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.
Some of these shifts in opinion may be responses to events that liberal elites have not deigned to notice. Forty of the 50 states now have concealed weapons laws that allow law-abiding citizens to get permits to carry guns. Gun controllers predicted these would result in traffic shootouts and general mayhem. They haven't. It turns out that criminals are deterred from attacks less by gun-control laws than by the possibility that their intended victims may be armed. As for global warming, many Americans may have noticed that temperatures actually haven't been rising over the past decade, as global warming alarmists predicted. The elites are able to hire armed security guards and jet off on private jets, so they are less likely to notice these things.
I think there's something else at work here. For liberal elites, belief in gun control and global warming has taken on the character of religious faith. We have sinned (by hoarding guns or driving SUVs); we must atone (by turning in our guns or recycling); we must repent (by supporting gun control or cap and trade schemes). You may notice that the "we" in question is usually the great mass of ordinary American citizens.
The liberal elite is less interested in giving up its luxuries (Al Gore purchases carbon offsets to compensate for his huge mansion and private jet travel) than in changing the lifestyle of the masses, who selfishly insist on living in suburbs and keeping guns for recreation or protection. Ordinary Americans are seen not as responsible fellow citizens building stable communities but as greedy masses, who must be disciplined to live according to the elite's religious dogmas.
It should not be completely surprising that over time, these views have become less congenial to the masses, who are the object of such condescension. Democratic officeholders, who must live by the discipline of the ballot, have noticed. Party leaders did not press to re-enact the assault weapons ban when it expired and currently are flummoxed by the backbenchers who are resisting a cap and trade bill that would impose huge costs on those who use electricity. Elites may lead, but Americans do not always follow.