In his column on Sunday, Frank Rich quotes Obama aide David Axelrod who ridicules Washington: “This town talks to itself and whips itself into a frenzy with its own theories that are completely at odds with what the rest of America is thinking.” The moral, we learn, is “not just that Washington is too insular but that the American people are a lot smarter than people in Washington think.”
A few thoughts in response. The first is that Axelrod is playing a familiar and childish game: denigrating Washington (“this town”) even though he spent an astonishing amount of his time and energy in order to arrive here. And while he’s here Axelrod will, I imagine, participate in, and thoroughly enjoy, all the insular things he pretends to detest — from the black tie dinners to the cocktail parties to the unnamed leaks to repeating administration talking points on Sunday morning television programs to adding his voice to the echo chamber.
Second, Obama and Axelrod are coming to us courtesy of Chicago, where politics is more corrupt than in Washington. And the notion that living in Hyde Park puts one profoundly in touch with the everyday life of a Christian school teacher and his stay-at-home wife and mother of five living in Omaha, Nebraska is not terribly convincing. The only thing more laughable is that a former New York Times drama critic pretends he has the pulse of the people.
Third, the way Axelrod will understand what is on the mind of the public is by poring over elaborate public opinion surveys and focus groups which will be conducted by any number of Obama allies. That, more than Potemkin Town Hall visits, will be what Team Obama will rely on.
Fourth, Axelrod is playing up a theme almost as old as politics itself: Washington, D.C. is somehow out of touch with “what the rest of America is thinking.” I have news for Axelrod: America is comprised of residents of the upper West Side of Manhattan and Salt Lake City, Utah; Cambridge and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; San Francisco and Oklahoma City; Portland, Oregon and Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania. The “rest of America” is in fact enormously diverse, politically and culturally.
Beyond that, arguably Washington is too much in touch with what the rest of America is thinking. Politicians in Washington are like seismographs; they monitor the shifting moods and opinions of the public to a degree that borders on the obsessive and that is often harmful. Members of Congress reflect the views of their constituents to an astonishing degree. Political figures (like Obama) often fail to take difficult but necessary acts precisely because they realize that they might encounter strong resistance from the public. That’s why profiles in courage are rare rather than commonplace.
It’s also worth pointing out that vox populi is not vox Dei. The public, for example, strongly opposed the so-called surge; it turned out to be the right thing to do. Strong public opposition to even minor changes in entitlement programs have kept necessary reforms from being made. When Ronald Reagan was doing the hard work of wringing “stagflation” out of the economy, his approval ratings sunk to the mid-30s and Republicans suffered significant mid-term losses in 1982. When Truman left the presidency, he was widely despised. And of course Abraham Lincoln reached political prominence by his opposition to the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” championed by Stephen Douglas. The founders themselves, especially Madison, argued against direct democracy precisely because they did not want public officials to be swayed by the momentary passions of the public. The Senate was designed to insulate its Members from the fleeting opinions of the polity.
Having said all that, the public does, by in large, get things right. Our system of government — “of the people, by the people, for the people” — assumes a level of good judgment in the citizenry that has been vindicated time and again. Democracy remains the best system of government ever devised, and liberty speaks to a deep human longing.
What is tiresome is the game Axelrod is engaging in. He ridicules a city he longs to be a part of. He pretends to stand outside of a political culture he and others like him have helped to shape. He speaks about the public not in the mature way of the founders — men are not angels, public passions can be dangerous and need to have time to cool, self-government is a hard but noble enterprise, public service is admirable work and comprised of many admirable (as well as less than admirable) people — but in the way a political operative does: programmed, unoriginal, superficially complimentary but ultimately condescending.
I guess I’m betting the “rest of America” is smarter than David Axelrod thinks they are, and will soon see through this wearing act.