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The Future of the City

The Tyranny of Washington, D.C.

Conor Friedersdorf

When I lived in Washington, D.C., I once joined a journalist friend at a critics' screening of the Johnny Depp film Public Enemies. We arrived fifteen minutes early, took our seats, and spotted a fellow writer a few rows away.

"That's Christopher Orr," my friend said, pointing out The New Republic's film critic, who is now an editor at The Atlantic.

"Oh yeah?" I said. "We've exchanged e-mails a couple times. Let's say hi."

So we did, returning to our seats a minute later. Then shortly before the movie started, the talented film critic Sonny Bunch came into the theater with a friend, saw Reason's Peter Suderman and I, and sat down in the seat next to me. We'd met on a few prior occasions at bars or round-table discussions, and linked to one another's work, agreeing and disagreeing at various times. 

"Hi, Conor," he said.

"Hi Sonny," I replied.

"This is Michael Goldfarb," he said, introducing me to his friend, who wrote at The Weekly Standard and did press stuff for McCain/Palin 2008. "Have you guys met?"

"We haven't," I said, extending my hand to shake.

"Conor Friedersdorf," Mr. Goldfarb said. "Not a fan of my work."

It was an uncomfortable moment. Though he was right. I have no reason to think he's anything other than a wonderful guy on a personal level. But I'd forcefully criticized his writing on numerous occasions, and for good reason.

"We have our disagreements," I said, trying to be diplomatic.

"Of course," Sonny Bunch said. "We all do."

The movie began, afterward we all said amicable goodbyes, and an awkward but largely inconsequential exchange concluded. I've nevertheless thought about it several times in the months since, because it helped me to clarify my thinking about why it is undesirable that our nation's professionalized ideological movements are all packed into the smallish gentrified area of a single dysfunctional city. In that setting, work interactions bleed seamlessly into the social scene, and the inevitable career pressure to conform to certain orthodoxies of thought is reinforced and compounded by powerful impulse to be accepted and liked by the folks you see socially.

As a writer who spent the few years I lived in Washington, D.C. working for publications outside any ideological movement, I was able to escape the city before being particularly impacted by the dynamic I'm describing, especially since all my close friends on both sides of the ideological divide are perfectly willing to be criticized in the course of a substantive disagreement, and employ rhetorical tactics that conform to basic standards of intellectual honesty. 

Moreover, bloggers like The Atlantic's Megan McArdle, The Washington Post's Dave Weigel, and others who frequently socialize in ideologically diverse crowds certainly garner some benefit from the insularity of Washington, D.C., insofar as they're constantly interacting with smart, influential people who inform them of the strongest arguments and viewpoints that differ from their own. I bet this advantage especially accrues to folks whose primary project is wonkery.

But inside the world of many ideological magazines, think tanks, foundations, and other intellectual movement operations, a different dynamic takes hold. The overlap between colleagues and friends, already more pronounced in Washington, D.C. than any other city I've observed, is intensified by the fact that standards of loyalty are complicated. It is expected, if lamentable, that ideological movements label fellow travelers to be betrayers of the cause, or useful idiots, on certain occasions when they engage in honestly held disagreement. Even more insidious, however, is the notion that by criticizing someone's book, or questioning the findings of their research, or calling out their employer, one is betraying a friend, or even an entire circle of friends.

So much about Washington, D.C. incubates that fraught culture: its smallness, a social calendar organized around events with ideological affiliations, the combination of high rents, staffers right out of college, and free food provided by think tanks at lunchtime round tables, group house living, happy hour networking, the fuzzy line that separates journalism and activism, the people who cross back and forth without lengthening their commute, etc.

Surveying that landscape, I knew that if I hung around long enough, a day would come when an acquaintance who I genuinely liked as a person would sell out by writing a book that we both knew to be dishonest, or stay silent in the face of some indefensible bullshit to preserve the viability of his career, or otherwise become complicit in the most destructive habits of America's professional political elites.

That it wouldn't be a close friend--its vanishingly seldom that people who've earned and deserve loyalty demand it--didn't keep me from lamenting the inevitability of that day, or the prospect of sticking around so long that I myself became complicit, growing corrupt or else ignoring critique-worthy things for social convenience, a habit that would seem to snowball rather quickly until it reached the same endpoint. 

And it would be so much worse, I thought, if I were someone who worked within the conservative movement. As a journalist at non-ideological publications, there are always colleagues who appreciate intellectual honesty, and social norms that shame those who betray it. Important bulwarks, these.

But it wasn't hard to imagine being born at a slightly different time, arriving in Washington, D.C. several years earlier, being rejected for that bygone internship at The Atlantic, admiring some of the exceptional long form journalism the folks at The Weekly Standard produce, getting a job at that publication, befriending many of its genuinely nice, pleasant staffers, and then realizing one day, for example, "Oh my God, Bill Kristol and Michael Goldfarb are forcefully arguing that American lawyers who represented War on Terrorism detainees at the urging of the Bush administration are literally on the side of the terrorists!"

Every person lives by a code. Mine wouldn't permit me to be a generalist, to write about the War on Terrorism, to refrain from criticizing Keep America Safe, and to feel good about my career or myself. Would I bite my tongue if I had a daughter with a developmental disability and desperately needed the salary and health insurance? Perhaps, until I could secure a more honest job doing corporate pr (I am not being facetious). But better to never find out by assiduously avoiding reliance on people for whom ideological loyalty trumps intellectual honesty.

