Shock And Awe: Tales Of A Washington Insider
The American establishment pays court to the Oval Office, but now the masses outside the Beltway are turning on their lords and masters
I live and work in the Washington, DC metropolitan region. I drive to my office down 16th Street, the White House visible through my windshield. In my job I meet four-star generals in the Pentagon and Senators in the Capitol. I dine with foreign ambassadors. I have been briefed in the Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office in the White House, and lunched in the ornate Franklin Room on the seventh floor of the State Department, just down from the Secretary’s office. On my way home, I often drive up Massachusetts Avenue, passing Beaux Arts mansions and modernist architecture housing the embassies of every country on earth.
I pass by and through these portals, each time a bit more blasé, but never without a flash of awe and appreciation. I think this is what it must have felt like to walk through Hadrian’s Rome, at the empire’s height, or London circa 1900, when the sun never set on the Union Jack. Though Washington is not a financial or cultural centre like other world capitals, the overwhelming power of the United States means that its magnetic pull draws in anyone who matters from around the globe.
Many Washingtonians cannot imagine living anywhere but “inside the Beltway”, referring to the ring road around the city. Washington attracts the brightest, most idealistic, most ambitious, and often most ruthless people from around the country. Nearly every public issue of interest is dealt with in some way in Washington. The city may not rise to the level of Dr Johnson’s London, but if one tires of all the different topics discussed in Washington, then one surely has tired of life.
Yet passing the mansions and monuments, I can’t help but think as the academic historian I once was. One day, the mansions will be shuttered and the monuments empty, because Washington will no longer be the capital of the world. Surrounded by such wealth, power and arrogance, it seems impossible to believe that such a time may be coming sooner than we think. It is inconceivable to consider that the time to live off the fat of the land is now; and that those charged with passing along to their heirs a country stronger and a government better than what they themselves inherited, are instead draining it dry and fatally undermining the supports needed for a free people to govern themselves. And yet, all one needs is a dose of modesty and historical perspective to see warning signs amidst the pomp and glamour.
Washington is a regal court. For all Americans’ reverence for democracy, inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia, there is only one, universally recognised apex: the Oval Office. Everything radiates downward from there. There is an absolute clarity about one’s relative standing in Washington. The closer one works to the Oval Office, the frequency with which one is called by cabinet officials or congressional leaders, the number of news shows one appears on all determine one’s standing on the Washington ladder. Unlike in New York, status in Washington comes not from money; it comes from political power and influence. It is why men and women are willing to spend nearly a billion dollars to become President, and others are willing to devote their lives to serving those who may one day sit behind the grand desk made from the timbers of HMS Resolute.
Nearly all of professional Washington can be neatly divided into three groups: those currently working in government, those who once worked in government as political appointees and are angling for their next chance, and those who have never worked in government but are waiting to get in. Yet for the capital of a country supposedly so transparent, power can be easily disguised in Washington. Often the most powerful people came to town with the sitting president, and they have decidedly nondescript titles. Valerie Jarrett, for example, is simply a “senior adviser” to Barack Obama, but no one doubts that she has been the second most powerful person in the world since 2009.
As for everyone else, they must endure a modern variant of the old Roman cursus honorum, the sequence of ever more prestigious political appointments. In the executive branch, that means starting often as a “senior” adviser or possibly a deputy assistant secretary; then, usually in the next administration of one’s party, being appointed an assistant secretary, which requires congressional confirmation and the right to be called “the honourable”. After that may come an under-secretaryship, and a very few will be appointed deputy secretaries. The peak of the executive ladder, short of the two positions directly elected by the American people (i.e. the President and Vice President), is a cabinet appointment as secretary of one of the executive departments. This is repeated in its own fashion both in the Congress, with its committee chairmanships and leadership positions such as Speaker of the House, and in the sprawling professional bureaucracy, with its “GS” (General Schedule) of numbered ranks, up to 15, ending in the five grades of the Senior Executive Service (SES).
