Why Washington doesn’t work

Sam Smith, 2009

The years I have spent in Washington since covering my first story in 1957 can be roughly divided into two parts: a time when the capital and America were getting better and a time when they were getting worse. In that order.

I use 1980 as a rough turning point. Rough because Watergate, the Vietnam War, urban riots and the disco drum machine all came earlier. Still we had at least partly recovered from the first three by the time the Reagan era began.

Then the city really began to change as I noted an 1981 article for the Washington Post Outlook section. The change, of course, was far from complete as indicated by the fact that the Post was still willing to publish something that began:

Could you stop the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People’s [drug store] and restock my inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived and revitalized. This city – the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit – has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that it is getting better. . .

Washington’s . . . autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity. . . [It] is the city of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without It, clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche Lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up.

The two preceding decades had been among the most remarkable in American history, a time when blacks, women, gays, the environment and peace movements made unprecedented progress. There were miles to go, but seldom have so many gotten off to such a good start. Further, we had ended a terrible war and gotten rid of a crummy president.

Washington contributed at both the institutional and rebellious level. It was a time when the capital was on a par with Berkeley and Madison for progressive politics. It was a time, thanks to its members’ civil rights activity, that our city council probably had the longest arrest record of any legislature in the country. It was a time when the city became a haven for those who faced a more hostile reception elsewhere in the land. They didn’t call it Chocolate City for nothing.

But it was not just the rebels. The establishment responded as well. One of the country’s most impressive political scoundrels – Lyndon Johnson – got more good legislation passed in less time than at any point in our history.

Included were civil rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid, the war on poverty, a major urban mass transit program, protection of the wilderness, food stamps, more money for higher education, improved voting rights, a ban on age discrimination in employment and fair housing legislation.

Even that otherwise egregious character, Richard Nixon, still practiced domestic affairs in a tradition of social democracy that we have not seen since. He was, in fact, our last liberal president, an amazing claim until one considers that he favored a negative income tax; revenue sharing; a guaranteed income for children; supplementary programs for the aged, blind, and disabled; better health insurance programs for low income families; aid to community colleges; aid to low-income college students; the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities; and increased funding for elementary and secondary schools. Today ,someone of Nixon’s domestic political tendencies might be considered too radical for C-SPAN – let alone the White House.

How was it that two such personally questionable politicians could do so much good while the sainted Barack Obama is having a hard time even finding the gate and, when he does, keeps getting second thoughts about going through it?

A key factor is that the character of Washington in the 1960s and 1970s was not so much defined by capital spinsters and politicians but by a variegated popular revolt that the spinsters and politicians could not control. And so, under pressure, they did the right thing.

Something similar happened with Franklin Roosevelt who was under even greater pressure from socialists, communists, populists and Huey Long. He felt he had to stay ahead of them.

Consider that his man on the case – Harry Hopkins – got more people

employed in four months than Obama plans to do by 20011. Or that the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration built or repaired 103 golf courses, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,192 parks, 12,800 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, and 651,087 of highways and roads. We can’t even imagine that today.

But it wasn’t just the political pressures that made things happened. The mind, soul, experience and character of the capital were vastly different then they are today. Changes that have occurred make it much harder to do anything worthwhile no matter who is the president or who is demanding change.

Of course, you’d never guess it from the media, political rhetoric or academic analysis. But then we live in a time of illusory continuity. Peter Dale Scott put it well in describing Rome as it moved from republic to military empire:

“The institutions of the city were preserved. . . the Senate continued to meet. Tribunes and consuls were elected. Historians wrote about decadence, and moralists vowed to revive the old family virtues. A class accustomed to participate in civic institutions continued to do just that and no more, for generations. People found it preferable to ignore the fact that real power had migrated out of these institutions, into an imperial machine, the armies and the courts of army commanders. The self-respect of the senatorial classes depended on this denial.”

I once asked the journalist Stephen Goode how he would describe our era. Without hesitation, he said it was a time of epigons. An epigon is one who is a poor imitation of those who have preceded. Being around epigons is like being trapped at a bad craft fair where everything you see seems to have been made before, only better. Or in Washington.

