News & Politics

Yes, Washington’s Out of Touch With the Heartland. You’re Welcome.

Illustration via iStock.

The charge: We’re out of touch with the heartland.

The defense: The whole country should be grateful for that.

Yes, yes, America, even here in Washington—the city that can’t feel your pulse—we have a dim sense of how you feel. You consider us cloistered elitists, unaware of how life is lived. All of our ideas, you sneer, are based on books and white papers, not the gritty reality of “real” America.

In fact, that view of Washington is unlearned, impoverished, and un-American. Because the sad truth is this: Washington is not out of touch enough.

Don’t take it from me. Take it from James Madison. This Founding Father warned about the perils of factions. Democracy works best when it rises above parochialism, he showed. The important civic virtues are detachment, a sense of the national interest. In other words, being out of touch with any one chunk of the country.

When detachment vanishes, we’re left with corruption and political sclerosis, which is exactly what torments government now. But if the Washington of elected officials is afflicted by this condition, the rest of Washington represents the medicine that can cure it.

So ignore, for a minute, the folks who make law on Capitol Hill. They come and go. Instead, consider mandarin Washington, the permanent denizens of the think tanks and interest groups, consulting shops and law firms. There are charlatans in all of those locales, of course. But they’re exceptions. This city attracts idealists more than any other place. And over their career, these idealists can become experts. They come to understand how systems work, how problems can be solved.

Yes, their stock-in-trade is abstractions: statistics, seminars, social science. But those abstractions—that out-of-touchness, if you will—are the very things that help our technocrats rise above parochialism. They don’t worry about the effects of policies on their neighbor or on the business around the corner. Sure, our wonks have a point of view, an ideology even. But they cast their arguments in terms of the national interest, and they mean it. If Washington were allowed to make policy—without the heartland and its parochialism getting in the way—we might actually fix this place.

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