A couple of decades ago when that temple of conspicuous consumption, Neiman Marcus, opened another store in metropolitan Washington, my old friend and astute political observer, the late Nat McKitterick, warned me we were lost.
For it was about that time when “a political class” was becoming apparent in the nation’s capital. It was a new phenomenon. Those of us who knew Washington pre-World War II remember how it largely emptied out on the weekends when the government elite departed for hometowns.
The wretched climate in the former swamp meant summer holidays were forced on the bureaucracy when the thermometer maxed out, then without the now ubiquitous air conditioning. In an era when the country depended less on Washington delving directly into our inner most reaches [and pockets], part-time government, or something approaching that, could be tolerated if not welcomed.
Certainly the Founders wanted the new Republic to have limited government, peopled by a constantly fluctuating hierarchy composed of a wide range of citizens with other professions and livelihoods. True, eight of the original 55 men who participated in framing the Constitution were sometime politicians. And fourteen were rich enough to own slaves. George Washington, himself, was not only a slave owner but one of the richest men in the New World. Eighteen framers might be called “speculators” in land and finance. Still, they dreamed of a regime in which the power of the state would be lodged at its lowest level and therefore more responsive to the will of the people.
And, indeed, at the insistence of “the radicals” they immediately adopted the ten first Constitutional amendments to guarantee the people’s rights, changes most of which had been discussed earlier. They were adopted to ease the document’s approval from the various states’ legislatures, jealous of their power and fearful of a central government. The tenth amendment put it in unambiguous 18th century prose: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The reasoning was clear: a ruling political elite was the nightmare of the Founders, especially those ideologues committed from the beginning to the Revolution against the British crown. Their opposition arose from an overweening King and Parliament (repeat and Parliament) which had usurped their rights as Englishmen.
Steady progress of Anglo-Saxon individualism and strength of new and growing centers of power in Great Britain had erased the once divine right of kings. And then the power of the barons gave way to a London elite which governed, but in part still based on aristocracy. That was not to be, the Founders hoped, in, after all, what was their Republic modeled on Greek popular democracy and the Roman worship of the law.[Benjamin Franklin, according to legend, famously quipped when asked by a constituent what had come of the secret constitutional conclave, and he replied, “A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it!”.]
But over two centuries that original intent, as undeniable as it is, has been chipped away “in order to form a more perfect union” and to meet the growing needs of a vast, new land and population and the effects of a continuing industrial revolution. By the time the U.S. finally assumed its obligations as a world power, in fact, as a superpower, in the post World War II environment, that process had gathered new, rapid momentum.
On The Hill, the old bourbon-and-branchwater boys gave way to new blow-haired pseudo-sophisticated Congressional staffers, who incidentally, didn’t know how to draft legislation. In the Congress, more and more seats were “inherited” – either through DNA or through gerrymandering which now was based on class, ethnicity and color rather than on old machine politics handing out a Christmas turkey.
The two-year term in the House, intended to insure a rapid turnover close to the electorate, of necessity turned into permanent campaigning. The judicial system which more or less had bucked Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “court-packing” successfully in the mid-30s succumbed increasingly to politicalization – with sociologists rather than legal scholars providing psychoanalytical analysis for decision-making on school desegregation, and a couple of decades later, abortion, rather than resorting on the old torts.
In one of those vaunted reforms with unintended consequences [The 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act and all is subsequent additions], the effort to insulate the federal bureaucracy from the corruption of political “spoils” created an independent but self-aggrandizing bureaucracy. So much so that sheer dereliction of duty – as witnessed in the current Congressional hearings – is hard to punish with dismissal much less economic sanctions and imprisonment.
Watching Committee television hearings, we have seen the apotheosis of the trendy, smirking, self-important, arrogant, self-anointed bureaucrat, defying elected inquisitor politicians – who, however tainted themselves, recognized the dangerous politicalization of the tax system has reached new and dangerous heights.
Grown like Topsy is a class of bureaucrats, political appointees supposedly in their command, reinforced by their K Street lobbyist appurtenances and an increasingly kept mass media and blabbering tax-free, high-paid foundations with pretenses for intellectuality. These latter all too often simply reflect the least common denominator on thinking about any strategy or policy. A systemic revolving door of cushy jobs await any government executive who falls from his seat – until the hoped for next election either brings him back or he continues to work with his alter egos in what is laughingly called the private sector.
Look around and you see the incredible character of our new political elite. They unashamedly reward themselves until the District of Columbia [despite its poverty-stricken Black ghetto] and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties have the country’s highest per capita incomes. Alas! The demise of the Founders’ effort for a politically neutral federal territory! And even with the Dulles Corridor information technology industry, you would be hard pressed to find productive sources other than intra-government relations.
To describe the relationship among the inhabitants of Georgetown, Langley, Bethesda, Friendship Heights, and the other ‘golden ghettoes” of suburban Washington as incestuous would be magnificent understatement.
These denizens are often tied by kinship – the former Internal Revenue Service head who presided when it targeted conservative organizations is married to the head of an Obama political organization [not audited], two major network news directors have siblings in “media relations” on the White House staff, etc., etc. They constantly hobnob in New York-priced restaurants, chatter at the plethora of cocktail parties, often vacation together in The Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or other plush resorts, when not taking overseas “inspection” trips at the taxpayers’ expense.
It is no wonder that such inbreeding leads to group-think. Only such relationships could produce the catastrophe of a fanatical effort to remodel at one stroke one-sixth of the U.S. economy, the medical services and health industry with its infinite and unanticipated complications. And then, of course, to continue to pursue that course when every single opinion poll in the country shows a majority of the voters oppose it.
Obamacare is, in fact, the culmination of a growing tendency of “the political class” to demonstrate increasing incompetence and lack of realism in the face of the growing complexity of American economic, social and political life after the subordination of old methodology by the digital revolution. But it was the ultimate expression of a political class who knowingly and arrogantly “know” what is good for the rest of the population.
Is all lost?
The closest I have ever come to Oklahoma was as a teenage Columbia University student I got an invitation from Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra, then playing at the Warner Bros. Theater on Broadway, to see Oklahoma! Opening that 1943 spring. I assume its freshness and authenticity is a reflection of its namesake. To this observer it seems if one wants an antidote to what is happening in Washington, which inspires faith in the American ethos and its political dreams, he must turn to the victims of the recent Oklahoma tornadoes.
Even the mainstream media, so often given to stigmatizing ordinary Americans as boobs [“who cling to guns, or religion”], had interview after interview with survivors who expressed their acceptance of the inevitability of life’s disasters but determination to adhere to old Oklahoman and American principles of self-help and perseverance. And I doubt that many of them would recognize a Los Rudos cocktail — with cilantro. As the Communists were want to say, it is not accident that not a single Oklahoma county voted for Obama in 2012.
Therein, perhaps, still lies the essence and the hope of the Founders’ American dream.