A culture that has lost its way and forgotten so much is not the same as a flawed society bumbling through history trying to make itself better. A civil rights veteran once compared his era with that of the end of the 20th century by saying that in the 1960s there had been hope that someday the Congress, the courts, and the White House would see the right. Now, he said, we no longer have that hope. And the writer Dorothy Allison spoke of a betrayed optimism that many shared: “I had the idea that if you took America and shook it really hard it would do the right thing.” Even Jackie Robinson, well before a strong civil rights movement, recalled that “Never once did I face the immovable.”

You don’t hear that sort of thing anymore.

Part of the blame clearly belongs to the people and politics involved, But beyond that has been a disintegration of skills, values, attitudes, experience, policies, procedures and ability to play well with others. To understand what has happened to Washington, we must look beyond the political players and their games towards factors such as these:

Abuse of history

Washington only considers history when it finds it useful and then, typically, rewrites it. The grossly exaggerated comparisons of Obama with Roosevelt are an example.

Good news is frequently given an historical profundity it doesn’t deserve and bad news is treated as an isolated and atypical event. A classic example can be found in sex stories and other scandals, each handled as though it was the first time anyone in DC had taken a bribe or misapplied their urges.

The indifference to history also buries those who get it right. People like FDIC chair Sheila Blair who argued the government wasn’t doing enough to prevent foreclosures. Or Brooksley Born, whom Katrina Vaden Heuvel described in the Nation:

“More than a decade ago, a woman you’re likely never to have heard of, Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — a federal agency that regulates options and futures trading — was the oracle whose warnings about the dangerous boom in derivatives trading just might have averted the calamitous bust now engulfing the US and global markets. Instead she was met with scorn, condescension and outright anger by former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his deputy Lawrence Summers. . .

In 1997, Brooksley Born warned in congressional testimony that unregulated trading in derivatives could “threaten our regulated markets or, indeed, our economy without any federal agency knowing about it.” Born called for greater transparency — disclosure of trades and reserves as a buffer against losses.

“Instead of heeding this oracle’s warnings, Greenspan, Rubin & Summers rushed to silence her. . . Greenspan deployed condescension and told Born she didn’t know what she doing and she’d cause a financial crisis. . .

“In early 1998, according to the Times story, one of the guys, Larry Summers, called Born to ‘chastise her for taking steps he said would lead to a financial crisis. But Born kept at it, unwilling to let arrogant men undermine her good judgment. But it got tougher out there. In June 1998, Greenspan, Rubin and the then head of the SEC, Arthur Levitt, Jr., called on Congress ‘to prevent Ms. Born from acting until more senior regulators developed their own recommendations.’ . . . Months later, the huge hedge fund Long Term Capital Management nearly collapsed — confirming some of Born’s warnings. (Bets on derivatives were a key reason.)

“‘Despite that event,’ the Times reports, ‘ Congress (apparently as a result of Greenspan & Summer’s urging, influence-peddling and pressure) ‘froze’ Born’s commission’s regulatory authority. The next year, Born left . . .”

This is a classic Washington story. Greenspan, Rubin and Summers are still calling the shots for an allegedly “transformational” president while hardly anyone remembers Brooksley Born.

In Washington, history is just one more metaphor to manipulate at will.


The twisting of history is one part of a larger problem in the capital: a huge increase in the number of people dedicated to altering facts in one direction or another. There have always been public relations hustlers, rampant hyperbolists and verbal disaster recovery experts, but these days what was onceperiodic patois is now the main vocabulary.

Driving this tendency has been the willingness of the media to bury the who, what, where, when, and how of stories in a swamp of projections, assurances, promises, speculations, assertions and other verbal fantasies. Once the press gives spin as much status as it has, facts don’t stand a chance. There is just too much other stuff for MSNBC and Fox to fight over, matter that has the added blessed nature of not requiring the slightest amount of research.

Once you decide that the top news is how various people react to what Character X is doing about Issue Y, you have turned over your news business to the biggest blowhards and liars in town.

There are all sorts of ancillary problems with the broad acceptance of propaganda as a reasonable substitute for reality. Investigative reporting becomes less important, style sweeps away substance and organizations dedicated to finding actual facts – such as the Government Accountability Office or Congressional Budget Office – become far less newsworthy.