Of course, we need not conjure a sick child to understand why the position of the Inside the Beltway intellectual is fraught. Imagine how difficult it would be for a 30ish Weekly Standard staffer, inclined to disagree with Keep America Safe, to criticize it using rhetoric anywhere near as forceful as what the group itself uses -- crossing Lynn Cheney and Bill Kristol wouldn't just preclude advancement within the magazine, or any chance at one day securing a fellowship at The American Enterprise Institute, or getting a spot on the press team of some 2012 campaign. It would be seen by a lot of people as a personal betrayal, and others would be pressured to distance themselves.

In a situation where a close personal friend genuinely considered some action to be a personal betrayal, I'd try to avoid taking it even if I disagreed with his assessment. Washington, D.C. is a city where taking that approach can preclude whole classes of criticism directed at one's "own side," so stringent are the demands for a loyalty that is too broadly construed. Or else one can transgress, and be shunned by folks who were much friendlier when you agreed with them. That's been the experience of Bruce Bartlett, who explains in this post how he came to be blackballed by former colleagues.

Beyond the pressure to refrain from criticizing a) friends on the same side of the ideological spectrum, b) your employer, c) the think tanks and magazines most closely associated with it, and d) the folks who bankroll the operation, there is the moment for many when they meet a boyfriend or girlfriend within the movement, get engaged, marry, and are subsequently forced to worry e) about the ideological world of their spouse too. It is no wonder that Washington, D.C. ideological movements turn into a careerist track, creating a self-perpetuating establishment of adept social climbers whose greatest asset is intellectual subservience.

This is what happens in a town where politics is the local industry, its players expect upper-middle-class lifestyles, and unless you're exceptionally smart and at least a little bit lucky, the compensation for independent thinking is far less than the remuneration for its converse, especially if you can get your book jacket shown on Fox News. 

To be fair to Washington, D.C., every industry town frowns upon, for example, singling out a colleague or personal acquaintance for public criticism. In Washington, D.C., the special problem is that magazines, think tanks, and political discourse generally require forceful disagreements, intellectual honesty, a self-conscious tension of being part of something and apart from it, and staffers with a willingness to be persuaded, following reason and evidence where they lead.

All those elements are necessary if the ideological institutions founded to benefit the polity are to succeed, maximize the benefit to America, and "do no harm." Otherwise there are just the trappings of magazines, think tanks, and political discourse, conjured to make the propaganda go down easier.

The concentration of almost all movement jobs in Washington, D.C. creates the social dynamic I've described, making it the hardest place in the United States to run an honest ideological enterprise, even as the same trend solidifies DC as the only American city where a policy shop or an outfit seeking political influence can succeed. So many have tried to do the job from elsewhere, and eventually relocated.

That is what happened to Reason magazine and The Cato Institute, both of which began in California. Lucky for them, libertarians are somewhat less subject to the pernicious effects of Washington, D.C., as evidenced by the greater degree of intellectual honesty and ideological diversity seen at those institutions. It helps when your party is never in power, when your social circles comprise people beyond your relatively small ideology who expect that you'll disagree with them, and when stubborn individualism is a guiding light of your philosophy. It isn't that these institutions are perfect, or untouched by the corruptions of the Beltway, but based on my limited knowledge I am impressed by them and much of the work they do, and I'd say so bluntly if I weren't.

I haven't spoken much about D.C.'s progressive movement and its pathologies, not because they don't exist, but due to my comparative unfamiliarity with them. I hope folks will enlighten me.

I'd also ask whether progressives think that increasing federal power over various aspects of American life, and the increasing concentration of all significant political power in Washington, D.C., is a desirable development in American politics. Were power less centralized, might we see less lucrative remuneration for ideological hackery, less pressure for group loyalty, more voices dissenting from the Washington consensus on matters like the War in Iraq that divide conservatives but not their elites, fewer social relationships driving unhealthy pathologies in public discourse, and a general decrease in the power of institutions that, by the left's own estimation, gravely damaged the country during the Bush administration?

Perhaps an unintended consequence of the political centralization progressives are inexorably helping to bring about is a world where perfectly nice, intelligent, upper middle class people make their living not criticizing Keep America Safe, Glenn Beck, and the notion of putting Sarah Palin a few heartbeats away from the presidency. I am not at all certain about this, but I wonder if more localism, whatever its drawbacks, would also disperse the power of ideological movements, as factions from different places -- a magazine here, a think tank there, a foundation in another place -- were marginally more likely to call out the absurdities of regionally distant, socially unconnected ideological brethren, the career and social costs of doing so being that much lower.

There are bright spots in Washington, D.C. beyond the libertarian folk I've mentioned -- conservatives, liberals and libertarians who do honorable, valuable work within the institutions of their respective movements -- even my least favorite DC institutions generally employ a lot of good, dedicated people, including some who can be proud of their work, and emerge with integrity intact.

But based on what I've seen -- and I understand that I am inherently biased on this point -- I think that the savior of intellectual culture in the District of Columbia is always going to depend on folks who embark on self-conscious projects that are, if I might tweak a recent Internet meme, epistemically open. Inside an ideological movement it might look like The Washington Monthly or Doublethink, the underrated publication of America's Future Foundation. Even more promising are institutions like The Atlantic, a relatively recent transplant that is of no party or clique, and other DC based magazines like Smithsonian, National Geographic, and The American Scholar whose presence in the city would, in an ideal world, loom larger.

There is, beyond even those institutions, the hope that one day meaningful, significant political reform can happen at the state and local level, especially as the Civil Rights imperative to remedy egregious injustice by reining in states rights recedes a little bit farther into the past with each passing year. Meanwhile, thank goodness for the tyranny of New York, our university towns, and the few think tanks outside the District. In the overlap between our intellectual life and politics, these are the only forces that prevent DC political culture from ruling things entirely.

Reach the author by e-mail at conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com, or via Twitter @conor64


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