Mass vs. Elite Opinion on U.S. Role

A couple of days and one judicious Spencer Ackerman intervention later, it occurs to me that a clearly and less inflammatory way of making the point I was getting at here would be to simply reference the recent Pew survey comparing mass public opinion to the views of the foreign policy elite, defined as members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Not too surprisingly, there are a lot of differences. Notably, the mass public is less enthusiastic about trade agreements and less enthusiastic about U.S. “global leadership” on geopolitical issues. The mass public is simultaneously more unilateralist as a matter of principle and also more interested in burden-sharing with other countries. Personally, I sympathize with the elite consensus about a lot of things (trade, a relatively benign view of China, a belief that climate change is an important issue) but I tend to be closer to the masses on the merits of an activist foreign policy.

Now you could ask yourself, do members of elite foreign policy institutions hold the views they hold because they’re somehow corrupt or on the take? I think that would be silly. What I think is true, however, is that one thing that makes those institutions elite is the fact that they have a relatively large amount of money behind them and formal and informal ties to U.S. government agencies. And it’s the very eliteness of elite views that makes them influential out of proportion to the actual number of people who hold them.