When Elites Forget How to Talk About Politics
A trip to Arizona reminds our writer just how shabby and out of touch the discourse in D.C. has become.
You don’t expect to find peace the first time you go to Arizona. What you expect is more like something out of an old Western: dusty deserts, towns with “Gulch” in the name, impassable canyons, tumbleweeds bouncing past ox skulls, rattlesnakes, horseshoes, adversity. And there’s some of that, to be sure: the tall Saguaro cacti, in the shadows of the rising sun, can look like invading soldiers coming down off the mountains. But then you realize the air is clear. You go to Tucson, a small city—the best kind—where the University of Arizona has pollinated independent bookstores and craft bars. You go to Phoenix and tease out the charming drags from the sprawl, the boulevards whose rows of palm trees soaked in sunshine feel like a more manageable LA. You go to these places and, away from the East’s deep freeze and din, you breathe.
Arizona is a red state that, in the public imagination at least, probably runs closer to crimson. It’s home to former governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and there’s a certain frontier libertarian streak in place. No one is going to stop you from hiking up a craggy mountain in the 115 degree heat with nothing in your backpack but a half-full Capri Sun and three cashew shells; just don’t expect it to be cheap when they have to come rescue you. The speed limit on some highways is 75. The beer is good and many bars allow smoking. And most striking of all, at least to a Washingtonian like myself, the political conversation is correspondingly laid back. The locals fret about illegal immigration—the border town of Nogales, they point out, is safer than its counterpart on the Mexican side—but also note the concerns of the Tohono O’odham Indian nation, whose land would be cut in two by Trump’s border wall. This is Trump country, no question about it, but people aren’t obsessed with him. They gripe about his Twitter account, same as everyone else.
There’s a danger to the kind of travel writing I’m engaged in here. You run the risk of serving up a false synecdoche, pretending a six-day jaunt can give you the full measure of a place. And certainly not everyone in Arizona is detached from politics; plenty, I’m sure, are quite attached. But in general it’s struck me over the years how much easier it is to talk about politics once you get outside the Washington Beltway. One of the great ironies of our time is that places like Arizona have become better at political discourse than the very people who are supposed to chatter about this stuff for a living. In D.C., we love to dread the Thanksgiving trip home, the relatives around the table who can’t say “pass the stuffing” without spouting their ignorant opinions. But the truth is exactly the opposite. It’s we who sound like bumptious fanatics, not them.
Only in Washington could anyone take seriously a show like Morning Joe, which can’t report the lotto numbers without blaming them on Trump. Only in Washington would anyone turn down sex because they found out their date was on the other side of the political spectrum. We chide the rest of the country for their lack of liberality, yet many of us are intolerably close-minded. Most people treat politics as just another subject for discussion, wedged in between the AFC North standings and the latest on Aunt Marjorie’s divorce. They do this even when elections have very real consequences—I’ll never forget sitting in a western Pennsylvania bar and listening to a man remain perfectly amiable as he told me how the EPA had ruined his livelihood. We’re far more privileged than that, yet we think nothing of spending all day on social media thrashing some third-rate cable news host because he said something we didn’t like. (That’s another thing you notice in Arizona—people aren’t constantly staring at their smartphones.)
How did it get this way? Several reasons. The first is simply that D.C. is a company town. Most Washingtonians have political jobs, so they want to feel like politics matters, the same as those math teachers who hang needy charts on their walls listing the professions that require their disciplines. We get animated, develop strong opinions, act like the stakes are high. Special fault, I think, is due to the political center, ostensibly the home of Washington’s grownups. Centrists like to posture as non-ideological, but they’re some of the biggest fanatics on the planet, and they cling to their beliefs with all the ardor of an ayatollah. The fact that Trump has questioned their shibboleths—on foreign policy intervention, sprawling trade deals, an energetic administrative state—has sent them into apocalyptic fits. That sets a bilious tone for the rest of us and feeds the president’s own mean temper.
Another reason Washington discourse is broken is that the media, not the government, has become the city’s most ubiquitous entity. There it is, blinking out of every bar TV, following us home on Twitter and Facebook. Yes, you can still attain prestige as a senator, and there are still big bucks to be made in lobbying. But cable news and its many adjuncts provide something more important: fame, exposure, the very currencies of modern life. There have actually been congressmen who have become so bored with their lawmaking duties that they’ve left Capitol Hill to be TV contributors. More common is the young legislator who acts like a camera-ready pundit, delivering floor speeches consisting of strung-together soundbites, then dashing away for an Fox News interview in the Capitol hallway. With the media shaping the government, and confrontational maximalism shaping the media, Washington’s entire dialectic has been dragged down, a CNN-shaped millstone around its neck.
This is not how our elites are supposed to behave. The Founding Fathers were far more worried about the passions of the average person. This led most of them to disdain democracy, meaning direct democracy, the noisy kind that had governed Athens 2,500 years earlier. James Madison famously declared in Federalist No. 55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Athenians let their passions steer them towards ruin, most notably during the Peloponnesian War, when demagogues whipped them into undertaking a suicidal invasion of Syracuse. The founders were determined not to repeat those mistakes. Yet today it isn’t the demos that’s clamoring for woolly-headed wars; it’s that piece of think tank furniture John Bolton. And while hotheaded mobs frequently break out, they’re mostly confined to Twitter, whose blue checkmarks may be the greatest monikers of privilege in America today.
The Founders saw elites as a necessary check on the people. They intended the more aristocratic Senate to be a cooling saucer, as George Washington put it, where the blazing whims of the House could be tempered before they became law. Yet today the opposite has become true. It’s our elites who need checking, while your average Arizonan or Kentuckian isn’t nearly so swivel-eyed. There’s plenty to dislike about the populist movements currently sweeping the West, but less than airhorn nationalism, they seem to be a reaction against elite extremism, an attempt to restore some of the common sense that our political class is supposed to practice. No, wars can’t go on forever. No, we can’t take in everyone from Latin America. Ask Trump’s voters why they backed him, and their most common answer is simply that they didn’t like his opponent. Ask Washington’s royalty, and you get crackpot Russian conspiracy theories and musings about apocryphal pee tapes.
It isn’t that the public can’t be partisan. Polls on everything from impeachment to tax cuts to Trump’s approval rating show they can be, and that party identification matters more than it used to. It’s that they don’t care nearly as much as we do. That grants them a detachment, a healthy distance, an ability to pull the camera up and comment on the passing scene, unavailable to those who spend all their time marinating in the news cycle’s trivialities. Consider that the press has been chattering hyperactively about Pete Buttigieg for weeks, yet a Morning Consult poll finds that more than a third of Democratic primary voters either don’t have an opinion on him or don’t know who he is. Those opinions will develop, of course; it’s just too early. First there’s the NFL playoffs to worry about. And for once, my Patriots aren’t in them.
This passion gap, between those who insist that federal politics is a matter of salvation and those who don’t, has grown especially wide under the current administration. Trump is brilliant at this: he floods the zone with constant insults and outrages, sending Washington’s calliope machine into a state of malfunction, while elsewhere people only notice the big things, the major speeches and the I-words, impeachment and Iran. There’s real virtue to this. It keeps you levelheaded, keeps politics in its proper place. It’s why these days you’re more likely to find the cooling saucer on a tabletop in an Arizona saloon than anywhere near the Capitol dome.