Federal workers inside DC beltway? Just don't ask The Sun about their souls

Over the past decade, I have been doing graduate-level studies in the art of commuting into the Washington, D.C., area from the very blue -- in the political sense of that word -- world of greater Baltimore. However, in many ways I remain a stranger on my Beltway-land commuter train for one obvious reason. I am not a federal worker.

I know this species pretty well by now, from the 50 shades of gray in their wardrobes to many of their favorite forms of reading (iPhones have overwhelmed Blackberries as the years have rolled past). However, there is one major difference between the federal workers who fill my train and the ones that dominate our nation's capital.

What, you ask? Most of the people I know are African-Americans. Thus, it is very common to see people on my train who are reading study Bibles.

A simply exercise in crude stereotyping on my part? Kind of.

However, you can see some elements of these stereotypes in a very interesting, and totally haunted in the GetReligion sense of that word, report in yesterday's Baltimore Sun about the lives and some elements of the worldviews of federal workers. The totally shocking headline states: "Hopkins study: Feds are whiter, richer, more liberal than most Americans."

There is, however, absolutely no religious content in this story. That's kind of the point. Here's the top of the story:

The workers who staff the federal government in Washington are whiter, richer, more educated and more liberal than the rest of the country, according to two political scientists at Johns Hopkins University -- who warn of the potential for a troubling gap between the federal workforce and the people it serves.

"It might be a problem," said Jennifer Bachner, director of the Hopkins' master's degree program in government analytics. "If the government looks very different demographically than the American people, the question is: Can they govern well? Can they appreciate the challenges of the American public?"

Bachner and colleague Benjamin Ginsberg, director of Hopkins' Washington Center for the Study of Government, say they have seen plenty of surveys asking Americans what they think about the federal government -- but almost no research on what the government thinks about Americans.

OK, if you know anything about the content of American life over, let's say, the past 30-plus years, you know that many of the most divisive issues in American public life are rooted in social issues are impossible to separate from discussions of religion, culture and morality. In other words, there is more to them than a mere "political" label, as in "Republican" and "Democrat." 

There are, for example, pro-life Democrats and there are Democrats who continue to be strong defenders of classically liberal interpretations of the First Amendment when it comes to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion (no matter what kind of issue is in play). There are also Republicans who are totally committed to abortion rights and who get sweaty palms when asked to defend the First Amendment rights of, well, Orthodox Jews, traditional Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, etc., etc.

So how does the Sun report cover the "liberal" side of this federal workers divide?

About 90 percent of the inside-the-Beltway staffers are white. The figure for the general population is 78 percent.

Half of congressional and White House employees, 54 percent of civil servants and 57 percent of policy staffers identify as Democrats. The country is 35 percent Democratic, 28 percent Republican and 33 percent unaffiliated.

Government workers say they read the news in print or online more than five times per week. The American average is 3.6 times per week.

In other words, only the political labels matter -- even though researchers have found, over the past 30 years, that the single quickest, most accurate way to determine how American voters will act while standing in voting booths is to ask how often they attend worship services of any kind. Our era is defined by cultural issues, more than strictly political issues.

Now, I know the following to be true: My criticism of the Sun team on this point could be unfair.

Why? It is possible that the Johns Hopkins survey totally ignored the role of religion in this divide between Beltway people and Americans in flyover country (and other less enlightened zip codes).

Could be. There is reason to hope that readers, in the future, will be able to find out the answer to that question, and others related to it. Why?

Ginsberg and Bachner presented some of their findings to the American Political Science Association recently and are working on a book, "What the Government Thinks of the People," to be published next year.

Stay tuned. This is the kind of subject in which readers need lots of details, to determine when stereotypes are appropriate and when they are not.

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