State of American democracy: mean

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Michelle Wolf’s inappropriate and cruel remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner revealed today’s abysmally low standards for “comedy” and reflected the dark stereotypes too often reinforced by Hollywood about Washington. Vulgar and unoriginal, Wolf’s material was such that any 15-year-old “mean girl” could have dished out.

And yet, as awful as it was, her routine serves as one more reminder that the state of our union is in much worse shape than most Washingtonians, including I, want to admit.

{mosads}Inside the Beltway, elected officials and partisan activists scheme and fight, jockeying for a political advantage and policy benefits. These professionals understand the complexities of the democratic process and they have respect for those players who succeed at the political game, even if they disagree with their ideological beliefs or their policy solutions.


They also know that the majority of Americans who come to Washington to make a career in politics do so for idealistic, rather than self-interested, reasons. They come, hoping to make change on the issue they care about. From enacting new protections to repealing regulations, the specific changes desired or preferred by those who work in Washington run the gamut.

Outside the Beltway, partisans despise each other and behave in increasingly uncivil ways. According to a Pew Research Center report from last fall, “among members of both parties, the shares with very unfavorable opinions of the other party have more than doubled [increased by 28 percentage points] since 1994.” More generally, the “red meat” vitriol that is laced through interest group email messages or weaved into campaign speeches in an attempt to turn interested spectators into committed partisans has come to define our culture.

Every issue is a “hot button” issue. And the staged, Jerry Springer-like partisan brawls on cable news have become so normalized that this ugliness is reflected across the public discourse on social media platforms. In the name of authenticity, savagery abounds.

But what’s wilder is that partisans on both sides of the aisle believe that on the issues that matter to them, they are losing. And even worse, few Americans trust the government in Washington and “fewer than a quarter (21 percent) say it is run for the benefit of all the people.”

Republicans and Democrats don’t want to live in the same types of communities and most admit they have “very few or no” friends on the other side of the aisle.

This all is somewhat strange to anyone who works in politics in Washington because on most days, most people interact with others who sit across the aisle. While many are forced to engage with others who hold opposing views (i.e., separation of powers), those who aren’t know full well that when they’re at a coffee shop, a grocery store, or a restaurant, the people around them may be their “opponents.” The District’s partisan composition on a business day, when Congress is “in session,” is surely the most diverse of any urban area in America. And as the place where the entire country is explicitly represented, it should be.

But what this means is that most politicos have learned how to be courteous and respectful to each other because the threat of reprisal is real. Most senior Washingtonians advise the newcomers that they shouldn’t burn bridges around town or treat people poorly because they never know when the electoral tables may turn and they’ll be turned out of power.

This is why partisans of all stripes can attend the White House Correspondents Association dinner and it can be as boring as a “dressed-up ­Kiwanis Club dinner.” It’s just people, talking about their families and hobbies, while trying to expand their professional network. That’s why most there were appalled by Wolf’s un-funny, cynically partisan rantings.

Given this state of affairs, maybe the real question we need to ask about our democracy is not how to do we make Washington more like the rest of the country, but how do we make the rest of the country more like Washington?

Lara M. Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, and formerly was an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. Before returning to academia in 2004, she worked as an education policy consultant and was a political appointee in President Bill Clinton’s administration at the U.S. Department of Education. She frequently appears on TV and radio programs as an expert on American political history, party development and national elections. She is the author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants” (Cambria Press, 2010). Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.

Tags Bill Clinton Culture of Washington, D.C. partisanship Politics

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