Leaving WashingtonBy Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Notre Dame, IN. It was on the virtual “pages” of the Front Porch Republic that I announced last February that I was leaving Georgetown University, in Washington D.C., to accept a position at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, IN. That posting was on track to becoming the most visited page in three year history of FPR – it had accumulated over 12,000 hits during the week it was online, at least until I thought better of the overweening self-indulgence of such a personal pronouncement and decided to take it down.
There were doubtless many reasons for the virtual traffic that this post received – at least in significant part because of my decision to leave one Catholic university for another one, and my expressed dissatisfaction with the place from which I was departing – but my sense from a fair number of reactions that I received was a widespread incredulity that I would leave Washington D.C. for the flyover region of Michiana and the run-down, economically depressed city of South Bend. Academics in general are attracted to major cosmopolitan cities like flies to bright lights (or, I could point to a more earthy substance to which flies are also attracted), and so there was general disbelief from a number of quarters about the sanity of my decision. But what was most striking to me was the general disapproval from those who have spent much of their adult lives decrying the influence and reach and growth of Washington D.C. – meaning, of course, its main industry, the Government. Many, if not most of my “conservative” friends urged me not to leave my previous position because of the influence that I could exert over students at such a strategically-located institution like Georgetown, ones who were drawn to the preeminent university in DC so that they could embark on political careers in that city. Stay in Washington, they urged, so that you might educate students to make Washington less important.
After seven years in Washington, witnessing the ongoing growth of the conservative industry in the city that conservatives claim to hate ranks high among the absurdities amid the countless absurdities of modern American life. D.C. has been the longstanding home of a number of the nation’s top conservative think-tanks, from AEI to Cato to Heritage Foundation. It is a magnet for recent college graduates who intern and work for countless conservative organizations, from conservative journals like the Weekly Standard and the National Review to major conservative journalists of opinion such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and David Brooks. The location of the Porch’s President, Mark Mitchell’s college, Patrick Henry College, was selected in significant part due to its proximity to D.C., where it was hoped its graduates would find ready foothold for conservative internships and jobs. Recently I was among a set of speakers at a newly founded satellite “campus” of nearby Hillsdale College – the Kirby Center, located close to Union Station in Washington D.C. – noteworthy for the fact that Hillsdale is among the only institutions of higher-education in America that accepts no federal funding, yet has established a Center in the heart of the Capital.
Of course, the explicit grounds for this growing presence of conservative people and institutions in Washington is that the slowing or reduction of Washington’s influence can only be achieved by achieving control of national political office and influencing its policy. This is at least a plausible reason, even if evidence for its efficacy is scanty. One might note in passing that since 1980, the Presidency has been under control of Republicans during 20 of the last 32 years, and in control of at least one house of Congress for sixteen of those years, including four – from 2003-2007 – when it controlled both Houses and the Presidency, and during which discretionary outlays of the Federal budget increased by 48.6% and the national debt grew from $6.7 billion to nearly $9 billion. Conservatives, when in power, generally increase the budget and activities of the federal government no less quickly than their liberal counterparts, and in the case of the years when they controlled the Presidency and both Houses, increased it more than many previous liberal administrations.
But my point is not to castigate the “conservative” party for hypocrisy in an age when budget outlays and increases are built into the fabric of democratic electoral politics and are a fundamental demand of its citizenry, regardless of party label; it is rather to suggest that the attraction to Washington D.C. is not perhaps best explained solely by any credible evidence of likely influence of its residents over policy – much as that might be the form of self-explanation that attracts many, whatever their political persuasion. Experience of the last 30 years of politics should indicate that the efforts of even those most dedicated to reducing the size and scope of Washington’s influence have shown very poor results. Yet, rather than showing discouragement with the entire project and decamping in the face of obvious defeat, attraction to Washington of every political stripe has only accelerated in recent years, with the city showing population growth over the last decade that has exceeded the growth rate of any State in the nation. Indeed, the entire region including and around the nation’s capital has seen remarkable growth, with the population of the area around Washington DC – DMV – doubling since 1960, expanding from 2.3 million to to 4.8 million in 2000 and to 5.6 million in 2010. The area is projected to grow by another 7% by 2014. The DC region now holds the dubious distinction of having displaced Los Angeles as the most traffic-congested area of the nation.
