Tag Archives: american politics

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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Realizing Dreams, 50 Years Later

28 Aug

Fifty years ago today, when several hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., I wasn’t anywhere close to the world of the living. I grew up on the whitest end of a town that is over 90% white; questions of race were, by in large, something that happened somewhere else. Imagine my shock when I ventured into The Bronx during a visit to New York late in high school, when my father and I were the only non-black people on a crowded shopping street. It wasn’t fear or discomfort; it was simply recognition of being distinctly different. Perhaps because of that lack of experience with other races, I have never found dialogues on race easy. Indeed, I’ve read that white Northerners can often be cagy to the point of excess when confronted with the topic, and I am probably guilty of that.

Even so, it is hard to think of any Americans who inspired more reverence in my childhood than Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK is ensconced in America’s civic religion, complete with a monument on the National Mall and a statue that, while not without its controversy, does capture his deep, searing eyes. He is as much of a hero as we’re likely to find in American history, and deserves so many of the plaudits he receives. But in the worship of past figures, there is a danger of sanitizing people; of turning them into saintly icons rather than the human beings they were. MLK was a complicated man who stood for many things that went far beyond race.

Fifty years later, where is his dream? It’s hard to say. There have been monumental advances in some fields, and in simple, basic civility. But at the same time, African-Americans lag behind whites in any number of indicators, and some cities look just as segregated as they did fifty years ago. Things are more difficult to measure, however: blatant racism is much less common than it once was, and the forces complicating things are invariably more subtle than Southern segregationists of the 1960s. The public policy initiatives used to combat racial inequality in 2013—affirmative action, forced school desegregation, various education reform plans—tend to be crude tools that oversimplify the problem. Ending the single greatest contributor to systemic racism in the current U.S.—the war on drugs—will come with some serious trade-offs; and while I think the benefits outweigh the costs, the costs do exist, and will have to be confronted in a careful manner, if and when the war is drawn down. Rarely are racial issues as clear-cut and morally obvious as they were in the 1960s. From the Trayvon Martin debate to the case of a local black principal sloppily removed from her job, I struggle to believe the motives at play were as vicious as some claim: too often, they seem to assume the worst in other people, and seek to pass blame—something that does not strike me as terribly MLK-ish. (Admittedly, MLK’s willingness to forgive sets a very high bar, and it probably isn’t realistic to expect most people to meet it. We have to work with the world we live in.)

What we are witnessing here is the collision of American meritocracy with ongoing cycles of poverty and culture that leave African-Americans, as a whole, on unequal footing. King said his dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” but as James Baldwin noted in a famed 1965 debate with Bill Buckley, for all its claims of equal opportunity, the future-oriented American creed is not well-designed to redress lingering legacies of the past. (I say this simply as a statement of fact, not as a call for revolution. I don’t know what a better alternative would look like.) No one encapsulates the tension between the American Dream and the past better than President Obama himself: whatever one may think of the President’s record, it is now clear he never had a prayer of re-orienting the national debate on race. Even though his election was a sign of racial progress and the possibility for anyone to achieve something, it didn’t erase the past. Ross Douthat’s Sunday column points out how the “post-racial” Obama era has seen more questions of race than most other recent administrations, with affirmative action and voting rights and  profiling issues coming back to the fore (to say nothing of the racial alarmism around the President himself). History prevents us from ever getting rid of these questions.

In a sign of the oddness of our times, Douthat’s column went on to argue that both parties have much to gain from a cross-racial coalition of working class Americans who have been left behind by the business and technology interests that are now deeply embedded in the political establishment. Yes, that’s right: the New York Times’ “conservative” columnist is making what is, essentially, a Marxist argument. Across the spectrum, political pundits are trying to find some source of a sustainable majority in American politics. Some have said the Republican Party will be dead unless it can increase its appeal among minorities, and while this is in essence true, I think it is also a horribly reductionist way of thinking. Aligning parties along racial lines is identity politics at its worst, and is not a recipe for societal health for either party.

Still, I’m skeptical of Douthat’s solution. One of the great lessons of the failure of Communism was that uniting the underclass against entrenched interests didn’t work particularly well. I’d be intrigued by populist candidates who try to lead insurgencies on behalf of Middle America, but even if those candidates should start to win, they would find a hostile environment in Washington. Reading some of the retrospectives on the 1963 March, it is astonishing to see how much the nation pulled together for such a display of collective conscience. Perhaps even more striking is trying to imagine that sort of rally in 2013 America, and failing miserably. Sure, there have been marches on Washington (Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and so on), and as a D.C. resident at the time, there was definitely something different about Obama’s election and inauguration. But the election alone was mostly symbolic in nature, and the militant political movements are a far cry from the unity preached by Dr. King and his fellow travelers.

This nation is deeply fragmented, and I’ve written on here with some sympathy for people who worry about this. Whether it’s the result of self-segregation in suburbs, the atomizing effects of technology, or the failures of the political system to inspire much confidence, some parts of this country seem further apart than ever before—a curious fact, considering how much more interconnected things are due to technology. The few forces that can hold things together—popular culture, national news networks, a handful of sporting events—often appeal to the lowest common denominator, and rarely offer us much in the way  of deep insights or patient reflection.

But, rather than bemoan our fate, I’m going to look for some bright spots in this apparent lack of national unity. The failures of the political class may lead people to hate national politics, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into complete alienation: as I’ve said before, politics need not go through formal institutions, and re-focusing on things we actually can affect can be quite gratifying. For the first time in a very long time, the American public is deeply skeptical of embroiling itself in foreign wars; whether due to the excesses of the Bush years or the lack of a real existential threat, that skepticism is a far cry from the blind patriotism behind past American military adventures. From localist liberals to communitarian conservatives, there are growing groups of people who find little to like in the crony capitalism/corporate welfare that has become so prevalent. At some point, they may even realize they have something in common, even if it never coheres into a national movement. Keeping political movements on a smaller scale allows for more nuance and attention to particular cases, rather than trying to slap a one-size-fits-all approach over a wildly diverse country of 300 million.

This doesn’t mean an end of attention to national politics: given the state’s power, it can’t be totally ignored, and there are some problems that can only be solved on a national level. Inertia is a powerful force, and the national media isn’t going to change the narrative anytime soon. It will be hard to limit ambition, and many successful local politicians will heed the call to climb the ladder in search of some “greater” opportunity. Still, the untapped potential in local energy for improving everyone’s lot in life is enormous.

Focusing on the immediate also keeps with a key tradition within the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial are what we remember most, but so many of the key moments in the Civil Rights Movement took place in towns and cities across the South, carefully coordinated by civic groups and churches confronting an ambivalent or hostile national political scene. We should remember 1963, but better societies do not come about just because some people decided to hold a march, or because of a great speech or two. The important work is far more mundane.