The long-held, popular myth of D.C.’s toxic environment

photo by Matti Mattila on Flickr

D.C. is so bad that talented writers who have spent their career in the Imperial City have to make things up to fully flesh out its perfidy.

(At least, that’s what David Frum thinks, who had to turn “to fiction to try to describe what has happened in Washington over these past four years of national crisis.”)

D.C. is so bad that young writers have to flee all the way across the country to escape its toxic grasp.

(At least, that’s what Conor Friedersdorf wrote in a piece headlined “The Tyranny of Washington, D.C.” for the Atlantic, in which he bemoaned the fact that “it is undesirable that our nation’s professionalized ideological movements are all packed into the smallish gentrified area of a single dysfunctional city.”)

D.C.’s so bad that brave truth tellers are treated as mad men and fringe figures, ignored for daring to speak uncomfortable verities to a population that fears and despises them.

(At least that’s what Glenn Greenwald thinks, writing, “That’s how our political debates remain suffocatingly narrow, the permanent power factions in Washington remain firmly in control, the central political orthodoxies remain largely unchallenged.”)

Are things really this bad? Has discourse plummeted so swiftly and deeply that alternate ideas aren’t considered and social pressures demand we politely rearrange the deck chairs as we sink further into the icy deep?

It’s certainly not my experience of life in D.C., where ideological and partisan rivals mingle and mix, where Twitter serves as a melting pot of ideas and arguments are hashed out in real time, where focus on the issues ensures a higher degree of knowledge about the political arguments of our day.

I’ve worked in a number of different roles in D.C.—as a journalist at an extremely profitable newspaper; as an editor for an unprofitable magazine; as a film critic for a daily; as a flack at a public relations firm that dealt with nonprofit groups; and as the managing editor for a startup news-gathering organization.

Well, I guess I’ve really worked in one kind of role at different arms of the same, news-gathering/news-making beast. But I’ve been around enough to interact with D.C.’s denizens to know that the rampant cynicism suggested by the authors above doesn’t really exist.

Perhaps more accurately, it doesn’t exist in quite the way they suggest. Is D.C. simply too callow to deal with crisis, too cloistered to understand the rest of the country, and too clubby to deal with outside beliefs?

In a word, no.

D.C. isn’t a venal creature of its own creation, as anyone who sticks around long enough comes to realize. Contrary to what the discourse police will have you believe, it’s a town populated by powerbrokers elected by voters who solicit campaign contributions from the employers of voters to lobby on the behalf of the companies that pay their salaries. If the public wants to be disappointed with anyone for gridlock in the Senate and a super-partisan House and a White House more interested in pushing radical health care reform instead of dealing with the economic crisis, well, they should look in the mirror.

It’s not as if the masses are clamoring to get control of spending or to raise their own taxes—there isn’t a majority to cut a single category of spending, and the only group willing to increase taxes are the poor on the rich. (And even that support is in decline.) Medicare will bankrupt America; Social Security will go bankrupt before that happens; or wars will do what Medicare and Social Security failed to do.

Taxes aren’t going up anytime soon, nor should they since they’ll retard growth. Or maybe they should go up immediately since, you know, all the bankrupting and tax cuts don’t retard growth at all. If only Greenwald’s bold truth-tellers could rack up better than, well, last place among serious candidates, we could fix things.

We face hard choices and the public doesn’t want to make them. And since the public doesn’t want to make them, the people they send to Washington have no incentive to make them. All the tent dwelling, Tea Partying in the world isn’t going to change that.

If D.C. is cynical, it’s only because six percent of the people who send their representatives to work there think Thurgood Marshall is the chief justice of the Supreme Court. What do you expect?

The discourse police who fret over the state of our nation’s capital should turn their eyes elsewhere if they want to solve said nation’s problems.

Sonny Bunch is managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.

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