Main Street to Washington: A train ride through division

WASHINGTON – The Capitol Limited leaves Pittsburgh at 5:20 AM every day typically without fail. Upon departure, the Amtrak train traverses immediately through the land of coal and steel as it passes the iconic Edgar Thompson Plant in Braddock, the remains of industrial McKeesport, once the third most populous city in the state, and past dozens of sleepy river towns.

Smithton, Pennsylvania was once the home of Jones Brewery. Connellsville was a booming railroad town. Meyersdale was a coal town where now 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.

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Historically, Cumberland, Maryland was once one of the most important cities in the country for transportation and industry; it is now part of one of the poorest regions in the United States.

But when the train hits suburban DC in Rockville, Maryland, a striking invisible marker is drawn. Gone are the cities and towns that once prospered in the industrial age and subsequently fell behind since the late 70’s when the beginnings of the new technological economic expansion emerged.

From Rockville to Union Station, towering condominiums dominate the landscape, along with shopping centers, made to replicate the same charming Main Street Americana that was falling apart in Appalachia. There are traffic snarls with people coming and going to work, shopping or entertaining. And construction cranes, vehicles and workers fill the remaining space.

We are simply separated from each other. Nothing good has come from the thirty-plus year divide between our government and its people. It has given us wave election cycles, increasingly detached presidents and no one with a core understanding on how to lead a country that shares any cornerstones with the people. Which means the people don't trust them to do the job that they were elected to do.

Since the day of Ronald Reagan’s ‘Government is not the solution: it’s the problem,’ Republicans have hammered home this idea that government is intrusive and bad, said Alison Dagnes, political science professor at Shippensburg University.

They aren’t the only ones.

“Democrats, too, have seized upon this idea that the government has grown too much,” she said, pointing to the Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Press: Ukraine's not the only outrage The 2 events that reshaped the Democratic primary race MORE-Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Krystal Ball hits media over questions on Sanders's electability MORE ‘Reinventing Government’ program in the 1990s, which aimed to shrink it.

“The underlying argument was that the government was big and therefore bad,” she said of the Clinton-Gore effort.

The combination has led to voters frustrated with everything Washington. The truth is, Washington isn’t all bad, in fact there is a legitimate argument that, for the most part, government does work for you. For the most part it is filled with people like you on the staff levels of members of Congress who work unforgiving hours, bunk with three to four people long past the accepted college age years of collective living and truly care about the work they do.

Most lawmakers are equally dedicated. They too work unforgiving hours, their jobs are not as glamorous as you’d believe, time spent away from their families is brutal and today’s politics has forced them to run to their left (or right wings) when a crisis occurs.

Again, it comes to the common touchstones — what connects us to each other? When we have none of those touchstones when tragedy hits us, such as the massacre in Orlando on Sunday, we each view the other with skepticism.

Main Street is stunned to hear remarks that their traditions of gun ownership are to blame and their bigotry is part of the problem. As a result, the divide with the Washington political class deepens.

We have spent an entire generation of yelling that politicians are corrupt, the system is broken and DC is a bad place. That has had the cumulative effect of an electorate hungry for someone who is not a politician to be the most important politician in the world.

“This makes about as much sense as asking a plumber to do an appendectomy because you don’t like doctors,” said Dagnes.

We need politicians to engage in the very worthy political arts, because without government we are lost. We can fight about how much government we want, but we cannot logically support the idea that if DC disappeared, the nation would be better off.

We depend heavily on our government for our safety, security, education, infrastructure, natural resources, economy, transportation, defense, commerce and general well-being.

It is a catch-22 with significant consequences, said Bruce Haynes, founding partner of Purple Strategies in suburban Washington. “On the one hand the country is righteously indignant at Washington DC; the economy is not working for them and they don't believe we are making good choices that will help us keep the country safe from enemies both inside and outside our borders,” he said.

As a result they do not trust their leaders and its institutions. They criticize them and openly mock them.

But in doing so, we make Washington a place that people who could change it and improve it don't want to be there.

“What reasonable person wants to subject themselves to that kind of mockery and ridicule, and worse subject their families, their children to it?” asked Haynes.

So, there is a medium somewhere here, says Haynes, “We want to be critical of Washington and those who can't make it work. On the other hand we do not want to burn it to the ground in such a way that no one capable of rebuilding it has an interest in doing so,” he said.

Main Street needs to step back and look at how all of this anger at Washington has benefited them. People in Washington need to step further back to see how they have left Main Street behind.

And the press plays arguably the largest role in connecting both sides, beginning with not using the politicians or pundits who scream the loudest at the other side as their experts, and ending with a little more balance when tragedy scorches the country.

Blaming America’s ‘gun culture’ (we don’t call it that out here) for the event or listing America’s previous reluctance to support gay marriage, in Main Street’s view, is code that it is their fault.

America cannot continue to thrive if we are divided from our leadership and those who make the country work. It also cannot continue to thrive without a free, vibrant press that reflects all of us, not just some.

Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com.