What Washington Gets Wrong

Benjamin Ginsberg—

At a Washington dinner party, I happened to mention to the woman seated to my right, an executive of Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency responsible for Americans’ health care, that a colleague and I had undertaken a survey of Washington officials to find out what the government thought of the people. My dinner companion expressed some bewilderment and asked why we needed a survey to learn the obvious. According to this experienced public servant, “everyone knew” that Washington officialdom did not think much of the American people. After a pause she added, “Many of the people are quite stupid, aren’t they?”

I have heard condescending comments like this from public officials too many times to have been surprised. Those of us who live in and around Washington, D.C. often hear such remarks from federal officials of all stripes. Officials like to point to opinion surveys as well as their own occasional encounters with ordinary citizens as proof that most Americans are fools and their views on public issues not worth much attention. Most Americans are taught theirs is a “popular government” by elected officials. This concept, however, as applied to contemporary America is misleading. Most of America’s national government today is not popular. It consists, instead, of administrative agencies staffed by unelected officials and linked to constellations of contractors, think tanks, quasi-governmental entities, and other elements of the Washington policy community that each year collectively write thousands of pages of rules and regulations possessing the force of law. This unelected government, though formally subordinate to Congress and the president, arguably does much of the actual governing of the United States, remaining in power year after year as presidents and congresses come and go. In many respects, this unelected bureaucracy is the real government of the United States.

We spent a year surveying these government officials and others in the Washington policy community. What we concluded after analyzing the results was disturbing. We learned that those who actually govern our nation do not think very highly of the American people. Many civil servants expressed utter contempt for the citizens they nominally served. We find, for example, that 72% of government officials think the public knows little or nothing about programs aimed at helping the poor and more than 60% think the public likewise knows almost nothing about childcare. Our survey also shows that government officials and ordinary Americans disagree on a lot of things. Interestingly, though, government officials are convinced that they hold policy positions even more removed from those of the general public than is actually the case. This is a phenomenon called “false uniqueness,” which usually means that one group believes that it is so much above the other in wisdom and intelligence that they cannot possibly agree on important matters. For example, 75% of the officials we surveyed believed that they disagreed with ordinary Americans on a number of key policy questions when, in fact, only about 12% disagreed on these questions. Many officials seem so blinded by their disdain for the citizenry that they cannot see the areas of agreement that might actually exist.

Even more disturbing, our findings show that officials don’t think it’s very important to heed the will of those they govern. With respect to policies that aid the poor, for example, only 12% of officials think they should follow public opinion. In the areas of social security and welfare, these numbers are a mere 18% and 13%. These findings seem inconsistent with the notion that a democratic government ought to be responsive to the public’s will.

We suggest that this disdain and disregard for the public results, at least in part, from the wide gulf in the life experiences of ordinary Americans and the denizens of official Washington.

Official Washington is wealthier, whiter and better educated than ordinary citizens. It lives in its own inside-the-beltway bubble, where Washingtonians converse with one another and rarely interact on an intellectual plane with Americans at large. We found that much of official and quasi-official Washington is content to think that ordinary Americans, and even the politicians whom they send to Congress, are uninformed and misguided and that policy makers generally should ignore them. This is more or less what they do, promulgating rules and regulations that make no sense to most Americans. How else can we explain federal agency regulations that make it a criminal act to whistle at whales or prescribe the exact ways flower bulbs must be described to customers? In thousands of different ways, unelected bureaucrats pursue policy agendas of their own and expect citizens to do what they are told.

It may, to be sure, be true that many Americans know little about government and politics. But, so what? Most patients know little about medicine, and most clients know little about the law. We expect, however, that doctors and lawyers will exhibit a fiduciary responsibility toward those seeking their services. The ignorance of patients and clients is a reason to listen more carefully and explain more fully, not an excuse for dismissing them as unworthy of attention. A physician or attorney who regards those dependent upon their services as fools, and undertakes actions without taking much interest in their life circumstances and without giving much consideration to their needs and preferences, is guilty of medical or legal malpractice. Similarly, public servants who have disdain for the public they nominally serve, and show little interest in the public’s needs and wishes, are guilty of civic malpractice.

We hope that our study, recently published under the title What Washington Gets Wrong will serve as a loud wake-up call for Americans. The officials in our survey do have one thing right—Americans need to learn more about the realities of government. Perhaps when they do, they will be inspired to begin challenging the status quo and pressuring Congress to leash the bureaucratic monster it has created.

This post originally appeared on Ginsberg on Government. Reproduced by permission.


Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and chairof the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies. He is the co-author of American Government: Power and Purpose, among other titles. He lives in Potomac, MD.


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