Daunting as the political ladder may seem, the rewards are worth it. Life in Washington is no longer one of long hours and low wages. While young, eager congressional staffers struggle along making an average of around $40,000 per year, a GS-15 earns more than $130,000 and the SES starts its salary scale at $150,000, putting such bureaucrats in the top 10 per cent of salary earners in the United States.
But the real money comes after senior government service. Being the head staffer on a congressional committee, or having been an assistant secretary of defence or commerce, to name just two positions, often leads to private-sector positions in “government relations” departments of major corporations: in other words, becoming a lobbyist. Veteran Capitol Hill staffers often start their lobbying careers at more than $300,000 per year, and can make far more. No one knows how many lobbyists there are in Washington, but some industry estimates put the number at more than 12,000, while a Washington Post article from 2005 claimed there were more than 34,000 registered lobbyists in town. That’s to influence 535 Members of Congress — a ratio of roughly 28 to one. Consultants number probably ten times as many, from one-man shops to huge companies. As the saying goes, people go to Washington to do good, and they stay to do well.
Whether a desk officer at the State Department or a lobbyist on K Street, Democrat or Republican, Washingtonians interpret the world from an almost monolithic mindset, a frame of reference so commonly shared as to be nearly unconscious. More so than any other capital, Washington is a one-company town. Every one of the six million people living in the Washington metropolitan area, which includes large parts of the states of Maryland and Virginia, is there because of the US government. Either they or their relatives work for the government, do business with the government, write and talk about the government, or run a business that is patronised by those connected to government. Except for professional sports, the topic of discussion in every bar, restaurant, coffee room, and subway carriage is government.
Televisions in Washington bars are tuned to congressional hearings instead of daytime talk shows. The discussion at after-hours entertaining, religious services, and family life revolves around politics and policy, and such gatherings are often interrupted by texts and email messages about breaking political news, sometimes causing host and guest alike to run off. Like all Washingtonians, I have sat in traffic jams while the President or a foreign leader speeds down streets blocks from where I am, and Air Force One flies so low over my house on its approach to Andrews Air Force Base that I can clearly make out the presidential seal on its side. All of Washington likes to think that it is at the centre of the action, and hence, of the world.
In reality, the sociopolitical hierarchy that is Washington has become increasingly exclusive over the decades. Whereas presidents once opened the executive mansion to all comers, today’s leaders listen to and meet seriously with an ever smaller group of insiders. Invitations to White House ceremonies or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (derided by those not invited as “the Oscars for ugly people”) are coveted as symbols of one’s sociopolitical value. Yet despite the undeniable stratification, the almost corporate mindset remains. By being near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or Capitol Hill, one is part of the mix. Taken together, those working in the District, whether liberal or conservative, Hill staffer or secretary of agriculture, think-tank scholar or news correspondent, make up what is the 21st century Washington Establishment.
Normally invisible to the vast majority of Americans, it is this cozy and insular Establishment, what Coleridge would have called the clerisy, that has become the target of invective and ridicule by Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) in the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump’s disdain is only a new twist on an old problem; for decades, every presidential candidate has “run against Washington”. Thus did Hillary Clinton, former First Lady, US Senator, and Secretary of State, solemnly declare that she was an outsider during the Democratic primaries this year. As did Republican Ted Cruz, a Princeton and Harvard graduate who worked at the Department of Justice and for the Federal Trade Commission.
Yet Trump’s attack on today’s Establishment is both more intense and more personal. He holds in public contempt the bureaucrats, politicians, lobbyists and media celebrities, all of whom are on a first-name basis with each other, noshing at the same receptions, and waiting their turn in the Washington merry-go-round. In doing so, he taps into a deep and growing vein of anger and distrust around the country. It is the recognition that Trump has them squarely in his sights, and that he reflects the frustrations of the masses, that so energises the Establishment to oppose him.
The reality is that there is truth on both sides, though neither is willing to admit it. Trump is right that Washington is deeply alienated from the rest of the country. It is a city that produces nothing physical, yet increasingly affects every business, town and family in the land. It is above the laws, because it makes the laws. It is immune from the rules of economics, able to ignore its budget and with an ability to print its own money. Its power gives it wealth: the average household income in the Washington area was $91,000 in 2013, more than double the national average of $43,000.
