Regular Folks and the People in Charge

The mainstream public and the political class have very different ideas about what government should do. It’s a gap that is broadening and deepening.
by | August 2, 2012

In "Mad As Hell: How the Tea Party Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System," Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen document the disconnect between the majority of Americans, a group they refer to as "the mainstream public," and a much smaller group they call "the political class."

Rasmussen and Schoen use these three polling questions to distinguish the members of these two groups:

Generally speaking, when it comes to important issues, whose judgment do you trust more, the American people or America's political leaders?

Some people believe that the federal government has become a special-interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests. Has the federal government become a special-interest group?

Do government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors?

About 60 percent of those polled by Rasmussen and Schoen, the group they call the mainstream public, responded that they trust the judgment of the American people more, they believe that the federal government has become a special-interest group and they believe that government and business work together in ways that hurt them. About 10 percent of Americans, the group Rasmussen and Schoen refers to as the political class, respond in the opposite manner.

Here's the critical thing: This is not a left-right, liberal-conservative distinction — it cuts across party and ideological lines. According to Rasmussen and Schoen, the members of the political class come from the establishment within the Republican and Democratic parties and from the media elite. While the results Rasmussen and Schoen report were based on polling about the federal government, my experience tells me that this distinction — between what I think of as the regular folks and the people in charge — is reflected at every level of government.

As mayor of Kansas City, I was surprised at how unresponsive the city government could be to the clear will of the voters. On several occasions, the voters obviously wanted one thing, such as more police officers, and the city government would do precisely the opposite — make massive cuts in the police budget that resulted in fewer police officers. I saw repeatedly that the city government was a special interest group and that city government and big business often did work together in ways that hurt ordinary citizens.

The fundamental disconnect between the regular folks and the people in charge extends to their understanding of the basic purposes of government. For the people in charge, the local government is largely irrelevant. They send their kids to private schools, live in neighborhoods that are attractive, have private security and have little need for public transit. They see the local government as a source of support for those things that they need other people's money to supply. They are selective capitalists. They want the government to support arts and culture, sports venues with private boxes, and real-estate development.

For ordinary people, on the other hand, local government is vital to quality of life. They depend on public schools to educate their children, the police department to provide order and security in their neighborhoods, and such basic services as animal control, weed control and abatement of illegal dumping to support the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

These two sets of people face entirely different realities and often see their city completely differently. Reality often rises up and bites the regular folks. It is much less likely to do so for those in charge. Wealth, prestige and power are great insulators.

While I was doing fieldwork for my book, "Honest, Competent Government," I spent about 10 days in London, most of it commuting back and forth to the National Audit Office of the United Kingdom on the London Underground. In the Underground, I was struck by the ubiquitous signs and ominous voice coming from the public-address system telling travelers to "Mind the gap!" — the space between the platform and the train.

In "Community Power Structures: A Study of Decision Makers," Floyd Hunter wrote:

"There appears to be a tenuous line of communication between the governors of our society and the governed. This situation does not square with the concepts of democracy we have been taught to revere. The line of communication between the leaders and the people needs to be broadened and strengthened — and by more than a series of public relations and propaganda campaigns — else our concept of democracy is in danger of losing vitality in dealing with problems that affect all in common."

The disconnect that Hunter warned about a half-century ago has broadened and deepened in the ensuing years. Today the gap between the regular folks and the people in charge yawns huge. Either public officials at every level of government "mind the gap" or we do indeed lose our capacity to deal with problems that affect us all.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com

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