Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why Washington is Broken (A Resident's Perspective)

(Click to embiggen)

Last night, voters rejected the Washington, DC, establishment, signaling an electorate eager to take out its anger on political insiders of both parties. Channeling dissatisfaction with the nation's capital has long been the meal ticket for candidates espousing a strong populist streak. Such is the nature of this election cycle. Having established that, I thought I might try to add my own perspective as to why Washington runs the way it does. Close to a year spent here has given me ample opportunity to observe many of its idiosyncrasies and quirks. While I have certainly not been privy to the private world of the federal government, I have experienced a multitude of other meetings, gatherings, and functions which have inadvertently or deliberately mirrored that of the seat of power.

Politics on a national level, as evidenced by last night, is frequently a contentious, painful process predicated on constant conflict. Within the political process, this might be seen as a necessary evil, but it simply doesn't stop there. Instead, it seeps into other established entities in the city, often tainting good intentions along the way. The paradox in place is that, the way the system has been set up, unless this consistent friction exists, true change and reform will never come to pass. Still, this setup has been the undoing of many organizations with noble intentions who were utterly unraveled by in-fighting. Sustained fisticuffs have a way of wearing down even the most idealistic of reformers. It's one thing to be a spectator, but something quite different to be a prize fighter.

Especially problematic is the fact that the District itself, as well as the surrounding suburbs are closely tied to the military and to politics, two occupations which require frequent relocation. The transitory nature of the city itself frustrates any sense of continuity. Without a stable core, no one hangs around long enough to really address problematic issues. Indeed, it has taken a full year for me to properly orient myself enough to be able to speak with any sort of authority in writing this to you. That which I discovered for myself was not written down, nor did anyone trouble themselves to explain it to me. Rather, this was something I had to learn through observation and interrogatives.

To return to the subject at hand, since DC is home to so much in-flow, out-flow, sufficient inroads cannot be made in so short a time. As such, an inner core of long-time residents who have set down roots and are there to stay constantly compete against short-time residents. Washingtonians with a degree of seniority are reluctant to extend a hand of friendship or cooperation to newer transplants, primarily because so many are merely serving a tour of duty and will leave very soon. To a very large degree, this entire description might as well describe Congress as a whole. Washington, regardless of station and intent, is for many a way station, or perhaps only a couple years spent in occupational Purgatory.

Every city has its own character. Washington, DC, is a city which takes itself quite seriously. It should be noted that, in all fairness, any large city has a serious tendency to navel-gaze regarding its own idealized conception of self. As for DC, a metropolitan area which regularly attracts its fair share of celebrities, big wigs, and names to be dropped later, possesses a certain inferiority complex regarding the other cities up and down the Northeast corridor. The degree of social climbing and with it a desperation to be seen as significant speaks to the structure of the city itself. The post-war boom transformed what had been a sleepy, Southern town into a major metropolitan area. In some ways, DC has been playing catch-up ever since and does not believe that other cities in the region have ever given it the respect it deserves.

Lamentably, this only fosters testiness, suspicion, and frostiness among many. In many ways, such behavior is a kind of defensive reaction, developed among those who deal with crises and intensity on a regular basis. Washington is a fine place for a drama queen, but not for those who love peace and quiet. At some point, this sort of reflexive expectation becomes self-reinforcing, meaning that people begin to assume that the only way to get anything accomplished is to be as contentious and uncompromising as possible. This isn't exactly the best strategy to undertake in order to build community and mutual trust. Those with shields out and at the ready at all moments take a while to be convinced why they ought to lay them aside for a while.

Regardless of what anyone says, Washington, DC, has always been heavily partisan, has always been a battleground, and has always courted heavy artillery. This doesn't just stop with politics. The city itself bears lasting scars, both literal and metaphorical. Many of these are recent, relatively speaking. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., touched off a series of destructive riots that severely damaged large sections of the District. Even with recent gentrification, many locations have yet to fully recover. With the riots meant an increasing white flight away from the district into Northern Virginia. The Vietnam War meant years of wearying wave-after-wave of protests. The late 80's and early 90's saw the District win the ignoble distinction of murder capital of the country. Any city serving as the focal point of what is still a very affluent and populous country would have borne the burden of collective frustration. That which was true then is true now.

How does one reform Washington? A good question, though men and women much wiser than you or me have never been able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The most accurate statement of all might be that Washington, DC was always broken. A DC-area Quaker coined a saying back in the 50's to address this very same issue. "Seek not to contest with evil, lest ye be taken by the spirit of contention, rather concern yourself with goodness." Perhaps it depends on your innate temperament. If you fancy yourself a knife-fighter, you'll always find a battle to appeal to your lust of blood. But, if you want to facilitate peace and an end to dysfunction and strife, I think taking the high ground might be a far better option. As I think you can see, politics doesn't just exist in a vacuum. It is so pervasive and influential that it penetrates every group of human beings living in close proximity. If politics could formulate its own specific code of conduct, that would be one thing, but as I have tried to illustrate, it never stops there.

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