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Political Culture

Last week I watched Frontline's documentary Obama's Deal. Like most of PBS's work, it's a well-told story and a well-produced piece. One thing I that caught my attention was the portrayal of Washington's political culture. I think that if I didn't know anything about the city, I'd probably think that nearly everyone in the city was a well-paid, high-powered lobbyist hell-bent on influencing Congress.

(from wallyg on Flickr)

Without a doubt, politics is a major part of Washington culture. It would be strange if it weren't. But I don't feel like it dominates the culture to the extent that media often portrays it. Government is the region's top industry, but most federal employees are executive branch bureaucrats or contractors, with little or no connection to politics.

When I walk around Capitol Hill, something I like to do on the weekends, it feels like a pleasant urban neighborhood. I'm yet to bump into a well-known politician or lobbyists who you'd think would be chasing them. It's just regular people living seemingly regular lives.

A few weekends ago I was sitting at Peregrine Espresso on the Hill, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper. It was busy, so table space was limited. Two guys asked if they could share the table. Of course I said yes. As it turns out, one of them was a rocket scientist (he's worked for NASA for years and worked as a physicist in London before that) who lives on the Hill. The second guy was a professional squash player from Europe who was vacationing in DC before catching a flight to Chicago the next day. Both were really interesting guys. Neither had any connection to politics.

Even though I can't deny that DC is inherently a political town, I feel like local politics, not national politics, is just as dominant. And why shouldn't it be? The people who live in DC are concerned about what's happening in their neighborhood, as least as much as they care what's happening in congressional committees. National media focuses on Washington as the home of national politics, because it is - but that's not all it is, and I'm glad it's not.


B. P. Beckley said…
I've read in a couple of places that congresspeople no longer stay in DC on weekends .. they go home to the district, because they don't want to be accused by their next opponent of forgetting the people back home.
rg said…
My favorite misconception among out-of-towners is that a change in administration or in the control of Congress has a significant impact on DC in terms of people's day-to-day lives or on the "atmosphere" in DC. It's a misconception fueled by the national media. Perhaps the "atmosphere" part is true for the hard-core political class, but there is really no difference in my everyday life or in the "atmosphere" of my neighborhood under the Obama Administration verus under the Bush Administration.

A good example: I bought my house right around the time Obama was inaugurated. My non-DC friends all assumed that the change in Administration somehow made finding a house to buy more difficult. Of course, in a city of 600,000 people and a metropolitan area of several million, the political appointees brought in by a new administration are but a drop in the bucket.
B. P. Beckley said…
Not to mention that if the new political appointees are buying, the old are presumably selling....
Jeff said…
Are you sure most people assume that everyone is in politics? Or simply living from a paycheck derived ultimately from the federal government? I always assume the latter, and my suspicion is that it is largely as correct as outsiders believe it to be.
Even in your anecdote, one of the guys worked for NASA.

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