Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite

Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite

Mini Teaser: America's elites have forgotten the mystic chords of memory. The American people have not.

by Author(s): Samuel P. Huntington

These and other differences between elites and the public have produced a growing gap between the preferences of the public and policies embodied in federal legislation and regulation. One study of whether changes in public opinion on a wide range of issues were followed by comparable changes in public policy showed a steady decline from the 1970s when there was a 75 percent congruence between public opinion and government policy to 67 percent in 1984-87, 40 percent in 1989-92, and 37 percent in 1993-94. "The evidence, overall", the authors of this study concluded, "points to a persistent pattern since 1980: a generally low and at times declining level of responsiveness to public opinion especially during the first two years of the Clinton presidency." Hence, they said, there is no basis for thinking that Clinton or other political leaders were "pandering to the public." "A disturbing gap is growing", one analyst concluded, "between what ordinary Americans believe is the proper role of the United States in world affairs and the views of leaders responsible for making foreign policy." Governmental policy at the end of the 20th century was deviating more and more from the preferences of the American public.

The failure of political leaders to "pander" to the public had predictable consequences. When government policies on many important issues deviate sharply from the views of the public, one would expect the public to lose trust in government, to reduce its interest and participation in politics, and to turn to alternative means of policymaking not controlled by political elites. All three happened in the late 20th century. All three undoubtedly had many causes, which social scientists have explored at length, and one trend--decline in trust--occurred in most industrialized democracies. Yet at least for the United States, it can be assumed that the growing gap between public preferences and government policies contributed to all three trends.

First, public confidence in and trust in government and the major private institutions of American society declined dramatically from the 1960s to the 1990s. As three distinguished scholars have pointed out, on every question asked concerning confidence in their government, roughly two thirds of the public expressed confidence in the 1960s and only about one third in the 1990s. In April 1966, for instance,

with the Vietnam War raging and race riots in Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta, 66 percent of Americans rejected the view that 'the people running the country don't really care what happens to you.' In December 1997, in the midst of the longest period of peace and prosperity in more than two generations, 57 percent of Americans endorsed the same view.

Similar declines occurred during these decades in the degree which the public had confidence in major public and private institutions. Only two non-elected institutions of government, the Supreme Court and the military, saw an increase in the public's confidence.

Second, as many studies have shown, public participation in and interest in the major governmental and private institutions of American society declined fairly consistently from the 1960s to the 1990s. Sixty-three percent of the adult population voted in 1960, but only 49 percent in 1996 and 51 percent in 2000. In addition, as Thomas Patterson observes,

Since 1960, participation has declined in virtually every area of election activity, from the volunteers who work on campaigns to the viewers who watch televised debates. The United States had 100 million fewer people in 1960 than it did in 2000 but, even so, more viewers tuned in to the October presidential debates in 1960 than did so in 2000.

In the 1970s, one in three taxpayers allocated a dollar from their tax payments to the fund created by Congress to support political campaigns. In 2000, one in eight did so.

The third consequence of the gap between leaders and the public was the dramatic proliferation of initiatives on major policy issues, including those relating to national identity. Initiatives had been an instrument of progressive reform before World War I. Their use then declined steadily from fifty per two-year election cycle to twenty in the early 1970s. As legislatures neglected the concerns of their constituents, initiatives dramatically became popular again, beginning in June 1978, when 65 percent of California voters approved Proposition 13, drastically limiting taxes, despite the opposition of virtually all the state's political, business and media establishment. This started a tripling of initiatives to an average of 61 per two-year election cycle from the late 1970s to 1998. Fifty-five initiatives were voted on in 1998, 69 in 2000 and 49 in 2002. Between 1980 and 2002, there were 14 initiative votes in six states on issues concerning American national identity: six opposing bilingualism, six endorsing the use of English or declaring English the state's official language, and two opposing racial preferences. In all of these hotly debated contests, the state political, governmental, academic, media, religious, professional and business elites overwhelmingly opposed the initiative. In all these contests but one, the public approved the initiatives by margins avering 63 percent and going up to 85 percent. David S. Broder concluded in Democracy Derailed that "the trust between governors and governed on which representative government depends has been badly depleted."

