If you watch television, Washington is not only dysfunctional, but also depraved and dumb. In “House of Cards,” on Netflix, power is pursued for its own sake; if you get in the way, you end up dead or destroyed. In HBO’s “Veep,” the vice president is completely self-absorbed and empty-headed. ABC’s “Scandal” is full of double lives and brutal violence. We’re a long way from President Bartlet of “The West Wing” and not even close to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.“
I don’t see Washington in these ugly terms, though like other political junkies, I have watched all 13 episodes of the first season of “House of Cards.” Impeachment over an intern and spying on Congress by the Central Intelligence Agency could be television scripts, but Washington is also full of good people trying to do what’s right in a deeply dysfunctional political culture.
True, there are shallow leaders who are addicted to the partisan “gotcha” games that pass for strategy in D.C. But there are many others caught in behaviors and attitudes not of their choosing that erode public confidence and integrity, not in dramatic TV plots, but in the everyday compromises that contribute to cynicism and disillusionment.
Washington is not corrupted by secret gifts, but by the legal purchase of access and influence that come with endless fundraising and politics as usual. It is a populist senator who protects tax breaks for wealthy hedge funds and a budget hawk who fights for subsidies for affluent rice farmers. It is a Democrat who in his heart supports abortion restrictions, but won’t do it openly because that would jeopardize future support or prospects. It is a Republican who knows a real budget deal has to include taxes, but won’t say so because she fears the Club for Growth. This ethical no man’s land is less about what is done, but more about what is not, about issues avoided and comments not made. No one is pushed in front of a Metro train (spoiler alert for “House of Cards”), but those without resources and influence are pushed aside for more powerful interests.
The fundamental Washington danger is isolation. There are exceptions, but many leaders are personally isolated from everyday challenges of life that generate compassion, doubt, empathy, openness, compromise and frustration. Their lives are full of sacrifices, but they are different from those of most Americans, who lack status, staff and perks. Congress used to be full of veterans or people with family members in military service. Now when Congress authorizes the use of force, it is sending other people’s children to fight, not their own.
Official Washington is economically isolated. Massive and growing fundraising means spending endless time and energy with affluent contributors. A recent House race cost $13 million. Increasingly, Congress is made up of rich people who get contributions from other rich people to get elected to represent the rest of us. The surrounding influence industry and contracting businesses are turning parts of the region into wealthy, recession-proof islands. In “Washington: A World Apart”, The Washington Post reported that more than a third of the zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent in income. They make up an increasingly affluent city of Washington and six of the wealthiest counties in the nation. The cliché is true: many people come to Washington to do good and end up doing well…very well.
Much of Washington is politically and ideologically isolated, constantly campaigning, measuring everything by partisan polls. They spend their time, get their information and find their friends only among those who share their party and positions. People who cross partisan lines are suspect.
In the past, you could go to the White House or the speaker and say, “We are with you on this, will work with you on that and will have to fight you on that other thing.” Now you are expected to be a cheerleader and part of the team—or you are an adversary and untrustworthy.
Today’s Washington is less a “House of Cards” and more a place of far too many walls. Washington on television is a disturbing place, but it is not the real story of the destructive isolation that harms our capital and country.