A small but striking example occurred in the wake of the Obama stimulus package and bank bailout, both heavily weighted towards the wealthiest and most powerful segments of society. The mainstream media generally did a poor job of analyzing the true effects of these programs, but immediately came to life when Obama and Joe Biden decided to visit a hamburger joint. The end of he Washington Post story was telling:

“The lunch date lasted 34 minutes and by the time Obama and Biden stepped back into their motorcade, after posing for cellphone pictures with the restaurant’s staff, dozens of people had gathered outside the restaurant to cheer. The outing was broadcast on national television. And as a public relations move, it appeared to be a success: Bonnie Cosby, 51, a technology consultant who picked up burgers on her way home from work, opined: ‘It shows that he’s in touch with the people, that he’s not up in the ivory tower. He’s a real person — with a burger.'”

This is how we’ve been trained to think these days – not about how our president is handling foreclosures but whether he is in touch with us enough to eat a burger.

The media

The media’s reliance on those trying to twist its message is more than matched by its almost obscene infatuation with political power and its daily manifestations. This has grown dramatically over the past half century.

When I returned to my native Washington in the 1950s, over half the reporters in the country had only a high school education. Richard Harwood once caught the social status of the press well describing his own experience a decade earlier: “We were perceived as a lower form of life, amoral, half-literate hacks in cheap suits. Thus I was assigned to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Nashville in the late 1940s and, with other reporters, was given lunch at a card table set up in a hallway to protect the dining room from contamination.”

By the 1950s, the typical journalist still had far more in common with the typical American than with politicians and similar icons, and this was reflected in how they covered the news.

At the end of the sixties, that began to change. The Washington Post replaced its “For and About Women” section with something called “Style.” Worthy as the demise of the women’s section was, the replacement had its own problems. For one thing, it fostered the notion that power was not only powerful but stylish. Worse, the press moved from half illiterate hacks in cheap suits to joining the upscale power structure of the city – becoming the first socio-economic group in history to raise its status simply by writing about itself.

As it did so, the media changed sides in the struggle between citizens and those who ruled them. It could never again be expected to speak for the former.

Later, not only did a high school diploma no longer suffice, one even needed graduate school, because journalism – at best a trade or a craft – had decided to become a profession, removing itself still further from its natural constituency.

As reporters evolved from being race horses in the stables of some egomaniacal and often eccentric publisher, to being corporate bureaucrats with deadlines, the Washington media lost its aggressiveness, skill, verve and soul.

And its bosses helped this shift by shutting down beats that covered specific agencies or closing their Washington offices entirely. This may not seem like much but if you don’t have reporters closely covering the FTC or HUD, or keeping an eye on what a state’s congressional delegation is up to, you’re going to miss a lot of news.

Another change I stumbled upon a few years ago while reading the NY Times one morning. Three stories and an editorial were based on investigative work not of its reporters but of non-profit groups that the Fund for Constitutional Government, on whose board I sat, had helped to fund. In other words, non-profits were doing the paper’s most celebrated work: investigative reporting. From a corporate point of view, it made some sense: if the stories were wrong the non-profits and not the Times would take the blame and, besides, investigative stories can run up large tabs. A number of non-profits are currently working on how to expand this role in the face of the decline of print journalism, but it is one more sign of how journalism in Washington has changed.

A broader problem is that a thoroughly embedded media treats as irrelevant, eccentric or bizarre anything that isn’t on the establishment’s table. This even includes matters in which a majority of the public differs from the insiders, such as handling marijuana and single payer healthcare. If today’s media had been covering the 1960s and 1970s we might hardly have known there was a civil rights, anti-war or environmental movement.


Just one month before 9/11, I moved into a house six blocks from the US Capitol. When I had first covered the Capitol, a reporter could wander almost anywhere on the grounds except for the floor of the House and the Senate. Capitol cops were often the sons of major contributors to some senator or representative, earning a little extra while they went to American or Georgetown university. And the Capitol grounds were a de facto public park. Unlike the White House, the Capitol still had the strong whiff of democracy about it and you felt good about your country just being there.

After 9/11 such memories faded. The Capitol turned into an armed camp. The Capitol Visitors Center, under construction, was modified to serve as a bunker for members of Congress in case of an attack and the Capitol police force soared to three officers per member of Congress with the greatest number of police per acre of any spot in America. In the end the visitor’s center/bunker would cost over $600 million, just slightly less than the city’s new baseball stadium. Perhaps the most telling change was when the Capitol police, as a security measure, moved all tourist bus traffic two blocks further away. In essence, the police declared the lives of residents of 3rd & 4th Streets less important than those officials working at or near the Capitol.

I would later tell people that I knew exactly where the war on terror ended: 2nd Street. Living four blocks further to the east, there would never be the slightest sign that my safety was of any concern to the official city.

