Much has been written and spoken about the deep divide between “red” and “blue” America, but the real chasm increasingly is between Washington and the rest of the country. This disconnect may increase as both conservatives and liberals outside the Beltway look with growing disdain upon their “leaders” inside the imperial capital. Indeed, according to Gallup, trust among Americans toward the federal government has sunk to historic lows, regarding both foreign and domestic policy.
The debate over Syria epitomizes this division. For the most part, Washington has been more than willing to entertain another military venture. This includes the Democratic policy establishment. You see notables like Anne Marie Slaughter and the New York Times' Bill Keller join their onetime rivals among the neoconservative right in railing against resurgent “isolationism” on the Right.
Yet some people, like the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, who pushed for our disaster in Iraq, now insist that turning away from a Syrian involvement would be “disastrous for the nation in very clear ways.”
Yet, out in the country, where people, even those who (like me) supported Iraq initially, know that that war was not worth the price, in blood, treasure or damage to national unity. The citizens are not remotely interested in getting a second shot of neoconservative disaster in Syria. A recentCNN poll found that seven in 10 would oppose attacking Bashar al-Assad's regime without congressional approval, which about 60 percent think Congress should not give.
This is not a partisan consensus, but an outside-the-Beltway one. Liberals, who might be expected to rally behind their president, have remained deeply divided. At the grass-roots level, both left-wing groups, like Moveon.org, and those on the right, notably Tea Party factions, have opposed entering the Syrian quagmire. One liberal writer, utterly confused by the new alignment, admitted he was looking to the “far-right fringe” with its “abominable” nativist and racist views, to “salvage our Syria policy.”
Similarly, most conservatives who in the past instinctively supported intervention have turned decisively dovish. Increasingly, as one conservative commentator acidly put it, the support for war reflects “an insider urge to use U.S. military power,” which helps “advance the careers of government officials through bigger budgets, new departments and more exposure and influence.” It also helps the think tanks, consulting firms and others who benefit from foreign adventurism.
This cynicism, felt on both sides of the political chasm, is what doomed the president's Syria adventure and left him to the tender mercies of Vladimir Putin. Americans in general, suggests the National Interest's Robert Merry, have concluded that “the country's elites – of both political parties and across the political spectrum – have been wrong on just about everything they have done since the end of the Cold War.”
This chasm between the ruled and the rulers has both widened and deepened during the Obama years. Initially, Democrats supported the idea of a strong federal expansion to improve the economy. Yet, as it turned out, the stimulus and other administration steps did little to help the middle and working classes. The Obama economic policy has turned out to be at least as much – if not more – “trickle down” than that of his Republican predecessor.
Similarly embarrassing, the administration's embrace of surveillance, as demonstrated by the National Security Agency revelations, has been no less, and maybe greater, than that of former vice president Dick Cheney and his crew of anti-civil libertarians. And it's been the Left, notably, the British Guardian newspaper, that has led the fight against the mass abuse of privacy. Americans as a whole are more sympathetic to leaker Edward Snowden and increasingly concerned about government intrusions on their privacy. A July Washington Post-ABC News poll found fully 70 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans said the NSA's phone and Internet surveillance programs intrude on some Americans' privacy rights. Nearly six in 10 political independents who saw intrusions said they are unjustified.
The Right intrinsically opposes expansion of the civilian part of the federal government, but it supported the national security state both during the Cold War and after 9/11. This has now begun to change. The revelations about IRS targeting of Tea Party and other grass-roots groups likely have not reduced their fears of Big Brother. Yet, by better than 2-1, Democrats, according to a Quinnipiac survey, also supported appointing a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of this scandal.
Besides shared concerns over Syria, the NSA and IRS, grass-roots conservatives and liberals increasingly reject the conventional wisdom of their Washington betters. What increasingly matters here is not political “spin,” but the breadth of anti-Washington sentiment. After all, while most of the country continues to suffer low economic growth, the Washington area has benefitted from the expansion of federal power. The entire industry of consultants, think tanks, lawyers and related fields, no matter their supposed ideologies, has waxed while the rest of America has waned.
This has been a golden era for the nation's capital, perhaps the one place that never really felt the recession. Of the nation's 10 richest counties, seven are in the Washington area. In 1969, notes liberal journalist Dylan Matthews, wages in the D.C. region were 12 percent higher than the national average; today, they are 36 percent higher. Matthews ascribes this differential not so much to government per se, but on the huge increase in lobbying, which has nearly doubled over the past decade.
Matthews draws a liberal conclusion, not much different than one a conservative would make, that “Washington's economic gain may be coming at the rest of the country's expense.” Washington may see itself as the new role model for dense American cities but this reflects the fact that it's one of the few places where educated young people the past five years have been able to get a job that pays well.
This is intolerable to Americans of differing political persuasions. It is not just a detestation of government but also of the Washington-centered media, which hassent some 20 of its top luminaries into an Obama administration that, at least until recently, has managed to spin them better than any of its predecessors. Not surprisingly, along with that of Congress, the media's credibility has been crashing to historic lows, with 60 percent expressing little trust in the fourth estate.
These trends might gain velocity as the millennial generation begins to shape American politics. Indeed, although they have supported Obama against his GOP opponents, their activism is more grass-roots than governmentally oriented. Only 6 percent of recent college graduates want to work for government at any level, down from 8 percent in 2008; barely 2 percent would consider joining the federal workforce.
As generational chroniclers Mike Hais and Morley Winograd point out, millennials – those born from 1983-2003 – tend to be liberal, but not strongly supportive of top-down, administrative solutions. “Millennials,” Winograd notes, “believe in solving national issues at the local, community level. They are as suspicious of large government bureaucracies as any libertarian but as dedicated to economic equality and social justice as any liberal.”
Winograd's notion of “pragmatic idealism” might include dispersing power and influence away from Washington. Perhaps, as some have suggested, putting Congress “on the road,” for example, forcing it to legislate, say, at the convention center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., or Ontario, Calif. Maybe lawmakers might have to confront what life is like for their subjects, who do not live privileged lives funded by our tax dollars. Instead of croissants in Georgetown, let them eat bread and tortillas.