Why That Town Sucks

This TownWashington insider Mark Leibovich has written what is apparently a breezy and funny indictment of the insular political culture, This Town. And it is apparently stirring things up. Yesterday, Mother Jones reported that Politico—more or less the official news source of insular Washington political culture—has published 17 articles on the book. These articles are both positive and negative. It seems that Politico understands that the book is an attack on its very being, but is also so narcissistic that they just love reading about themselves.

This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote an article discussing this very dynamic, Politico Is This Town. It’s a good article and I encourage you to read it. But what I found most interesting is what Chait had to say when he got a bit sidetracked. He noted that although Leibovich completely nails this power culture, he doesn’t really analyze it. So Chait provided his own, which will sound awfully familiar to readers of this blog.

Basically, in Washington social circles certain things are just known. There is no need to think about issues. It’s like fashion, everyone just knows that Peter Pilotto is very “in” this year. And that’s why, for years when unemployment was over 8%, all anyone in Washington (and pretty much in the media) could talk about was the federal debt. This is my argument against Fox News. I don’t mind that it is biased; every source of news is. The problem is that it pushes the idea (widely accepted by its audience) that they are getting fair and balanced information. People who get their news from Fox don’t even have to think about their views because they only hear news to justifies what they already believe. Well, the exact same thing is going on in Washington, except the effects are less visible and infinitely more damaging.

Chait wrote:

This Town groupthink is also shot through with sublimated class bias. The ideology of This Town is left of center on social issues and slightly[1] right of center on fiscal issues, reflecting the general disposition of the business class. It dismisses social conservatism and economic populism as self-evidently stupid.

This gets us to the whole idea of the Overton window: the window of acceptable policy debate. A good example of this was single payer healthcare reform. Many liberals were very unhappy that it got no traction in 2009. But the truth was that it couldn’t get any traction; it was outside the Overton window; all the people in the mainstream press understood that it was not serious. And what made it “not serious”? The power elites in Washington, of course. The people who dismiss economic populism as stupid do the same thing with healthcare. And we are all worse off for it.

Mark Twain may have said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” It’s frightening to think that our policy making is based upon cocktail party chatter. “Did you read that new Niall Ferguson article?!” Whenever I waste some time watching one of the Sunday morning political shows, I’m amazed at how much uncontested nonsense is spoken. That’s why when someone like Paul Krugman shows up, there is a feeling of anxiety. Here’s a guy who knows we he’s talking about, who doesn’t form his opinions on the basis of party invites. But the solution for the Washington insiders is always the same. They don’t consider the new ideas. They just wait until the outsider invasion is over so they can go back to thinking their comforting thoughts—the thoughts that everybody knows.


[1] I have a real problem with Chait modifying “right of center on fiscal issues” with “slightly.” That just goes to show how effective Washington groupthink is. No centrist commentator in Canada or Europe would look at American conventional wisdom on economic issues and say that we were “slightly” to the right. And Chait is supposedly a liberal! If he really thinks that our barely progressive tax system (including all levels of taxation) with our excessive level of inequality and pathetic social safety net is only slightly to the right of center, then he’s a lot more conservative than I thought.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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