Trump as usual, however, oversimplifies to the point of absurdity. There is a reason the Establishment exists. Running any country is difficult, but running the most powerful nation on earth is infinitely more so. Like it or not, a permanent army of lawyers is needed just to keep all the laws coherently on the books. Remaining a superpower means fielding a military larger than any other on earth, while the State Department operates just under 300 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the world. Even the widely hated Internal Revenue Service cannot deal with nearly 320 million Americans and their millions of businesses with a skeleton staff. The idea that the government of a modern state as complex as the United States can get by with part-timers or amateurs is simply unrealistic.
Small-government conservatives can bewail the size and power of Washington, but the reality is that the US government has been growing for nearly a century, and shows no signs of stopping. Because of that, experience and ability count. While the risk of insular thinking and stale ideas is a serious concern, the country actually needs more people of expertise, and hopefully common sense, to make sure the government we have runs well.
Nor is the Washington clerisy solely those drawing a Department of Treasury pay cheque. Think tanks such as the one where I work often produce important and sometimes transformative studies, such as my colleague Charles Murray’s path- breaking book on welfare, Losing Ground, which led to the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill. Consultants and experts in everything from healthcare management to defence issues feed a robust marketplace of ideas on issues far beyond the experience of almost all Americans. Even the reviled lobbyists can perform useful functions in ensuring that legislation is rational and realistic. That members of the Establishment can be self-interested, partisan, and out for their share of the pie is to acknowledge human nature, not to disprove the need for expertise in the government ecosystem. When the system is being gamed or when rules are broken and influence is bought, the malefactors should be harshly punished. But tearing down government, as some on the extreme Right and Left want to do, is a fantasy that would simply lead to chaos.
The Establishment today is a rough equivalent to Rousseau’s “elected aristocracy”, whereby those of talent and merit are chosen for their positions. While Washington may appear populated by a mix of democratically selected leaders and a meritocratic corps of administrators, over time the fixed nature of the system lends it more the appearance of a traditional aristocracy. A permanent class of politicians, pundits and bureaucrats guards its privileges and operates a guild-like system for replenishing worn-out blood with favoured or vetted newcomers. The American people may have sovereign say over who represents them, but the realities of congressional district
gerrymandering and campaign finance laws means that the barrier to entry for new politicians is extremely high. New faces appear more often through vacancies than through the defeat of incumbents. Similarly, 30-year careers in the civil service or life sinecures in the media are by no means exceptional. The Washington Establishment is ever more one of the permanent elite, and by definition estranged from its fellow citizens.
It was once common to compare nations to biological organisms. As Enlightenment thinking took hold in Britain, in particular, during the early 18th century, the idea of the state as an organic entity whose health could be examined became popular among thinkers such as the Tory politician and philosopher Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke. His view that republics went through a life cycle from birth through death was adopted by later theorists, including Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, in their case to prove that the decline of the West was nigh, thanks to a natural process of decay.
Though such biologically inspired political thinking has long fallen out of favour, perhaps there is something to the British Enlightenment’s concern with the sociopolitical health of the state. If one were to try and identify the maladies afflicting the United States, ascertain the causes, and then prescribe a cure, one would undoubtedly find symptoms of a serious systemic problem. The locus of the disease lies not solely with the Washington Establishment, nor with the masses outside the Beltway, but rather in the unhealthy relationship between the two. For as much as the Establishment lords itself over the populace, the citizenry appear increasingly uninterested in the serious and difficult business of governing, and ever more dependent on a government few of them trust or understand.
Those citizens appear little concerned with the government that rules them or the traditions that have given them their freedoms. The results of an examination into the sociopolitical health of the United States show a populace increasingly dependent on the state, whether by choice or not. With the imposition of Obamacare, half of all US households currently receive some type of government assistance, with more than 20 per cent of the total population participating in so-called “means- tested” aid programmes, such as Medicare and food stamps. Nor is this dependence limited to remote rural regions. Many of America’s major cities have decayed, hollow cores. Just a mile from the gleaming Capitol are some of the most depressed areas on the East Coast, where generations have struggled with crime, poverty and drugs. These are not unlike the Subura slum of ancient Rome, located only blocks from the majestic Forum, the nerve centre of the ancient world.
