The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans don’t care for Washington. New research suggests the feeling is mutual.

A pair of real Americans gaze upon the U.S. Capitol. Via Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank"> ehpien</a> , used under a Creative Commons license.

It's accepted wisdom that Americans don't hold Washington in high regard. Now, new research from political scientists at John Hopkins University shows that the feeling is mutual.

Approval ratings of Congress hover near record lows, and the other branches of federal government aren't looking too hot either. When asked about the most vexing problem facing the country at the moment, Americans are most likely to say the government itself. Official Washington is increasingly seen as out of touch with the rest of the country. But is it really?

That's what researchers Jennifer Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg wanted to find out. They surveyed upwards of 850 Federal employees, Hill staffers, contractors, consultants, lobbyists and think tankers. While we know plenty about our elected lawmakers, we know much less about this group of Beltway insiders, who you can think of as the "policymaking community." As a group they play an active and direct role in crafting legislation and setting the tone of national policy debates, but as unelected officials they're largely insulated from the ire of voters.

Bachner and Ginsberg found that compared to the average American, the group "is more likely to be white. They are more educated. Their salaries are higher, they vote more and have more faith in the fairness of elections. They are probably Democrat and liberal." This in itself is not necessarily surprising - DC is a large metropolitan area, and as a rule the nation's metros tend to be wealthier, better-educated and more liberal than the rest of the country.

But these policymakers also pay more attention to politics, they're more likely to vote, and they have considerably more confidence in the fairness of the political process; 62 percent of congressional staffers, 55 percent of federal workers and 49 percent of other Washington policymakers believe that election votes are often counted fairly. By contrast, just a third of the general public says the same.

Similarly, only 30 percent of Americans say that government and politics can be understood by people like them; 73 percent of policymakers say the same, as do 100 percent of Hill and White House staffers.

As the authors note, "these demographic differences between the rulers and the ruled are potentially quite important... factors such as these affect individuals’ life experience, capacity for mutual understanding and perceptions of political issues and events." In other words, what happens when a "government of the people" becomes a "government of a certain class of people"?

"We hope that our policymakers are similar enough to us to understand what our views and needs are," Ginsberg said in an interview. "The framers thought that elections would ensure this sympathy. But these policymakers aren’t elected."

One effect of this civic distance is mutual distrust and antipathy on either side of the beltway. "The most disturbing finding was that members of Washington policy community have a jaundiced view of ordinary Americans, and they didn’t know very much about ordinary Americans either," Ginsberg said.

When asked how much they thought the average American knew about a variety of policy debates, like raising taxes on the rich, warrantless wiretapping, and government's role in healthcare, policymakers most frequently said "very little."

Policymakers aren't wholly unjustified in these assumptions - a 2010 Pew survey, for instance, found that the public knew basic facts about politics and economics, but was murky on the specifics. But a certain degree of responsibility for informing the public on these issues falls to these very policymakers. If the public is uninformed or misinformed, that's at least partly an indictment of Washington's own efforts to educate its constituents.

While we typically think of political America as divided along liberal and conservative lines, these findings suggest the inside/outside Beltway divide is just as important, and potentially more so. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans have much more in common than they let on.

"Democrats and Republicans disagree about things, but they speak the same language. They understand each other perfectly well," Ginsberg says. "They are living in the same cognitive world."

Ginsberg would like to see better civic training, not just for the public but also for public officials. "We argue that it is America’s governing elite that needs civic education, focusing on the responsibilities of officials in a democracy."

He notes that other highly specialized professions, like doctors and lawyers, receive specific training on their duties to their clients and patients. "Your doctor or lawyer are very much aware of their fiduciary duty to you. But public officials don’t have that fiduciary sense. They don’t view that as their place in life. They think people should do what they’re told."

What do you think?