The growth of Washington has not been broadly representative of the overall demographics of the U.S. population. As analyzed in Charles Murray’s recently published and widely-discussed book Coming Apart, the DC area has been a particular draw to a narrow subset of the U.S. population, which he describes as “overeducated elitist snobs.” These are the graduates of America’s top institutions of higher education – represented by his analysis of the settlement patterns of recent graduates of HPY (Harvard/Princeton/Yale), who settle with extraordinary consistency in a number of “super-zips,” (“super-zip codes,”) designated by Murray as “Elite Bubbles.” Thirteen of these zip-codes are to be found in or near the city of Washington DC – including Georgetown, NW DC, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, McLean, Arlington, Alexandria, as well as the more “middle-class” zip codes that include the likes of Springfield and Reston. In these zip codes, people enjoy an average education and income higher than that enjoyed by all but 5 percent of other Americans.
Murray emphasizes that these “super-zips” (along with others that are to be found in places like New York, Boston and Chicago, San Francisco, among the few cities where HPY’s congregate after graduation) are not “islands,” but shape and influence a large geographic area that, in the case of Washington D.C., constitutes the wealthiest and most desirable areas of the nation in which its elite prefers to live. Murray also notes that these denizens of “super-zips” are overwhelmingly politically liberal, leading him to decry a kind of monolithic political worldview of such places (according to Murray’s findings, 67% in “superzips” are liberal or doctrinaire liberal, while 19% are conservative or doctrinaire conservative). But it should be pointed out that people of widely different political views live in the same neighborhoods, shop at the same stores, dine at the same restaurants and live the same basic lifestyle. No matter how we describe them politically – and the policies that they support, whether or not they are likely to be enacted or not – a defining feature of these denizens is a pervasive urbanity and cosmopolitanism. They are generally well-travelled; comfortable in the larger, generally anonymous urban setting; happy purveyors of high culture and fine dining; occupants of similar housing stock, which is generally upscale single-family that does not include residents of different and especially lower economic strata; they tend to be well-informed about current events from similar sources, such as NPR or the WSJ; comparatively among the wealthiest people in the entire world, and largely expectant that their children will travel life paths that will put them on a similar trajectory to occupy similar positions and locate in comparable super-zips as they become adults. For all of the significant political differences that might divide them, they in fact have far more in common in their “lifestyle” and general worldviews and outlook on how life should be lived.
I don’t blame them for liking to live in these settings, and will admit that moving to South Bend has not been without moments of second-guessing about leaving all the cultural, culinary, and aesthetic bounties of a place like Washington, DC. These are beautiful and wealthy places, filled with interesting people leading interesting lives, places overbrimming with so much prosperity that one inevitably benefits even if one is not among the super-wealthy. Living in such places, one actually does experience a kind of “trickle-down” wealth, if not literally in direct increases (though money flows more freely), then in the ancillary benefits of good schools, a constantly upgraded infrastructure, well-maintained private homes, well-stocked libraries and manicured public parks, interesting intellectual discourse, an atmosphere were personal health, personal growth, and well-being are stressed and therefore contagious.
People educated at the leading institutions today – whatever their political stripe – are essentially trained to be concerned about the affairs of the world, to seek to change the world, at least at the scale of the nation-state, if not the international scale. They are groomed to be “leaders.” Hope College – location of FPR’s second conference – proclaims its aim in its mission statement “to educate students for lives of leadership and service in a global society” in such off-campus centers as Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and – naturally – Washington DC. The topics of the discussions and debates of today’s highly educated are almost exclusively cultivated to be focused on the issues and concerns emanating from national and international venues. It was always the source of sad bemusement that so many of the articles of Georgetown’s campus newspaper, “The Hoya,” were directed to topics of national and international political concern. It was not that students believed that anyone who might influence such matters was consulting “The Hoya” (well, maybe a few students were so deluted); it is that they were practicing and auditioning for future positions.
