There's America—and Then There's Washington

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Does the prosperity of the capital region color the perspectives of the journalists and lawmakers who live there? 

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Over at Harper's, Thomas Frank has an interesting essay that touches, among other things, on the destructive disconnect that exists between Washington, D.C., and the rest of the nation. I've written about this growing gulf from a political perspective. I've written about it from a media perspective. But Frank writes about it from an economic perspective and expresses quite eloquently what those of us outside Washington, D.C often think of what goes on there.

Frank's piece, "The Bleakness Stakes," isn't yet freely available online. But here are the graphs which caught my attention. He's writing about how the District of Columbia ranked as the most "positive " place in America based upon an economic poll by Gallup in August. Frank writes: 

Washington's optimism isn't that hard to understand, really. The D.C. metro area, when measured by median family income, is the richest in the nation. Six of the ten most affluent counties in America are Washington suburbs. And thanks to the federal government -- the gift that keeps on giving -- recessions almost never happen here. In fact, D.C. real estate prices are actually going up...

Frank continues:

While the familiar critique of Washington insularity gets some important facts wrong -- most federal employees are, for example, paid considerably less than people doing equivalent work in the private sector -- it gets the big story right. Washington is indeed out of touch with the suffering of the nation.

Let us venture even further down this path. The peculiar economic makeup of the Washington area makes the city a kind of naturally occurring Potemkin Village, an illusion of prosperity that has persuaded its resident journalists and pundits and policymakers to credit all sorts of unsound economic ideas.

I don't know about the Potemkin Village analogy -- there are places of horrible poverty within the District of Columbia. But I think Frank is rightly touching upon a perception (and thus a reality) that most Washington power brokers, including too many of its media leaders, aren't detached enough to see clearly. Most Americans detest Washington because it seems so immodest without having any justification for being so; because the people who run the country, and the people who pontificate about the people who run the country, act like they have all the answers when, clearly, they don't.

The popular movements of our day -- the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street -- all stem from the simple idea that Washington is unable or unwilling to fix the obvious problems that have made life more difficult for ordinary Americans. The people are calling for action. The response is the filibuster and, as my colleague James Fallows has so aptly pointed out, the media myth of "false equivalence." Americans in flyover states are loudly saying: "If y'all in Washington are so smart then where are the smart policy choices? Where are the solutions?" That Washington so far has no answer only makes the rest of us find it that much more contemptible.  

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a cornerstone of Washington's elite edifice, may blithely call this political gridlock constitutionally natural and comforting. It's easy for him to say so, with his life tenure, book tours, and speaking fees. But 300 hundred million or so Americans call what's happening in Washington, and the way it has often been enabled by too many Washington journalists, as unacceptable. It's as if Washington has a conflict of interest in dealing with what's now happening in Washington. In or out of government, too many are too close to the story.

Washington is home to some of the best journalists in the world. And some of our federal lawmakers and administrators are good and decent souls. But, as Frank points out, too many live and work in a bubble, largely unbuffeted by the uncertainty and economic strife that has the rest of the country up at night. It is a dilemma that goes beyond partisan politics and journalistic ethics. It's both a structural problem and a failure of communication. And the sooner Washington acknowledges that, and does something about it, the better off the rest of us will be.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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