A few months back, when dusk wasn’t yet unspooling overhead at 5 pm, I attended an early-evening picnic. I hardly knew any of the people circled around the spread, and feeling mildly anti-social, I resolved to simply munch on baby carrots and enjoy the fresh air. But as the hummus evolved towards that final stage where people semi-grossly swipe at it with their fingers, an equally mute attendee rotated toward me and introduced herself. She was a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend (or something) and we exchanged polite conversation for 10 or 15 minutes. It was superficial talk, the kind of half-hearted chatter that never drifts from biographical descriptors for fear of becoming a discussion of actual substance and thus real focus and mental energy.
Soon we were all standing, packing trash and Tupperware into various canvas tote bags. Ambling home, I hadn’t taken five steps when I realized—suddenly, like an electric memory—what was so novel about that conversation: We never told each other what we did for a living. Sure, we talked about how we knew our mutual friends, and our weekend pastimes, and other pseudo-personal factoids. But neither of us had asked the other about our work. And I admit this may sound hyperbolic, but I think there’s a genuine chance that’s the first time that’s ever happened in Washington, D.C.
Look, it’s not really our fault. You meet someone new in D.C., you ask them about their job. Even long since having observed this custom and thinking it noxious, I still find myself guilty of it more than I’d like. This city is like constantly running into a work-friend at the gym: “What are you doing here?” It’s just one of the plagues of living in this town, something so grin-and-bear-it commonplace that I’ve seen people give a little shrug of surrender before asking someone they’ve just met how they draw a salary. It may be generational, with us Millenials more career-centric and less decorous than our forebears. But the phenomenon remains a D.C. stalwart. And the underlying reason for this tacky shtick is simple: not too many Washingtonians move here for any reason other than a job. Washington isn’t usually a place where people explore themselves and see where their passions might lay. People tend not to move here on an airy whim. We don’t have the warm quirk of San Francisco, the infinite potency of New York, the good-natured sentiment of Chicago. We have politics, basically, and the employment that comes with it.
The Washington professional zoology has a few specific archetypes. Schmoozy, tassle-shoed lobbyists bringing two martinis back to the table. Nonprofit workers and big-hearted activists bleeding themselves for petition signatures. Certainty-consumed congressional staffers cloaked in sweaty intensity, obsessing over fiery but meaningless battles on whatever political foofaraw has erupted that day. We’ve also got contractors, think tankers and more lawyers than any reasonable society should need. All told, this one-industry town combines to spawn a few special dynamics. For one, there’s an innate competitiveness that comes from floating in the same fishbowl—which helps breed the kinds of status-check questions I somehow avoided during that autumn picnic. But more importantly, our shared politico-obsession can at times drain us of our perspective.
The fear of losing panoramic balance is nothing new. Life magazine in January 1942 groaned about this as wartime mania was bubbling: “Any rural cracker-barrel attracts a greater diversity of viewpoints than Washington does. Here is a strictly artificial city, the only major capital in the world that produces nothing but government. Here is a city without any balance whatever, with everyone boring everyone else to death talking shop, a city that cannot be a community because its interests are not communal but identical.”
In circa-now Washington, alas, plus ça change. It’s true that other great capitals of the world don’t appear to have this problem. Paris, Berlin, London, Seoul, Bangkok—these are all vibrant cultural and commercial centers in which the primped political establishment is simply part of the show. Perhaps if the capital of the United States were located in some other major city, much of the material for the superficial burlesque of Washington would vanish. But it isn’t, and a centrally self-admiring and monotonic culture we remain. I imagine it’s a lot like living in one-note Hollywood, with its enclave of slime-ball agents and dumb-headed producers eyeing the offloading busloads of wide-eyed wannabe-ingénues, elevated into a kind of cocaine-laced nobility. Washington’s aristocracy is similarly buttressed by a singular industry, a city that’s little more than a sprawling marble office park dotted with memorials and museums.
