“America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill” – Ronald Reagan
The Gipper was said to be a man of great optimism. A passionate believer in the concept of American exceptionalism, his shiny disposition and hopeful speeches defined the eighties as America was able to leave behind the malaise of the 1970s, the humiliation of Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the stagflation brought about by the oil price shocks and the general gloom that surrounded the end of the post war boom, to emerge the most powerful nation in the world. After a mild depression in the late 1980s, America was to enjoy uninterrupted economic growth for the next decade even as most of its cold war rivals withered away.
Sadly, the 21st Century has not been so kind to America. A number of wounds, both self inflicted and otherwise, have slowed down the progress of the country and threatened its hegemony at the top of the world. A deadly terrorist attack on its own soil, followed by two costly and ineffective wars, the economic crisis of 2008, the growing inequality in its society, the escalating deficit and external debt, a rising China and an ambitious Russia, waning influence in some of the major conflict zones, etc. have deprived the country of much of its vitality and optimism. In spite of the slow but steady economic recovery over the last eight years, most Americans feel their country is moving in the wrong direction. In late 2016, they responded by electing Donald Trump, a trigger-happy, political neophyte, a dangerous demagogue and populist, a man who believes America is a waning global power, as the next President.
In the midst of this gloom, there is one unlikely exception, though. That exception is Washington DC, the political and administrative capital of the country. It is in the middle of an unprecedented boom, the likes of which few has ever seen. It is the shining city perched atop smugly over a country often engulfed in darkness, despair and hopelessness.
Three kinds of people dominate the rich and murky world of DC – politicians (and by extension political operatives), lobbyists and political journalists. While by definition, they should keep a safe distance from each other, so as to avoid any appearance of conflict, in the last few years, distinction between these entities has become more and more hazy. They have become part of the same hungry pool of passengers, atop the same gravy train.
Even as the US economy has spluttered to a halt and then struggled to rev up again, various corporate entities have ramped up spending on lobbyists, making millionaires out of former Senators, Congressmen and even obscure officials previously working for the Government. These lobbyists generally operate out of the capital and an increasing number of them are former politicians who have served the country in the past and are not loathe using the expertise and know-hows obtained during these stints for the benefit of their current corporate paymasters.
The emergence of internet and then social media may have resulted in massive layoffs of reporters working for small town newspapers, but in Washington DC, it has led to the proliferation of talking heads and so-called ‘experts’ in the big media houses, people who charge massive amount of money to run their shows or write weekly op-eds, by virtue of their so-called expertise in certain topics. Then there are the ubiquitous brokers or agents, whose job is to arrange these business deals for former elected officials or public servants who want to cash out of their previously measly paid career by working as a lobbyist, in the corporate world or in the media as pundits.
Most people in this politician-lobbyist-media complex know each other and are a part of a big circle of influencers who have a hugely disproportionate say on the affairs of the country. And this circle keeps increasing every single day. While politicians of the yore used to toil for years in relative obscurity, now even the press secretaries of ambitious Congressmen attract enough interest to have their profiles written and splashed in the media. This is partly thanks to the presence of media outlets like Politico which has showered attention on this circle of politicians, lobbyists and political journalists, reporting and fawning on them like the Hollywood tabloids do on its celebrities. The neediness of the rich and the powerful is satiated by the sense of belonging that a mention in such columns provides. It is kind of ironic that apart from the most die-hard political junkies and habitual media consumers, these reports are read mostly by the inhabitants of DC itself, thus squaring this incestuous circle.
Then are the parties. There is a party in DC celebrating almost every occasion, from the launch of a book by a semi-famous political journalist to one celebrating the end of world as predicted by the Mayan calendar. To a group of people whose worth is measured by the number of other people in that same group they know, these parties act as vital lifelines of their professional lives. To top it all, there is the White House Correspondents Dinner, a glitzy annual ritual that spawns scores of before parties and after parties, stretching across days, ostensibly to celebrate the great job these privileged inhabitants of Washington are doing, attended by the same privileged inhabitants of Washington, invoking decadence of the scale that even ‘The Great Gatsby’ may find slightly repulsive.
Needless to say, life in Washington DC has become a heady cocktail of uninhibited human greed, scant regard for public interest and a tone-deaf attitude to the suffering of the ordinary countrymen.
The dichotomy between Washington and the rest of America is apparent from the economic statistics. The median annual household income in Washington DC stands at USD 72,000, the highest in the country. But the figure is dragged down by the high number of people living below poverty line in DC, predominantly African-Americans who are outside its politician-lobbyist-media-influencer circle and have much lower income. Many of the people working in Washington actually prefer to live in the surrounding affluent suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. As many as five of the six richest counties of USA are located in either Northern Virginia (Loudoun County, Fairfax County, Arlington County and Stafford County) or Maryland (Howard County), both surrounding DC and part of the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia region.