It was an important lesson that made me realize the War on Terror was not about protecting me, but about protecting those extremely frightened men and women who ran our government, our major corporations and other large institutions. It was not about me, but about easing the fear of some Republican congressman from Idaho who was scared shitless.

I came to think of Washington as being divided into two parts: the free city and the occupied city, the former being those places where you could enter a building without having to prove you weren’t a terrorist.

The war on terror, it turned out, was in no small part about the terror those in power felt about those who were angry at them. It is extremely difficult to run a democracy out of a capital so overflowing with paranoia and the measures taken to relieve it.

Loss of reality

I had long believed that part of what good journalism was about was the care and feeding of reality. But sometime around the middle of the 1980s I suddenly noticed that the truth was no longer setting people free; it was only making them drowsy. This realization first came in the midst of a meeting held to discuss a worthy investigative journalism project. We had considered every aspect of the proposal save one and now, unbidden, a heretical question wiggled into my mind, never to leave: did the truth being sought really matter anymore?

At first it was only a sense of unease, a recognition that saying something true no longer commanded the respect it once had, an awareness that journalism was being driven away from the real and towards imaginings, mythologies, and “perceptions,” that news itself was disappearing from the evening news and from newspapers, its place taken by inflated and cliched descriptions, commentaries, and analyses of the news for which there was no longer any room.

We were, I had belatedly noticed, embarked upon an age that denied the existence of objective truth and, by extension, the value of any facts that might point to it. This was now an age, as philosophy professor Rick Roderick put it, when everything once directly lived was being turned into a representation of itself — Washington news no less than anything else.

Culture of impunity

In a culture of impunity, such as today’s Washington, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a society, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself.

In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught. We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.

Concentration of power

As typical pasture in the American west, Federal Washington could support about 120 cows and their calves. The tendency to concentrate our view of politics and of our collective selves upon this tiny enclave has accelerated in recent decades in part because of a dramatic shift in power away from fifty “united states” towards an increasingly centralized and powerful federal government. But it has also been encouraged by a conglomerated media that requires news topics as ubiquitous as its own expanding corporate structures yet which still can be distilled into a single face or story.

Thus Congress has lost power relative to the White House not merely for various political reasons, but because 535 legislators are simply too many for the media to handle. TV, in particular, treats politics much as it does wide screen movies; it snips off the right and left sides until the frame fits comfortably within the more equilateral shape of its eye. The edges of our experience are lost and we find ourselves staring at a comfortable center– which in the case of politics, means we find ourselves endlessly watching the President while much of the rest of American democracy passes unnoticed.

This preoccupation with the presidency not only exaggerates the importance of the position, it distorts the constitutional division of political power, denigrates the significance of state and local government and creates pressures for presidential action when such action may be neither wise nor even lawful. We can not, even out of seemingly harmless celebrity worship, imbue our president with supra-constitutional virtues or powers without simultaneously damaging the Constitution and the democratic system it was established to protect.

Besides, our presidential fetish badly skews our view of our country and the changes occurring within it — not only elsewhere in government but beyond politics entirely. It trivializes our own collective and individual roles in creating social and political change. And, conversely, it can create the illusion of great change when far less is really happening.


Today, every politician in Washington takes bribes, from the president on down. Only please call them campaign contributions.

Most assume that to bribe someone you have to commit a crime. Not so. Dictionary definitions of ‘bribe’ include both criminal and merely distasteful acts.

For centuries ordinary people knew exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to “to influence corruptly, by a consideration.” Another 16th century definition describes bribery as “a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct” of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving “money or other thing of value, with intent to influence” to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time during the Clinton administration when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official “for or because of an official act” didn’t mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the briber was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like “inappropriate gift,” “the appearance of a conflict of interest,” or “campaign contribution.”

Yet, according to various dictionaries, campaign contributions fall comfortably within the definition of bribes. And hardly anyone in Washington talks about it.

Politics of the particulars

Although the media presents Washington as a city grappling with the major issues of our time, much of the town’s workday is absorbed by highly specific concerns. The president is worried about the spin to give a statement or appearance. The lobbyist is obsessed with a very particular amendment to a very particular bill. The size of the capital’s bureaucracy is necessitated in no small part by the number and specificity of regulations it must administer. And woe to the member of Congress who lets larger concerns surpass the parochial needs of the district.