Ultimately, this obsessive toiling in federal government, as Life noted a lifetime ago, creates a veneer of artifice. It’s not just easy to get lost amid it all, but it seems practically destiny. And while many of my fellow D.C.-ites are able to row against the current to focus on What’s Really Important, sometimes the big picture of national politics simply gets lost. The obvious truth about Washington is that this city can forget—surrounded by the disingenuous whirlwind of rabid twaddle and hour-by-hour cable-TV “wins” and “losses”—that there are practical impacts to our actions. The work can feel simply, regrettably, theoretical.
It shouldn’t. The voting for president begins in just six weeks, and there is no worse time for us in Washington to forget why we moved here. This is the thought that hit me while watching the recent GOP debate in Michigan, where Rick Perry had his widely mocked and now narrative-defining brain freeze “oops” moment. (Thank merciful heavens, by the way, that we somehow avoided calling it “oops-gate,” or did we decide to no longer tiredly attach “-gate” to every miserable little scandal and I just missed the celebratory cake and punch?) By momentarily forgetting the third agency he has lined up for eradication, Perry reinforced the depthless confidence that makes him the alpha and the omega of the GOP’s chuckle-brained simpletons.
But so what if Perry is out of his element, that it’s not entirely clear he could pour water out of one of his cowboy boots with instructions written on the heel? The moment matters because the post-debate conversation naturally gravitated toward the man’s assumed intellectual impotence without real discussion of: wait, what would happen if we razed those three federal departments—Commerce, Education and (trivia question in 2020 alert!) Energy? Perry’s elimination-fantasy triptych isn’t even the largest libertarian daydream. Ron Paul—the beatific doctor-congressman from, yes, Texas—believes we should do away with five federal departments, a fact he unhelpfully reminded Perry as the poor fellow was plumbing his mental recesses in front of 3.3 million flabbergasted viewers.
Three departments, five departments, whatever. It’s all politicking glib fatuousness. We’ve already covered how the nut bars running to become my boss argue that my co-workers and I don’t help people, that we’re tone-deaf to what “real America” wants and needs, and so irkingly on. And when I roll my eyes and sigh in dismissive opposition, it’s not turf-protection—we truly believe we are of assistance. We think this because we’re aware there is something more amplitudinously awful than an inherently unwieldy federal bureaucracy. Despite the GOP’s vision of government office buildings burning in flames in some kind of divinely theophanous act, actually imagining the true outcome if they got their way appears to take a power beyond their ken.
I would love to see some kind of Back to the Future Hill Valley/Hell Valley alternate-timeline scenario depicting how our brave colonial-garbed no-tax-aficionados would act when faced with the kind of government immolation they crave. Ignore for the moment all the ethereal machinery regarding fiscal policy and Medicare percentages and foreign relations and other intangibles. Think about your morning today. Your radio wasn’t a jumbled mess thanks to the FCC. And those weather reports only occur due to the National Weather Service (under the umbrella of the Commerce Department—hope Texas doesn’t need any hurricane or tornado warnings). On the way to work from the house you might’ve bought with governmental help in the form of the mortgage interest tax deduction, you may have your life saved thanks to federal regulations mandating seat belts and child safety seats. OSHA has your back against unsafe work conditions. The FDA labels food against manufacturers’ desires so you know what you’re actually eating. The EPA works to improve air and water quality. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
My apologies for the cliché-a-thon; the point is not to flatly throw hosannas at government. But we—the scores of Washingtonians working in those efforts and others—admittedly can get swept up in the over-exerted silliness and forget that the Republican nomination process is little more than a feckless bullhorn loudly portraying our work as a malevolent force that invades folks’ lives and, I don’t know, eats at their soul. Your tax dollars, which pay my salary, don’t create benefits that you get immediately, and usually you can’t even touch them. But, honest, when we’re not distracted by the exclusive fog of lobbytalk and news-cycle worship, we’re focused on the task at hand. In this city, it can be hard to avoid it.
So, when the right talks about an out-of-touch political elite, they’re right, though it’s not really us. It’s something far scarier—a blisteringly uninterested GOP candidate pool that leads legions of beclouded true-believer goofs and who, when sizing up Washington’s work, offer up a sad, stifling indifference.