THESE AND other differences between elites and the public have produced a growing gap between the preferences of the public and policies embodied in federal legislation and regulation. One study of whether changes in public opinion on a wide range of issues were followed by comparable changes in public policy showed a steady decline from the 1970s when there was a 75 percent congruence between public opinion and government policy to 67 percent in 1984-87, 40 percent in 1989-92, and 37 percent in 1993-94. "The evidence, overall", the authors of this study concluded, "points to a persistent pattern since 1980: a generally low and at times declining level of responsiveness to public opinion especially during the first two years of the Clinton presidency." Hence, they said, there is no basis for thinking that Clinton or other political leaders were "pandering to the public." "A disturbing gap is growing", one analyst concluded, "between what ordinary Americans believe is the proper role of the United States in world affairs and the views of leaders responsible for making foreign policy."  Governmental policy at the end of the 20th century was deviating more and more from the preferences of the American public.

The failure of political leaders to "pander" to the public had predictable consequences. When government policies on many important issues deviate sharply from the views of the public, one would expect the public to lose trust in government, to reduce its interest and participation in politics, and to turn to alternative means of policymaking not controlled by political elites. All three happened in the late 20th century. All three undoubtedly had many causes, which social scientists have explored at length, and one trend--decline in trust--occurred in most industrialized democracies. Yet at least for the United States, it can be assumed that the growing gap between public preferences and government policies contributed to all three trends.

First, public confidence in and trust in government and the major private institutions of American society declined dramatically from the 1960s to the 1990s. As three distinguished scholars have pointed out, on every question asked concerning confidence in their government, roughly two thirds of the public expressed confidence in the 1960s and only about one third in the 1990s. In April 1966, for instance,

with the Vietnam War raging and race riots in Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta, 66 percent of Americans rejected the view that 'the people running the country don't really care what happens to you.' In December 1997, in the midst of the longest period of peace and prosperity in more than two generations, 57 percent of Americans endorsed the same view.

Similar declines occurred during these decades in the degree which the public had confidence in major public and private institutions. Only two non-elected institutions of government, the Supreme Court and the military, saw an increase in the public's confidence.

Second, as many studies have shown, public participation in and interest in the major governmental and private institutions of American society declined fairly consistently from the 1960s to the 1990s. Sixty-three percent of the adult population voted in 1960, but only 49 percent in 1996 and 51 percent in 2000. In addition, as Thomas Patterson observes,

 
 Since 1960, participation has declined in virtually every area of election activity, from the volunteers who work on campaigns to the viewers who watch televised debates. The United States had 100 million fewer people in 1960 than it did in 2000 but, even so, more viewers tuned in to the October presidential debates in 1960 than did so in 2000.

In the 1970s, one in three taxpayers allocated a dollar from their tax payments to the fund created by Congress to support political campaigns. In 2000, one in eight did so.

The third consequence of the gap between leaders and the public was the dramatic proliferation of initiatives on major policy issues, including those relating to national identity. Initiatives had been an instrument of progressive reform before World War I. Their use then declined steadily from fifty per two-year election cycle to twenty in the early 1970s. As legislatures neglected the concerns of their constituents, initiatives dramatically became popular again, beginning in June 1978, when 65 percent of California voters approved Proposition 13, drastically limiting taxes, despite the opposition of virtually all the state's political, business and media establishment. This started a tripling of initiatives to an average of 61 per two-year election cycle from the late 1970s to 1998. Fifty-five initiatives were voted on in 1998, 69 in 2000 and 49 in 2002. Between 1980 and 2002, there were 14 initiative votes in six states on issues concerning American national identity: six opposing bilingualism, six endorsing the use of English or declaring English the state's official language, and two opposing racial preferences. In all of these hotly debated contests, the state political, governmental, academic, media, religious, professional and business elites overwhelmingly opposed the initiative. In all these contests but one, the public approved the initiatives by margins avering 63 percent and going up to 85 percent. David S. Broder concluded in Democracy Derailed that "the trust between governors and governed on which representative government depends has been badly depleted."

Essay Types: Essay