‘This Town’ – a book by Mark Leibovich, the Washington correspondent of New York Times Magazine is an excellent chronicle of the farcical and dysfunctional life at the Capital. It is a powerful and biting satire on the lives of the powerful men and women who live a life of outsized proportions in the gilded capital of the country, working hard though out the day and partying and networking throughout the evening, getting fat pay packages for their work, their salaries insulated from the economic turmoil faced by ordinary people they claim to work for. It is a story packed with colorful characters, like oddball senators who are impervious to the machinations of Washington, hypocritical Congressmen who come to the capital to change the political culture and then become a part of it, the middleman who turns up at every party and knows everyone but whose exact job description is a secret, the hyper-ambitious Congressional staffer with fondness for the limelight and loose work-ethics, the journalist who chronicles the everyday life of this fortunate cabal with religious regularity and then sends this news letter every morning to the very same people he is writing about.
Ironies abound the storyline; like when “pro-poor” Democratic Party officials discuss the rising number of food stamps over several courses of very expensive food and drinks or when a Senator rails against the Washington culture of politicians turning into lobbyists and then promptly joins a lobbying firm after leaving his office. Differences in political ideologies are just part of their made up public persona; liberals and conservatives enter into aggressive fights on the talk shows, only to bury the hatchet later and open ‘bi-partisan’ lobbying firms together. It is all part of a circus where people put on their ideological masks, do whatever their public persona dictates them to do and then when the show light is turned off, show a giant middle finger to all these nagging principles and cash out with a big, fat corporate job.
When Barack Obama was elected the President in 2008, he was voted in by a massive wave of hope and expectation, that he would somehow change the toxic political culture of Washington. It was believed that the campaign of this first time senator from Illinois, run by Chicago based operatives who treated the Washington folks with disdain, would result in a White House vastly different from the incumbent one. Eight years later, the political culture of Washington has turned even more toxic. More and more veterans from the Obama campaign, the kind of people who openly mocked Government servants for joining corporate or lobbying firms, have left the Government to do exactly the same thing. The lines of ‘conflict of interest’ have become increasingly blurred as people who work in the senior management of various companies leave their jobs to work in the Government, become part of the bodies which frame regulations and then return to work for the same corporates to try and find loopholes in the regulations they helped write.
Every two years, fresh Senators and Congressmen descend onto the capital, crusading against the corrupt culture of ‘this town’ and vowing to cleanse it. Soon enough, if they are lucky to survive a few years, they become part of the political culture itself; if they survive longer, they become the consummate insiders. It does not take long for them to forget their campaign slogans, as they start becoming ‘institutionalized’, getting sucked into this vortex of mutual back-scratching. Many of them prefer to stay back even after they retire or are voted out, preferring to work as a Head of Strategy or Communications in a lobbying firm named after the partners, putting all the connections and insider knowledge gleaned over the years to good use.
This town, Washington, is thus a beautiful, seductive den of vice; people who cannot get in blame it for all their ills, while people who are inside cannot have enough of it.
It is no wonder that the residents of Washington have some of the most awful favourability ratings among all Americans. Only around 14% Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. Media does only scarcely better, with an approval rating of 19%. On a Gallup Survey of honesty and ethics in professions, journalists rank well below doctors, engineers, dentists, police officers and even the much reviled bankers. But, Senators and Members of Congress rank much below journalists, towards the bottom of the list, competing hard with the likes of insurance salespeople and car sales people. Lobbyists through take the cake, with around 60% of respondents saying they have low or very low honesty or ethics. The corresponding figure for accountants is just 7%.
Like in 2008, the voters of America in 2016 have elected for President a candidate who managed to convince the ordinary folks that he will drain the sludge of corruption that has swamped the corridors of power in Washington. In the process, they decided to vote against a candidate who was far more accomplished and qualified, but who in the course of her career had become the ultimate Washington insider, a personification of its political culture, if you will. Like in 2008, this attempt too shall probably fail; Trump’s shady business empire, his refusal to declare his tax returns and his corrupt records in the past do not portend well for those want to actually drain the sludge from this town. Washington will probably continue to prosper, Trump or no Trump, attracting some of the best minds of the country, living in its own bubble, even as its fortune continue to diverge away from the country as a whole. Nevertheless, a few years down the line, when you wonder how frustrated and disenchanted the American voters had become with their everyday politicians to vote for a man like Trump, you can do worse than read Mark Leibovich’s ‘This Town’.