When it comes to policy, the political class doesn’t have a lot of faith in the public’s IQ. In the latest National Journal Political Insiders Poll, a solid majority of political operatives—59 percent—said the public didn’t “know enough about the issues facing Washington to form wise opinions about what should be done.” There was a sharp partisan difference between the two parties: By more than a 2-to-1 margin, Democratic Insiders believed the public didn’t “know enough,” while a slight majority of Republicans thought they did.
One reason for the skeptical attitudes of the Democrats and the relatively sanguine view of Republicans is that they reflect the outcome of the midterm elections. “The guys who just got turfed out know that the public doesn’t know enough to make these decisions and the guys who got brought in know that it does,” observed University of Wisconsin political scientist Byron Shafer. “There is a heavy shadow of the 2010 elections in these numbers.”
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg explained: “I think the backdrop [to the Democratic response] was the sense that voters didn’t know what was accomplished in the historic Congress that just passed. It’s a function of where you are in a cycle, not a theory of government or ideology. I think Republicans would say a something similar if they were in the same situation.”
But some Democratic operatives are not so sure. “Though we claim to represent ‘the people’ we are much more likely to doubt their ability to understand public policy,” said one party operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Republicans don’t represent the people’s interests, but have more confidence in them.”
To a point. Veteran GOP pollster Fred Steeper agreed that the high percentage of Democratic Insiders who said the public doesn’t know enough to form wise opinions was a manifestation of their disappointing 2010 election results. But he noted that there was also a large share of Republican Insiders—47 percent—who didn’t think the public knew enough to form wise opinions. “They’re right to be skeptical that 2010 meant people will be supporting the whole conservative agenda in 2011,” said Steeper.
National Journal asked its 264 Political Insiders, who include former national party chairmen, current state party chairs, party strategists, pollsters, media consultants, lobbyists, political fundraisers, local elected officials, and interest group leaders to weigh in on this question; 103 Democrats and 100 Republicans responded. Below are some of the verbatim responses of the Insiders:
On balance, does the public know enough about the issues facing Washington to form wise opinions about what should be done?
Democrats Who Answered 'Yes'
“Voters are far wiser than politicians give them credit for.”
“The public understands the problems facing America. It’s the people in D.C. that are clueless.”
Democrats Who Answered 'No'
“Many believe we’re spending billions on foreign aid.”
“Most Americans are informed enough to form opinions but not well-informed enough to form wise opinions.”
“Hell, no. They are woefully ignorant. They think our budget problems can be solved by doing nothing about Social Security or Medicare.”
“Despite the fact that every politician, Republican and Democrat alike, has to say ‘regular folks are pretty smart and know what’s going on,’ quite simply, they don’t. The pressures of everyday life make it hard to dig deep, but there aren’t long lines outside the nation’s libraries of citizens researching the latest CR.”
“The public forms opinions, but understandably most of them lack enough information to make those opinions ‘wise.’”
“Definitely not; our so-called leaders in both parties are too busy spinning and disguising things for 2012.”
Republicans Who Answered 'Yes'
“The public knows more than enough, it’s Washington that hasn’t formed ‘wise opinions’ of the public and their frustrations.”
“On the biggest issues—spending, healthcare, taxes—it is the Beltway crowd that over-complicates matters.”
“Like Reagan, they usually get the big picture right.”
“Only liberals think the masses are stupid.”
“Although the real proof of this will be when entitlements are under the knife.”
Republicans Who Answered 'No'
“They don’t know that Social Security and Medicare are going broke.”
“In this day and age of Twitter and consumer-driven demand of news, there is a surplus of information, yet a deficit of attention to the news that really matters.”
“Of course not: They think foreign aid is the biggest part of the budget.”
“The president and Congress are not very adept at communicating long term implications and the media is more than happy to sensationalize without fact.”
“Democracy is an act of delegation from the voters to the elected: the problem is not lack of knowledge on the part of the led, but the unwillingness to lead.”