Elite-Mass polarization is not the sort of thing that elites spend much time worrying about. Funny how that works. They do worry about mass polarization. Angry bloggers and such.
But as Matt noted earlier today ("Here's Your Bipartisanship, America"), there is a significant elite/mass disconnect when it comes to the Iraq War. It's there in the Congress, as he pointed out, and of course it's there in the media, which not only treats this disconnect as perfectly normal, but worries that it's not large enough, because the congresssional Democrats are polarizing in opposition to Bush.
And, of course, it goes without saying that the elite position is the conservative one, the mass position is liberal.
However, this is hardly an isolated example. Indeed, if we take a big-picture look at military and domestic spending, and compare it to public opinion over a period of decades, we find that this polarization, or disconnect between elite/congressional action and mass public opinion is a permanent feature of our political system.
To make this analysis, I used spending preference data from the General Social Survey (GSS), using a combined measure of support for eight spending variables, along with one for military spending, and comparing them to the GDP percentages spent in each budget year, using data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Details, table, and analysis on the flip.
The combined measure I used was based on the following GSS domestic spending variables:
NATCITY: SOLVING PROBLEMS OF BIG CITIES
NATDRUG: DEALING WITH DRUG ADDICTION
NATEDUC: IMPROVING NATIONS EDUCATION SYSTEM
NATENVIR: IMPROVING PROTECTING ENVIRONMENT
NATHEAL: IMPROVING PROTECTING NATIONS HEALTH
NATRACE: IMPROVING THE CONDITIONS OF BLACKS
NATSPAC: SPACE EXPLORATION PROGRAM
I structured the combined variable to output four values-one for favoring a net increasing in spending for 5-8 programs, on for favoring a net increase in 1-4 programs, one for favoring no net change, and one for favoring a reduction in spending.
Methodologically, comparing a combined measure like this to a single measure-in this case NATARMS: THE MILITARY, ARMAMENTS AND DEFENSE-raises questions. However, there are other approaches that can be used to verify the underlying point, even if they don't produce the sort of dramatic numbers we are about to see. And, I believe that there is a strong case that can be made in favor of this methodology, since it takes into account a relatively broad range of spending priorities that reflects the diverse needs that discretionary spendings addresses. With this caveat clearly noted, we now proceed to the table laying out the historical record of spending vs. public priorities:
Spending Vs. Public Opinion Priorities
|Military-Are We Spending...|| ||Domestic|
|8 Domestic Programs-Are We Spending...|
On the military side, there were have been periods during which more people thought we were spending too little than throught we were spending too much--the period from 1977 to 1980, and the period after 9/11. But only during one year--1980--was there an absolute majority saying we were spending too little. In contrast, on the domestic side, there was a persistent, overwhelming majority saying we were spending too little on at least 1-4 programs, usually with 20-30% saying we were spending too little on 5-8 programs.
Despite these clear policy preferences, military spending rose dramatically during the early Reagan years--bolstered by hysterical propaganda from a combination of the earliest Cold War alarmists and the emerging neocons, and, we now know, heavily politicized and deeply flawed intelligence that claimed the Soviets were on the verge of being able to somehow destroy us. The build-up actually started in 1980 under Carter, whose budget projections grew almost as rapidly as Reagan's, since he also bought the bogus intelligence. In 1979, military spending was 4.7% of GDP, compared to an almost identical 4.6% for domestic spending. But by 1987, military spending was 6.1% of GDP--almost double the 3.1% of GDP for domestic spending. Just after this, levels of support for increased domestic spending skyrocketed so high that those favoring more outnumbered those favoring less by more than 10-1 in 1988 and 1990.
As it finally became undeniable that the Soviet Union was not only not going to destroy us, but was on the verge of falling apart (ooops! bad intel!), this trend began to reverse itself, but it was a long process, and parity between spending on both was not acheived until 1998--at the level of 3.1% for both, meaning it was not acheived until the modest increases in domestic spending from 1989 to 1992 were first capped, and then cut back. Domestic spending did rise again, eventually, under Bush, but with increasing corruption, use of earmarks, and even greater increases in military spending, also rife with corruption.
This big picture overview of arguably the most central role of government shows a persistent pattern of utter disregard for public opinion that has been at landslide levels for as far back as records go. When the public-by margins ranging from 4-1 to well over 10-1-persistently says, "You're spending too little on domestic programs," and Congress, on balance, says, "No, we're not," the only way to describe it is as a state of permenant polarization. And the fact that the media is entirely silent-if not actively approving of this-is indicative of a broader elite complicity in this polarized opposition to the public will. If the public were had been respected, then our domestic spending would most likely be about double what it is today, and our military spending would not be roughly equal to that of the rest of the world combined. This is, without a doubt, the overwhelming fact of polarization in our political system today-and it has been for at least the last 30 years or so.