News & Politics

In Defense of Washington

In Defense of Washington
Illustration by Alexander Wells.

Everybody hates Washington. Just ask the people who are so energetically campaigning for the right to move here. Out on the presidential hustings, our city is regularly maligned as a swamp that needs draining—a place that’s out of touch, inefficient, and hopelessly polarized; a faux metropolis populated by civil-service dullards, left-wing ideologues, and right-wing business lackeys; a gaggle of status-seeking transients cynically enjoying a lavish lifestyle underwritten by the hard-working folks back in Real America.

Worse still, Washingtonians have a way of joining in the chorus themselves, offering up their own world-weary laments about “This Town” and its incorrigible flaws.

Now, we don’t mind a bit of griping. A steady drumbeat of kvetching, after all, is a common denominator of the world’s great cities—the thing that sets us apart from Palookavilles where locals never speak a discouraging word about the municipal monorail or the craft-whiskey scene.

The problem with the usual case against Washington, though, isn’t that it dismays boosters. It’s that it often confounds logic. Are Thanksgiving dinners really more likely to devolve into partisan food fights here—where sharing space with ideological adversaries is a day-to-day necessity—than in places where it’s the only time of the year when you’ll encounter your liberal aunt?

It’s about time someone came to our defense.

The package that follows began as an effort to take a skeptical look at the shopworn slams on Washington. What we wound up with, though, was more than a series of rebuttals by thoughtful locals. It turned into a celebration of our city, a place where sharp-elbowed operatives can actually be friends, where bureaucratic nobodies do tremendous things—and forgo much bigger paychecks—for the public they serve, where even devoted partisans proffering extreme policies base their arguments on the good of the country.

In Defense of Washington
Illustration via iStock.

Madison Was Right

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. Read More…

Destination’s Capital

The Charge: We’re not a real city. The Defense: Define “real.”

The argument that Washington is a phony town is fairly simple—after all, someone literally invented it. And, like the manmade capitals of countries as far-flung as Australia, Brazil, and Pakistan, it was a pretty empty place for a long while.

Of course, unlike brand-new counterparts—Myanmar’s capital was established barely a decade ago in what was once sugar-cane fields and rice paddies—we’ve had 200-plus years to grow an actual city atop the planners’ grid. Which is why, these days, the allegation leans more on the idea that Washington is a land of transients, lacking the old ethnic neighborhoods of a place like Philadelphia. Read More…

Pantsuit Junction

In Defense of Washington
Photographs by Andrew Propp.

The Charge: Washingtonians have no sense of style. The Defense: Which Washingtonians are you looking at? Read More…

Cultural Identity

The Charge: It’s a cultural wasteland. The Defense: There is a whole lot going on—and it’s quieter.

It used to be that Washington was a fine place to make a life in culture because not many locals cared. Now Washington is a fine place to make a life in culture because enough locals (but not too many!) care. Read More…

Creative Energy

The Charge: Washington is full of nerds, not a place where Artistic types flourish. The Defense: The power and politics Here inspire art.

When I travel the country for readings and introduce myself as a Washington, DC, poet—or even just praise our arts scene—I’m often met with polite skepticism: “Don’t you get tired of the politics?” “How do you find inspiration?”

I’ve never believed that politics crowds out poetry—to the contrary. Read More…

A Brief History of Hating Washington

In Defense of Washington
Illustration by Alexander Wells.

Washington-hating is as old as the Republic.

The deal that made DC the nation’s capital was forged behind closed doors in 1790, just a year after the Constitution went into effect. It happened when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton met over dinner to resolve the issue: The Virginians got a capital on the Potomac while Hamilton got the federal government to assume state debts. Read More…

Mason, Meet Dixon

John F. Kennedy’s famous gripe against Washington—that it’s “a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm”—highlights the no man’s land where DC exists. While Northerners complain that it’s sleepy and slow and Southerners bemoan the rude politicians, we’re left asking: Is DC a Southern town or a Northern town? Read More…

The Case for Going Native

In Defense of Washington
Congress would work better, says Trent Lott, if politicians–and their families–actually lived here.

In the ’90s, Trent Lott led a GOP Caucus that railed against DC. Now safely retired, he’s still here. Read More…

Fighting Words

Washington always takes a verbal beating from the politicians who can’t resist working here, but there’s nothing quite like a presidential election to amp up the DC-bashing. Read More…

Heroes of the Federal Workforce

The Charge: We’re full of lazing, loafing civil servants. The Rebuttal: These people. Read more…

Buddy System

In Defense of Washington
Photograph by Brooks Kraft.

The Charge: Social life in Washington is organized around partisan warfare. The Defense: All of these people are actually friends. Read more…

Status of the Union

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. Read More…

Very Civil Wars

The Charge: We’re hopelessly polarized. The Defense: No, you are.

As the haters tell it, Washington is the root of all political polarization—a town riven and defined by its toxic tribalism: Conservatives holed up in this steakhouse, liberals in that wine bar, and never the twain shall meet. No wonder nothing meaningful ever gets done, right? Bollocks. Read More…

This article appears in our March 2016 issue of Washingtonian.