Thus Washington is awash in the politics of particulars. Go to a congressional hearing concerning something you consider a good idea and you are likely to be startled by the number of people and interests this benign concept will allegedly injure.

One of the best descriptions of how Washington really operates can be found in Thurman Arnold’s Folklore of Capitalism. Arnold imagines applying the principles of a contemporary debate to the attempted rescue of Amelia Earhart:

“First, plans would have been made for the use of the best planes to search the ocean. Then, when this extravagance was attacked publicly, cheaper planes would have been used. By the time that this device had received condemnation for inefficiency, the rescue would have been changed from a practical, efficient endeavor to a public debate about general principles.

“Everyone would have agreed that people in distress must be rescued. They would have insisted, however, that the problem was intimately tied up with balancing the national budget, improving the character of people lost at sea, stopping the foolhardy from adventuring and at the same time encouraging the great spirit of adventure and initiatives and so on ad infinitum. They would have ended perhaps by creating a commission to study the matter statistically, take a census of those lost at sea, examine the practices in other countries. What was saved in airplane fuel would be spent on research so that the problem could be permanently solved.”

The town’s most common skill, its trade of choice, is finding what is wrong with something. For the bureaucrat, this eliminates the need for action. For the politician, it lessens risk. For the lobbyist, it means points with the client. For the public interest group, democracy and justice are at stake. And for the lawyer and reporter, it is just instinctual. All day long, Washington hums with people trying to stop other people from doing something, and with considerable frequency they are successful. At times Washington seems a series of endless loop videos in which policies are debated, lobbied and almost acted upon before the tape repeats itself once more. This is the city that first heard a president call for national health insurance in the 1940s

In an interview with Time’s Ann Blackman, HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros described the Washington he had found:

“We’ll spend hours talking through a strategy of meeting all the objections to try and move our homeless initiative through the Office of Management Budget and through congressional committees. We’ll spend hours talking about how to please this or that person. Meanwhile, it’s dusk. And people are starting to bed down for the night — for one more night in the park outside the window. And we could go on for days talking and never get one step closer to the people who are using cardboard for beds in the nation’s capital.”

There is no law or corrupt practice that makes it thus but rather something deeper: a primal urge to maintain the equilibrium of the capital. The imperative of the parochial rises to the top. And it keeps getting worse.


No one knows for sure how many lobbyists there are in town. In 1981, Robert Reich, then a Harvard professor, estimated the Washington regulatory “community” to consist of 92,500 people including lawyers, lobbyists and their employees, trade journalists, corporate representatives, public affairs specialists and consultants. The count is complicated by the fact that many lobbyists escape registration requirements. Said Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, “No one in Washington ever admits they lobby.”

Estimates run from 15,000 to 35,000 major lobbyists. To get some idea of what this means, if each of these lobbyists met just once with each member of congress would result somewhere between 8 and 18 million lobbying contacts a year.

A radical change in lobbying occurred in the 1970s. Business executives who had previously regarded lobbying as something not quite respectable became worried by the success of Ralph Nader. They formed the Business Roundtable, a group limited to the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and devoted to using the immense assets of these corporations — including their customers and employees — to affect political decisions in Washington. William Greider reported that in 1970 only a handful of Fortune 500 companies had public affairs offices in Washington; by 1980, 80% did.

By 2005, not only had the total number vastly increased, but a report by Public Citizen found, wrote the Washington Post, that since 1998, “43 percent of the 198 members of Congress who left government to join private life have registered to lobby.”

And lobbying is fed by the news. The Center for Public Integrity recently reported that more than 770 companies and interest groups had hired an estimated 2,340 lobbyists to influence federal policy on climate change in the past year. “That’s an increase of more than 300 percent in the number of lobbyists on climate change in just five years, and means that Washington can now boast more than four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress.” The center estimated that lobbying expenditures on climate change last year topped $90 million.

Add to this the disastrous influences that the huge banking and healthcare industries are currently having on our country, and one gains a sense of just how damaging the lobbying pandemic has become.


Number-crunchers form another important Washington subculture, led by the uncritically accepted shamans of economics. The latter’s success with ex cathedra calculations has encouraged much of Washington to speak so confidently about numbers that one almost forgets how many of them were once only English majors.

