Peter Beinart explains the difference between polling data and those in positions of power and influence:
Think about the issues on which Hillary put distance between herself and Obama. She was particularly sharp in her criticism of the president’s reluctance to arm Syria’s rebels. But this supposedly shrewd political maneuver puts Hillary in the company of a mere 20 percent of the population. The last time the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether they support military aid to Syria’s rebels, 20 percent said yes and a whopping 70 percent said no. When respondents were asked in the same poll to evaluate a series of statements about Syria, the most popular was the “U.S. military is already too overcommitted.”
Hillary also took a harder line than Obama on Iran’s right to enrich uranium—a harder line that would make it harder to reach a final nuclear deal with Tehran. As with Syria, many commentators considered Hillary’s more hawkish stance to be politically astute. But again, the public is actually closer to Obama. According to a University of Maryland poll in July, 61 percent of Americans support a deal that would limit—but not prohibit—Iranian enrichment, while only 35 percent support increasing sanctions in an effort to eliminate Tehran’s enriched uranium altogether.
Given these results, why do most commentators think Hillary’s hawkishness is politically wise? Because over the last year or so—as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq—elite opinion has grown more hawkish even though public opinion at large hasn’t. When it comes to foreign policy, in fact, the key divide is no longer between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between the elites of both parties and their rank and file. When asked about arming Syria’s rebels, an Iran deal that allows some uranium enrichment, and whether America should do more or less in the world, both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly take the more dovish view. On each question, the partisan divide is five percentage points or less.
The real gap emerges when you compare ordinary Americans to elites. According to Pew, for instance, rank-and-file Republicans are 34 percentage points more likely to want America to do less overseas. Rank-and-file Democrats are 31 points more likely to want America to do less. Members of the prestigious, bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations, by contrast, are 20 points more likely to say America should do more.
One way of explaining this gap is that elites understand Things As They Are while Americans more generally are ignorant yahoos, a self-congratulatory and irrefutable proposition. That interventionist responses have repeatedly gotten us into trouble over the period of the last half century should at least cast a little doubt on that view.
Moreover, I wonder what makes Mr. Beinart think that this gap between what elites want to do and what the majority of Americans want to do is limited to foreign policy? On immigration, for example, Americans generally overwhelmingly support not increasing the number of people who come to live and work here. Elites characteristically support increases.
Americans, generally, see the economy and jobs as the most important problems confronting us. Judging by political speeches and opinion pieces in the media, that’s rather clearly not the way elites see things. You will see much, much more on income inequality, wage issues, and other economic issues that are minor by comparison.
What do American, generally, see as the most important non-economic problem? They’re dissatisfied with government.