It has been a little more than a week now since I took up residence in the D.C. area, and frankly, I am wondering when all these heartland values I absorbed growing up in Alabama are finally going to be drained away. Or when I will forget that I am not supposed to spend money I do not have. Or when all my math skills in general will disappear.
I hope it will be painless.
As a frequent consumer of political rhetoric, it is easy to be numb to hearing all the different ways that the capital is a bad place full of bad people doing bad things that are ultimately going to come back and hurt you, the hardworking and innocent voter. Growing up, it was always sickly funny to me to learn precisely what “the out-of-touch fat cats in Montgomery” or some variation of that description had been up to since the last election cycle.
(I like to think that right now they are sitting at the bottom of an empty marble swimming pool near Eastdale Mall wearing the finest of top hats your tax dollars can buy and indignantly wondering why the money earmarked for their daily cash swims in Amendment One has never shown up. Of course, I could be alone in this thought.)
But what has been fascinating this year is to watch how much, with an seemingly eternally unpopular Congress and a president who is far from beloved Down South, the badness of the capital — Washington especially — has evolved from a perennial rhetorical standby into an issue unto itself. For example, in the race I was covering in Tennessee, the presumed leading candidate has been touted for having never traveled to D.C. prior to the race and was mocked by another campaign during the Republican primary for hiring someone with D.C. ties to come help run his campaign.
Those lines of attack do make good political sense. If you are trying to get Candidate Y elected over Candidate X, you associate Candidate X with the place where all the unpopular decisions — bailouts, wars, what have you — are made by unpopular people. And if it did not work, the tactic would not be dusted off every cycle.
Perhaps one fault in that logic is that the people in charge have been traditionally placed in Washington or Montgomery or wherever by us, aforementioned dearly innocent voter. Of course, as the little ol’ lady waving the little ol’ flag at the rally or the guy who calls in to give his two-minute sermon on talk radio tells us, “It changes people.”
The fresh-faced candidate who was going to get rid of your taxes or bring a job home for your baby through the power and might of government is irrevocably transformed by that place into a granite barrier preserving the status quo. Or denying universal health care. Or encouraging late-term abortion. Or contaminating the political conversation with empty spin that we all have to talk about now. Whatever.
Or maybe just two or four or six years have passed by and Mr. Fresh Face never got around to turning your house into a tax-free zone and giving your baby a nice-paying job — meaning the world you wanted to go away has stayed the same.
And that is why the thought that there is a big shadowy group of people in some far-off place who are out to ruin your life is a rather attractive notion — well, politically.
It is absolving. It lets voters think they could be just one step ahead if it just were not for taxes or if so-and-so was not trying to let gays serve openly in the military or if the Bush tax cuts were gone or any policy du jour or person du jour worth a “them in Washington” kind of attack was not around.
But perhaps that notion also belittles the political and legislative process, such as how at the federal level, for example, it not only has to cull policy from the heartland views of us, the incredibly innocent voters of Alabama, but the foreign views of far-off despicable places such as New York, Texas and perhaps worst of all, Wyoming.
Maybe we should ask ourselves how we end up feeling like we have so many bad people in charge who make bad decisions that we feel leave us in a bad place. Maybe we should reward candidates who set goals that can actually be met in a term or a term and a half. Maybe we should better check what we can legitimately expect from government and how quickly it will come about — whether we are the obscenely innocent voter who wants a federal government so small it has to be found with an electron microscope or the obscenely innocent voter who wants federal government to spend until it gives us all free and easy jobs, saves all the endangered bears and buys them hats almost as good as those bought with your tax dollars by the fat cats in Montgomery.
That is not saying that it is not worth tossing out the guys who are not getting the job done, but perhaps understanding how, when making a decision at the ballot box, your representative will have to go about getting the job done.
That is not saying that we should lower our expectations for what we want, but perhaps raising our expectations for accomplishment.
Then again, maybe we should just move the capital to somewhere our elected leaders will not be able to lose track of those precious heartland values. Maybe Omaha.
Because how can you hate Nebraska?
There is just so much corn.
Nicholas Beadle is a former political reporter from North Alabama who wrote for 12 years in his home state, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., before leaving newspapers in July 2010 to get hitched and return to D.C. to go to law school. For some strange and probably unhinged reason, he still wants to analyze and write about politics on the Internet, doing so in brief at his personal blog and in a column called “Letters to Dixie” that appears in this space on Mondays. He lives in the D.C. area with his new and very patient wife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @NickBeadle.