The effect of numbers on the city has been profound. At times it seems that there are no governments anymore, only budget offices. The idea of a budget bureau at the federal level only goes back to Warren Harding. As late as 1975, Austin Kiplinger could write that the president’s budget officials were outnumbered by those of the various departments and thus “have to be especially sharp” and make up in clout what they lack in numbers. Today, few feel sorry for the White House budget squad, which has not only replaced many of the functions of departmental financial officials but those of the departments themselves.

As the numerologists rose in power, programs increasingly became transformed into line items. Numbers began serving as adjectives, ideas were reduced to figures and policy became a matter of where one placed the decimal point. Thus, what should be a debate about programs became one about arithmetic. It is an emphasis that can produce bizarre results, such as the attempt once cited by William Greider of various federal agencies to develop a cost-benefit factor for human life. The FAA figured it at $650,00 for the purpose of airplane crashes; the Labor Department thought a dead construction worker was worth about $3.5 million, while OMB disagreed, putting the value of a hard hat at only $1 million.

Every day in Washington, many of the best and the brightest occupy themselves computing such figures, defending them before Congress, citing them before a trade association or recalling them on C-SPAN. Adding and subtracting are among Washington’s favorite activities, often providing a digital shield against discussing what the figures actually represent. Few speak of numbers with the clarity of Charles Dickens in David Copperfield:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure, nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”


The number of lawyers in DC has increased many fold since the 1970s. Today, the city has 276 lawyers for every 10,000 residents, while second place New York gets along with only 20, and Wisconsin 7.

As Jim Barlow, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle once noted, “I subscribe to the locust theory. The locust is a fairly benign form of grasshopper until we get too many of them. Then they swarm, eating their weight every day and devouring the countryside.”

This is what has happened to the capital’s government and its culture. Part of it is in the law itself and part in the legal perspective that invades all aspects of the city’s life, decisions and policy. Lives become more regulated, decisions more circumspect, and policies stunningly cautious.

Besides, as de Tocqueville put it, lawyers are a “counterpoise” to democratic government: “They constantly endeavor to turn it away from its real direction by means that are foreign to its nature.”

Take the technology of torts, with its tyranny of precedents and its infatuation with retribution over resolution, which has, in the words of the country & western song, walked across our heart like it was Texas. No politics, no ideology, no culture has been immune. All of American life has been hauled into court. Thus we find in our path not only the endless droppings of corporate attorneys, but civil rights advocates who insist that the law will lead us to love each other, colleges that publish what amounts to a lawyer’s guide to correct sex, and public interest activists trying to run a revolution out of the courthouse.

If today’s lawyer-leaders had come to the fore forty years ago, the 60s would have been just a lawsuit, not a cultural and political revolution. And few would have understood what Martin Luther King meant when he said, “Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”

You can not have a capital with courage, compassion, imagination and vigor when such such qualities must first be reviewed by the attorneys.

Autistic politics

While the capital is filled with extremely bright people, over the past half century the nature of this intelligence has changed dramatically. When I started, politicians – like reporters – were on average far less educated than today. What they possessed, sometimes to a remarkable degree, was social intelligence. The ability to weave knowledge, action, wisdom and people together typified the successful politician.

This is no longer true, in part because of the rising socio-economic status of politicians and part because of a deep change in politics caused in no small part by the arrival of television.

The beginning of TV-era politics is generally traced to the Kennedy-Nixon debates. It would be a couple of decades before we felt the full power of television to change our politics. By the end of the 1980s, however, it seemed that television was more important than anything.

Politicians no longer talked, conversed or argued with people; now they communicated.

Contemporary communications is quite different from that of discussion or argument. It is more like a shuttle bus endlessly running around a terminal of ideas. The bus plays no favorites; it stops at every concept and every notion, it shares every concern and feels every pain, but when you have made the full trip you are right back where you started.

If you challenge the contemporary communicator, you are likely to find the argument transformed from whatever you thought you were talking about to something quite different — generally more abstract and grandiose. For example if you are opposed to the communicator’s proposed policy on trade you may be accused of being against “change” or “fearful of new ideas” and so forth.

Philip Lader, creator and maitre d’ of the New Year’s Renaissance gatherings attended by the Clintons for many years, liked this sort of language. Said Lader on PBS:

“The gist of Renaissance has been to recognize the incredible transforming power of ideas and relationships. And I would hope that this administration might be characterized by the power of ideas. But also the power of relationships. Of recognizing the integrity of people dealing with each other.”