Repeated surveys have shown the citizenry’s ignorance of the basic mechanisms of governance or the country’s history. A 2014 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center reported that fully 64 per cent of American adults polled could not name the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), while in 2010 another poll found that only 16 per cent could correctly name the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As for the next generation, a national standards test conducted in 2011 showed that fewer than 20 per cent of high school students scored at a proficient level in US history. Other studies show widespread economic ignorance on the part of both adults and students, helping explain the massive personal indebtedness and poor financial choices that helped spark the 2008 housing and financial crisis.
Such bad news can always be countered by examples of thrift, innovation, piety, and public-spiritedness. The reality, however, is that America is increasingly dividing into two parts, a smaller segment doing extremely, sometimes phenomenally well, of which the Washington Establishment is a core element, and a much larger segment of society struggling to stay in place or falling into a dark hell of opioid addiction and unemployment. A recent nationwide bank survey indicated that more than 60 per cent of self-respondents would have trouble coming up with $1,000 in an emergency. Perhaps that is why 59 per cent of Americans polled by CNN in 2014 said that the “American Dream” is unachievable, while 63 per cent of Americans believed that today’s children would not be better-off than their parents. Few in the Washington Establishment have such worries, or deal with the challenges crushing so many of their countrymen.
The Pax Washingtonia has been a golden era in history, bringing globalisation, the modernisation of large swaths of the earth, unparalleled technological innovation, and the lack of devastating global wars. Yet in America, it is also reinforcing the eternal divide between the haves and have-nots in a nation dedicated to equality and opportunity. The divisions are now becoming so serious that continuing down this path must eventually lead to greater domestic instability and the overall impoverishment of the country. That, in turn, would threaten Washington’s global influence and role, leading one day to the emptying out of those lavish embassies and glittering monuments.
America’s problems developed over decades, and there is no silver bullet to set things right. But perhaps the most important objective must be to reverse Washington’s long-pursued attempts to hollow out the civil society that intervenes between the government and the citizen. This means adopting policies to end dependence, not increase it; to return sovereignty to the states; to free up local business, not crush individual initiative; and improve education, not strengthen teachers’ unions.
Such change is unlikely unless the Establishment also changes its privileged role, no longer seeing itself as the master of the rest of the population and identifying more with Wall Street and Hollywood than John Q. Public. Donald Trump’s voicing of populist anger shows that a disengaged and arrogant political elite plays with fire, even in a stable democracy like America. It risks its own fortunes by forcing down the throats of what it views as benighted Americans policies many find offensive, such as gender-neutral school bathrooms or essentially open borders. It risks the country’s future by seeking to make ever-larger numbers of Americans dependent on government largesse.
Yet the ignorance and indifference of a free people to its system of government and to what is done to it and in its name by its supposedly accountable representatives also cannot be left unchecked. If our schools and media will not teach both the virtues and the values of democracy, then it must be up to those remaining capable parents, social organisations, churches and synagogues. The American national project should be to create a healthy and productive citizenry that will respect and defend the responsibilities of self-government, and will more likely participate in politics out of shared interest.
American citizens do not need to wage war on the Establishment. Rather, they should turn their intellectual and political activities to focus on the quality of the government we have rather than simply its quantity. They should be finding ways to prevent federal lawyers and bureaucrats from being activists in their own right, and force Washington to be more efficient and responsible to the people.
Americans, ever a high-spirited, dramatic people, like to see their country at a crossroads. With huge socioeconomic and political gaps between the elite and the rest, and with a country facing massive domestic and foreign challenges, yet without a strategy to meet them, the feeling may be appropriate. Given the powers the Washington Establishment has arrogated to itself, reform would best begin at the top, unless a wave from the bottom sweeps it away. Perhaps a wise use of taxpayer money would be to send today’s privileged class daily phone texts, reading simply, “Memento mori.”