americansunsurprisingly, considering that 45 percent of them enjoy household incomes of $150,000 or more (versus 3 percent of the public). Nor is it surprising that 68 percent of elites think the Tea Party is an evanescent fad (versus 26 percent of the general population) or that only 23 percent think that “family values” are a very important issue (versus 62 percent), or that elites say they care less about immigration, taxes, Social Security, and ethics in government than does the public.

But the survey doesn’t tell such a simple storyits more surprising findings have attracted less attention, probably because they don’t fit into the conventional narrative of-out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway elites whose views are wholly out of sync with those of “real Americans.” But consider the following:

· 52 percent of elites think the economy/jobs is the most important issue facing the country (general public48 percent)

· 49 percent think the war in Afghanistan will not succeed (general public48 percent)

· 64 percent think the political system in Washington is broken (general public72 percent)

· 51 percent are “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with President Obama’s response to the oil spill (general public61 percent)

Or take an issuewho will end up footing the bill for cleaning up the oil spill?where one would expect a big split between hot populist suspicions and cool elite assessments. 69 percent of the public thinks that the taxpayers will get stuck holding the bag. But so do 59 percent of D.C. elites, despite repeated assurances from the president on down that BP is fully responsible! Similarly, 52 percent of the American people believe that despite the recent catastrophe, offshore drilling should continue. But so do 49 percent of D.C. elites. Or what about climate change, often regarded as a distinctively upscale concern? Only 31 percent of the people think that climate change is a very important issue. The corresponding figure for D.C. elites is ... 33 percent.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” Based on the evidence in the Politico survey, he was on to something. If the American people throw stones at their government, most of the projectiles will hit a mirror.  

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