Washington D.C.: The Center of the Universe: And Who to blame? April 7, 2012

Joel Kotkin on Newgeography.com writes about the nearly recession-proof nature of Washington, D. C. and its metro area.  It is a city of government and the mandarin classes, and they never go out of style.  But it seems to me that even during Republican administrations – the age of Reagan and Bush Senior, and that of W – the social and think-tank life of America got more and more centralized in the capital region, if anything perhaps more radically so among conservatives than among liberals.  The irony is that conservatives have been traditionally the ones arguing for ‘decentralization’ and ‘local control,’ often sometimes to the neglect of the size and oppressiveness of government at state house and City Hall levels – well, the one advantage to local oppression is you don’t have to move as far to get out of it.

What is this?  For all their talk about decentralization, conservatives get more excited than progressives about the symbols of the American nation.  We didn’t invent them, of course.  America represents, more than an ethnicity, [except to paleocons], an idea.  I’m not sure what idea Arkansas or North Dakota represents.  While the flag dates from before the Civil War, and acquired its present form in 1818 [thirteen stripes and one star for each state], the Pledge of Allegiance and the popularization of the Star Spangled Banner date from after the Civil War.  I suspect one purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance was to keep school children from ever again thinking like Robert E. Lee, who was far from a Southern fire-eater but thought of himself as a Virginian first and an American second – and thereby hangs a tale.

Also, the physical symbols of Washington, D. C., have become icons of patriotism.  The Capitol Dome, the Mall, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial – all are regularly pictured in patriotic contexts.  Conservatives resonate with these more than liberals.  And the Mall as a place for demonstrations – London, for example, has nothing like this.  It’s almost as if L’Enfant and Banneker had anticipated the invention of television, because the center of the District looks absolutely fantastic on television.  And, as I’ve said before, the effect of television and other modern media has been to make the Federal Government actually closer to the people than local government is – and I fear that local government is more trusted by the people precisely because it is not in the spotlight.

On the Right just as much as on the Left, when a person facing early midlife problems thinks of politics, it’s often the federal level he thinks of first.  [And what drives people to run for political office, alas, is too often early midlife crises of some kind.]  There’s just more romance, more glamour, associated with Washington than with Sacramento or Topeka, and the Right is as open to as the Left to romance and glamour.  Frank Capra, after all, did not do a film called Mr. Smith Goes to Columbus, Ohio.

But more striking to me is the increasing concentration of organizational headquarters in the capital region, and the rising number of social events and dinners that are held there.  I think one of the first was when a pastor from suburban San Diego named Tim LaHaye, who was known at the time for writing books about the four ‘temperaments’ and who had cut his political teeth fighting nude beaches, landed in the Nation’s Capital around 1980.  There have been many more since.  I get a sheaf of invitations every week, and a sizable number of the events are in or near the District, even though I live three thousand miles away, rarely go to DC, and rarely go to events of that sort.  And no, these are not mostly political fundraisers, as is the case in Sacramento.  These are events related to think tanks.  Somebody must be flying across the country to these dinners.  And somebody either has to get up at 3:00 a.m. to catch their plane, or fly the previous day, because that’s what you have to do from the West Coast.  I suppose the Democrats have as many.  Of course, the more power and discretion the government develops, the more it is necessary to have a presence in the Nation’s Capital in order to influence its doings; and this applies as much to the Right as to the Left.  But if conservatives are supposed to believe in ‘federalism’ and ‘decentralization,’ you would never guess it from their behavior over the last thirty-five years.

Related: “The Expanding Wealth of Washington” by Joel Kotkin at NewGeography.com

3 Comments
kmasugi 04/07/2012

That friend of conservatives–who errs however in not mentioning the Declaration of Indepenendence–Alexis de Tocqueville makes some similar points about the attractiveness of centralization to all parties in this age of equality. (See vol. II, part 4 of Democracy in Americca.)

In fact, to pick up on Howard’s example, Arkansas’s original state motto was Regnant Populi, the people rules. It is now Regnat Populus, the people rule–a concession to Progressivism. The equation of “the people” or the public with peoples’ views and passions is telling. Progreessivism infected both political parties and both platforms reveal it. Unfortunately, some of the means of Progressivism will have to be used to defeat Progressive ends.

Some of the confusion–Harry Jaffa was emphatic about this in a recent conversation I had with him in Claremont–lies in many conservatives’ opposition to central government, which is not the teaching of the founders, as any reading of The Federalist shows. All of this reflects our overall rejection of natural rights as the foundation of America. But this is going on too long…..

A blessed Easter to you all!  

Menikov 04/08/2012

Willie Sutton’s answer to the question, why do you rob banks, also provides the reason for so many trips to Washington by those more interested in taking than giving … “that’s where the money is.”

Howard Ahmanson 06/20/2012

@kmasugi: it’s interesting to me that in English we say “the people are, and the Continental languages mostly say “the people is.” German swings both ways: “die Leute sind; das Volk ist” 

@Menikov: if someone goes to the government  because that’s where the money is, they’re just pragmatic. If they think that’s where the money ought to be, then they’re a liberal. 

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