Many years ago, political scientists came up with a theory that elites lead public opinion. And on some issues, they clearly do. But on some issues, they don't. Two examples of the latter phenomenon are conspicuous at a time when Barack Obama enjoys the approval of more than 60 percent of Americans and Democrats have won thumping majorities in two elections in a row. One is global warming. The other is gun control. On both issues, the elites of academe, the media and big business have been solidly on one side for years. But on both, the American public has been moving in the other direction.
Over the past decade, the Gallup organization has been asking Americans whether the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated or generally correct. From 1998 to 2007, except for the run-up to the 2004 election, they said it was generally serious by roughly a 2-1 margin -- 66 to 30 percent in 2006, for example. But in March 2009, that margin slipped to only 57 to 41 percent, with two-thirds of Republicans and nearly half of independents saying concern is exaggerated.
Similarly, last month, pollster Scott Rasmussen found that only 34 percent believes that global warming is caused by human activity, while 48 percent said it is caused by long-term planetary trends. That's almost exactly the opposite of what he found 12 months before -- 47 to 34 percent the other way around. However, 48 percent of the group Rasmussen calls the "Political Class" -- in other words, the elite -- continues to believe global warming is man-made.
On guns, Gallup has been testing opinion for many years on one extreme proposal that is the goal, usually unstated, of many gun-control advocates: banning the possession of handguns. Support was 60 percent in 1960 and 49 percent in 1965. It was as high as 43 percent in the early 1990s, before the Clinton Congress passed the so-called assault weapons ban. In March 2007, it had fallen to 29 percent -- a minority, almost a fringe position. In the early 1990s, Gallup found that Americans, by a 2-1 margin, favored stricter gun sale laws over less strict ones or keeping them the same. By fall 2008, they were evenly split.