While the airwaves are filled with debates between our best educated leaders who have congregated together in one of four or five cities in the country, they are in fact more commonly and deeply bound by a shared perspective that what matters is the big and the expansive. While these are places of specific geographic locations, with particular and often interesting histories, the people who are now attracted to these places go there not with a commitment to any particular local culture, but rather because they are places attractive to people who seek to transcend any particular locality and become citizens of the world. As thought and opinion leaders, they help to foster a national and international consensus that the things that really matter are the things that are being debated and discussed in Washington
This outcome was, of course, part of the original design of our system – to encourage the vacating of “local cultures” in favor of the cultivation of an elite class that would transcend concern for, or identification with, any particular locality. Addressing the concerns of the original localists – the so-called “Anti-federalists”, who decried the proposed Constitution’s tendency toward “consolidation” – Alexander Hamilton tipped his hand to the kind of nation that the Constitution would help foster:
I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that description. The regulation of mere domestic police of a state appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition. Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend the objects which have charms for minds governed by that passion: and all the powers necessary to those objects ought in the first instance to be lodged in the national depository…. It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the [local] powers…. The possession of them … would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, and to the splendor of the national government.
For all the stated political differences of our leadership class, cultivated in this similar worldview, they share a deeper commitment to maintaining our attention upon, and concern for, national and international concerns. Hamilton acknowledged that people tend to have a preliminary and dominant concern for what is nearest to them – their families, their neighborhoods, their communities, their States – but believed that if the best and the brightest could be attracted to national office, our gaze and concerns could be diverted to places and debates far from us, that we would come to think that what happens in Washington DC or in Brussels to be more important than what happens in our own neighborhoods.
There is another element to this longstanding effort, to lower our sights and concerns from the divine to the earthly – to foster, in the recent words of biblical scholar Peter Enns, a “rival eschatology.” While we are drawn into the weighty battles between liberals and conservatives, sides pitted against each other, we cease to notice that they are part of a common effort to secure our allegiance to the belief that the fate of our world and our lives hangs in the balance with the outcome of the next election, or the election after that, or the election after that. As our attention focuses with greater exclusivity upon the concerns of Washington DC, the scale of our vista actually shrinks. Indeed, with our gaze fixed on the bright lights of Washington D.C., we invite its light pollution to dim out the light from the City that ought to matter more – the Eternal City to which we ought rather to aspire. We are more apt to see the lights of that better city from locations less bright, less distracting, less self-important.
We forget that Augustine went to Rome – his biographer Peter Brown tells us, because in Rome he could find the stage where he might pursue his ambitions as a political actor, a teacher of rhetoric. Unlike our current leaders, however, Augustine was quickly disillusioned by what he found there – an assortment of people drawn by common vices in the pursuit of earthly power. He left Rome, and eventually settled in the provinces of his homeland in Africa, in Thagaste, where he was drawn by life in a monastery where, Brown relates, “monks seemed to him to have succeeded in living in permanent communities, where all the relationships were moulded by the dictates of Christian Charity.” It would be from this setting that he would write his great work, The City of God, in which he sought to remind Christians – after the sack of Rome – that even the most important and majestic human societies must die, are destined to die, and will die all the more quickly when they think themselves to be the sole end and purpose of human life.
I have left Washington, but I am still learning to leave Washington. I am trying to learn that what takes place in my city, in my neighborhood, my region, deserves more attention and concern, deserves my energy and devotion and passion, far more than whatever the debate I’m told to care about by my betters who seek to focus my attention on the national and international stage, to distract me from the “slender allurements” of mere “domestic” life. Rather than “win” Washington, I am trying to learn to ignore Washington, to live in and care about where I am. And to remind myself to have a proper vista, not to share in the self-delusion in the eternity of our earthly city – that self-delusion that led our best-and-brightest into the belief that our economy would always grow as long as there was more to borrow, or today that our power will always increase. I am learning to leave Washington in part in preparation for the day when it will no longer be, or be what it is – a day that I think is not as distant as those now living there, a time when we will live in local culture because it will be the only place to live, the only place we should live.
[This posting consists of my delivered remarks at the recently concluded 2nd Annual FPR Conference in Hope, MI. My gratitude especially to Jeff Polet for his good work in hosting that very fine gathering]