There is an hyperbolic quality to this language that shatters normal sense of meaning. Simple competence is dubbed “a world-class operation,” common efficiency is called “total quality management,” a conversation becomes “incredibly transforming,” and a gathering of hyper-ambitious and single-minded professionals is called a “Renaissance” weekend.

Key to this language is its disconnection from what it is meant to connect: two or more people. Intelligent as the speaker might be, there is no longer much consciousness of the other person at all or what they might be thinking.

This has striking similarities to high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Key to the Asperger style is the constant repetition of thought patterns and the imperviousness of the practitioners’ thinking to outside fact or argument. The technical name for this is perseveration which has been defined as “the persistent repetition of a response after cessation of the causative stimuli; for example, the repetition of a correct answer to one question as the answer to succeeding questions,” an almost perfect description of what regularly occurs on your average Sunday talk show. A less technical but even more generally apt definition is “continuation of something usually to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point.”

How did it happen that we have become cursed with a perseverating elite that endlessly repeats the same thoughts to whatever is said to it, and which insists on pursuing ideas well past any possible usefulness? One theory is that the SAT has played a role, helping to choose an establishment that, while seemingly diverse, is actually disproportionately comprised of those of above average intelligence but who think life consists mainly of coming up with the right answers.

Silently, without argument or recognition, the logic of our nation has drastically changed from experience to propaganda, from the empirical to the virtual, and from debate and discussion to addictive perseveration. Our capital’s politics, once characterized by its social intelligence, is now trapped in the endless reiteration of high functioning autism.

Technocratic authoritarianism

One of the dangers with autistic politics is its bias towards the comfort of technocratic solutions. Our assessment addiction in education policy is a excellent example. It requires none of the traditional skills of a good teacher to come up with a multiple choice test that claims to judge correctly both the student and the instructor. With it you can wipe out concerns about social intelligence, judgment, cooperation or applying one’s knowledge in a real community rather than on a paper form.

The shift was well described by novelist Jack Butler: People understood reality as machinery rather than God’s own dream of existence, intelligence as information rather than judgment.'”

In Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West the Canadian historian John Ralston Saul argues: When the 18th-century philosophers killed God, they thought they were en­gaged in housekeeping– the evils of corrupt religion would be swept away, the decent aspects of Christian morali­ty would be dusted off and neatly re­packaged inside reason.” Instead says Saul, came “a theology of pure power — ­power born of structure, not of dynas­ty or arms. The new holy trinity is or­ganization, technology, and information.”

Reviewing Saul’s work for the Utne Reader, Jeramiah Creedon wrote:

“The new priest is the technocrat, someone who interprets events not morally but ‘within the logic of the system.’ Saul’s point is that reason alone has no inherent virtue; it is simply an intellectual tool. In fact, when reason is allowed to unfold in an ethical vacu­um, untempered by common sense, the results are apt to be terrible. The classic example is the ‘perfectly ratio­nal’ Holocaust, planned by the Nazis with ‘the clean efficiency of a Harvard case study.’ . . . Reason has also created a recur­ring human type well suited to perpetuating it: the leader for whom calculation is everything.”

Washington has increasingly moved away from common sense and judgment and towards a technocratic authoritarianism in which data and systems supplant wisdom and sensible action

Obsession with the center

If you ask important Washington people in politics, think tanks or the media where they stand politically, many will say “in the center.” A lot of these folks like the center because it makes them sound reasonable and moderate. It also allows them to call other people extremists or gadflies or wishful thinkers for disagreeing with the conventional wisdom of the moment. Some members of the American elite have made whole careers of being measured and cautious. They like to write somber columns asking pompous questions like “Can the Center Hold?” What they really mean is: can they hold on to their power? But even if you do find the center, it’s not necessarily the best place to be. My navigation instructor at Coast Guard Officer Candidate School explained it well: “If you take a navigational fix and it places you on one side of a rock and then you take another fix and it places you on the other side of the rock — don’t split the difference.” Unfortunately, it’s a rule not often followed in Washington politics.

Even the KKK, so often cited as an example of the sort of threat the contemporary right poses, was powerful primarily because it was at the center, holding political and judicial and law enforcement office as well as hiding beneath its robes. In some towns, lynching parties were even announced in the local paper. And in the 1920s, both the Colorado governor and mayor of Denver were members of the Klan, the latter well enough regarded to have had Stapleton airport named after him.

