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Study: Washington insiders don't get America

Posted at 5:31 PM, Sep 17, 2014

With midterms approaching, most polling firms are fumbling to find out what Americans think of their government. But a recent Johns Hopkins study asked what government workers think of the people.

The answer was — not much.

“Our officials have contempt for ordinary Americans. They thought they were quite stupid,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins.

Ginsberg and colleague JenniferBachner surveyed 850 people who work in the federal government or closely with it. That ranged from people who work for federal agencies, those have a policy job and lowly political staffers.

The findings of the study were presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

The Washington insiders were more white, more educated and made more money than Americans as a whole. The average federal worker earned $81,704 in 2012 compared to $54,995 for private workers, the study said.

That puts them in the top 10 percent of income earners.

Federal workers were also more liberal than the general population. Americans as a whole split into even thirds as Republicans, Democrats and independents. But in Washington, the majority identified themselves as Democrats, the study said.

“The results weren’t astonishing if you live in Washington. But for people outside the beltway it’s an eye opener,” Ginsberg said. “They knew as much about the American people as the American people knew about them.”

Ginsberg said that while political adversaries disagree strongly, they still respect one another’s intelligence.

“But they didn’t think that ordinary Americans knew much of anything,” Ginsberg said. “The only group that was different was the staffers. They had more experience with ordinary people.”

About one-third of Americans showed confidence in their ability to understand how government works, compared to 100 percent of White House and Congressional staffers.

Those who work in the government think understanding it is easy, Ginsberg said.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on twitter @GavinStern or email him at