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Think DC Is Full of Frank Underwoods? Maybe. But That’s Better Than a Lot of Martin Shkrelis

Photograph by David Giesbrecht/Netflix.

The Charge: We’re obsessed with power and position.

The Defense: Maybe—but at least we’re not obsessed with money.

You know the stereotypes: New York’s about finance. LA is fame. In San Francisco, it’s “disruption.” And here in our nation’s capital, you matter only if you’re powerful.

Like any other trope, there’s some truth to it. Just flip through the society pages to find boldface names preceded by Honorable, Ambassador, Representative, or Senator. There isn’t a single night, I imagine, when Valerie Jarrett has trouble scoring a dinner-party invitation.

But what’s power anyway? It tends, in a national capital, to mean you’ve gotten yourself elected to something, or established an expertise in something the country thinks is important—say, military strategy or environmental protection or (can’t win ’em all) how to craft a catchy rebuttal to a fellow cable-TV personality.

Leaving aside that last one, I’m having a hard time seeing where this is all bad in a democracy. Compared with a culture where status is determined by the size of your Hamptons mega-mansion or the popularity of your Uber-for-shoe-repair app, it’s not such a terrible thing. Even if you accept the idea of Washington as suck-up city, a lot of the folks being sucked up to earn in a year what a Silicon Valley venture capitalist makes in a day.

The fact is Washington is becoming less obsessed with traditional credentials. It’s now also a place of charter-school pioneers, social-justice innovators, and young entrepreneurs making Korean tacos at Union Kitchen. Not to mention some venture capitalists of our own.

The city has diversified its sources of chatter beyond the West Wing and the E-Ring. I suspect we’ll someday be nostalgic for the days when federal Washington was the main event. The new, more creative, more interesting capital is also a place where the old, middle-class town—where few people get obscenely rich and almost as few care—is fading. We’ll miss the days when we could afford to be obsessed only with power.

This article appears in our Defense of Washington feature in the March 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

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