As Jim Hightower has pointed out, there’s nothing to be found in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

Collapse of liberalism

In lining up strongly behind two centrist candidates – Clinton and Obama – liberals surrendered their values for victory and their ideas for icons. With some notable exceptions the liberal has pretty much faded from the Washington scene except as a socio-economic demographic. At the top of the liberal agenda are issues like abortion and gay marriage that, while worthy in themselves, do not speak to the larger constituency liberals used to attract. Most strikingly absent from liberal rhetoric and action are key economic issues of the sort that drove the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations. Liberals are strikingly quiet about the escalation of the Afghan war and its expansion into Pakistan, single payer (save for the unions), foreclosures and unreasonable bank bailouts.

This is a major shift and Washington is much the worse for it. Because its definition has been rewritten, it is easy to forget what liberalism was once about. Here are just a few of the things America would be without had it not been for liberals in the White House a long time ago:

  • Regulation of banks and stock brokerage firms cheating their customers
  • Protection of your bank account
  • Social Security
  • A minimum wage
  • Legal alcohol
  • Regulation of the stock exchanges
  • Right of labor to bargain with employers
  • Soil Conservation Service and other early environmental programs
  • National parks and monuments
  • Tennessee Valley Authority
  • Rural electrification
  • College education for innumerable veterans
  • Housing loans for innumerable veterans
  • FHA housing loans
  • The bulk of hospital beds in the country
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Child Labor Act
  • Small Business Administration
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • Medicare
  • Peace Corps

Allen Ferguson, President of AFE Inc, in a 1985 talk the National Economist Club outlined the effects of such policies. He noted that the real gross national product rose 546% from 1933 to 1980. Real per capita disposable income rose 233% during the same period. In 1929, one percent of non-farm workers took vacations. By 1970, the figure had risen to 80%. The average work week dropped from around 48 hours in 1929 to around 35 hours in 1980. By 1950, 34 million workers were covered by unemployment insurance; by 1980 the figure was almost 93 million. Social security, during the same period expanded from covering 46 million to 128 million people. And a Congressional Research Service study done in 1982 showed that without the various liberal transfer programs, 24% of the country would have been in poverty rather than the 9% that was the case.

It is a shame verging on a sin that Washington’s liberals have so deserted their own heritage.

The club

How one comes to matter in Washington politics is guided by few precise rules, although in comparison to fifty years ago the views of lobbyists and fundraisers are far more significant than the opinion, say, of the mayor of Chicago or the governor of Pennsylvania. This is a big difference; somewhere behind the old bosses in their smoke-filled rooms were live constituents; behind the political cash lords of today there is mostly just more money and the few who control it. Thus coming to matter has much less to do with traditional politics, especially local politics, than it once did.

Today, other things count: the patronage of those who already matter, a blessing bestowed casually by one right person to another right person over lunch at the Metropolitan Club, a columnist’s praise, a well-received speech before a well-placed organization, the assessment of a lobbyist as sure-eyed as a fight manager checking out new fists at the local gym. There are still machines in American politics; they just dress and talk better. There is another rule. The public plays no part. The public is the audience; the audience does not write or cast the play.

Official Washington — including government, media and the lobbies — functions in many ways like America’s largest and most prestigious club, a sort of indoor, east coast Bohemian Grove in which members engage in endless rites of mutual affirmation combined with an intense but genteel competition that determines the city’s tennis ladder of political and social power. What appears to the stranger as a major struggle is often only an intramural game between members of the same club, lending an aura of dynamism to what is in truth deeply stable.

Furthermore. . .

Federal Washington has become a culture in which much seems to happen but little gets accomplished. It is a culture in which neither the battles nor the words about them are necessarily real, in which the interests of the federal enclave inevitably proceed those of the country, and in which speaking of something is considered the moral equivalent of actually doing it.

It is a culture that can admit neither to itself nor to the larger world the degree to which its various systems are out of control. Nor can it admit that when it defines corruption only by its most precise legal limits it exempts itself from any broader decency.

It is a culture that has been remarkably successful at isolating itself from the reality it is attempting to govern. The abstract, soulless security of the capital protects it from the pain it causes, the suffering it neglects and the concerns it can quantify but not ameliorate. Here statistics substitute for tears, data for anger, and mechanically modulated voices recounting promises never to be fulfilled serve as a placebo for real hope and joy.

2 thoughts on “Why Washington doesn’t work

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