In Defense of Washington

29 Jul

When I graduated from Georgetown, I made a conscious decision to leave Washington, D.C. I didn’t have a real plan, but I knew one thing. I wanted out. I needed to ground myself somewhere else: preferably back home, where I had some roots. My return to Minnesota, while not always the smoothest of journeys, has largely lived up to my hopes. Two years ago, when I’d attained some distance from DC, I wrote a critique of my time there. I could pick at a few things in that post now—I think I was too uncharitable to many of my Hoya peers, for example—but I still agree with its broad contours.

That post was directed at Georgetown, but Georgetown takes its cues from the city. After all, the university was founded by Jesuits who, in 1789, rushed to create a presence in the newly established American capital. DC, I thought, exemplified what was wrong with American democracy. A giant, distant bureaucratic beast that slowly accumulated more and more power, no matter who was pulling the strings. A city filled with people with more loyalty to ideology or career than family or country or humanity. It was toxic, and while I have plenty of respect for my friends who stayed to fight the good fight (or plan to head back there in the future), I made the right choice for myself.

I still believe that, but times change, and edges soften, to the point where I’ll now offer up a defense of that muddled city that I got to know so well. There’s been a lot of hate directed at Washington, and the “establishment,” from both the Democrats and the Republicans this election season. Much of it is justified. DC is often an elitist cocoon, filled with people who are ignorant, if not downright disdainful, of large swaths of the country. Power will continue to accrue there, no matter who wins this election; the question is simply one of whether it will be continuation of the gradual liberal march of the past eight years, or…well, God knows what the other guy would do.

Still, there are things to be said for Washington, and all it represents. More than anything, I thank Washington for cultivating a strong dose of realpolitik in me. It’s pretty to dream, and we need a few idealists to help frame the debate. But, whether we like it or not, managing a large, diverse country requires the death of some ideals, lest the perfect become the enemy of the good. Dirty compromises and back-room deals can lead to trouble and inefficiency, but they are also the most effective way of moving things along. This is the art of politics, and statecraft has always been a fine art of skillful maneuvers and occasionally yelling one thing while doing something somewhat different in practice. We don’t have to like it, but we can, at least, tame its excesses and funnel it all along on a slow, often uninspiring lurch.

Washington also stands for order, and an established means of doing business. Yes, there has been gross incompetence there over the course of this century, and probably back to the dawn of time. It is often a town filled with ugly backbiting, and the machinery devoted to tearing down its members—the vast majority of whom do earnestly think they’re doing some good, even if they are at times naïve, ignorant, or making sure that they (or their people) are getting a slice of the pie. Whatever advantages or outside help it might have enjoyed, this government managed to oversee a nation’s astonishing rise, and while the U.S. clearly has problems today, good luck finding places that are doing much better. DC is a world of paradoxes, as the government constrains our freedoms in the name of defending freedom. Yet the people want to blow it all up have no idea what forces they might unleash. Revolution is the dream of a leisure class, of people with enough free time and money that they can philosophize new solutions (or simply sit back and be armchair revolutionaries). Effective politicking in a nation filled with people who disagree with you takes a different set of skills.

I watched much of both of the Republican and Democratic conventions over the past two weeks. (Note to the wise: watch conventions on C-SPAN. No spin, no pundits, no commercials; just the speeches, and plenty of awkward dancing during the gaps.) The most memorable moment for me wasn’t Trump’s stark portrait of America, nor the Obamas’ speeches (masterworks of rhetoric, whatever one may think of their politics), nor the sincere relatives of the fallen that both parties trotted out. It was four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who unleashed a full-throated roar of American exceptionalism with a diverse cast of veterans behind him on the last day of the Democratic Convention. It was a stunning picture of how the parties have realigned themselves—though I’m well-aware that some of the flag-waving was to cover up the boisterous Bernie-or-Bust crowd. Most of the Democrats, however, ate it up, chanting “U.S.A!” as if the clock were winding down on the Soviets in Lake Placid. I normally prefer that idolatry confine itself to sporting events or at least to genuine human triumphs, and I’m a frequent skeptic of American military adventures abroad, whether conceived by Republicans in Iraq or Hillary Clinton and friends in Libya. And yet I found myself pounding the arm of the couch in rhythm.

We all know the U.S. has flaws and ugly histories, some of them glaring. But there’s more to it: it has the capacity to bring about reasonably orderly, careful change when it must, and that is no small victory. Octavio Paz: “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change.” To make it all work, even a localist will admit that there must be an apparatus at the top to keep things more or less in line. That thing is Washington, warts and all, and for all my criticism, it has a human side that the endless spin machine in the media loses in all its yelling. A republic needs some people to hold the levers of power, and by their nature, they’ll get slapped with the “elite” tag.  That machinery deserves some respect, and no matter who gets elected in November, it will continue its inertia-driven muddle through. Who knows; this depressing election cycle may even encourage a few of the D.C. denizens to get out a bit and see why they’re not so popular elsewhere. If so, I’ll welcome them. We’re all stuck with each other, so we might as well see what we can do.

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