One of the oddest and most persistent critiques of journalists and commentators who work inside the Beltway is that they (we) either adopt or abandon such-and-such political/ideological position out of concern over how it might affect our social interactions at "cocktail parties." The charge is odd because social-drinking situations are about the least peer-pressurized events ever invented by mankind, due to the marvelous and disinhibiting effects of alcohol and the short-attention spans built into the genre. (If there was any social context that would seem ripe for such politically inspired awkwardness, it would be the more confined/refined dinner party, no?) Also, it's weird to think that people who are drawn enough to politics to work in the D.C. area would somehow be shy about discussing their take on the local industry. Thirdly, past a certain age, or at least past a certain age when you have a busy job and a family to go home to, the cocktail party not thrown by your own organization ranks a bit low on the ol' things-to-do list. And specifically to libertarians, being a political outlier is both a permanent condition and constant source of fun, not discomfort.
On the other hand, the cocktail-"circuit" charge is persistent for obvious reasons–most people don't live here, yet have to suffer through the consequences (or at least spectacle) of discourse that emanates from the place, thus creating ample incentive and even justification for imagining the worst. God knows I wanted to throw a brick through the television a time or two when watching liberals on Crossfire in the 1980s yuk it up with their good after-hours drinking buddy Pat Buchanan, and there are plenty of establishmentarian D.C. mores that I wish could be explained away by social pressure, since that would suggest an opening for changing them.
All of which is preamble to this David Carr piece in The New York Times yesterday, semi-lamenting the alleged demise of Washington's bipartisan salon culture. Excerpt:
The Washington that [Sally] Quinn covers, one governed by convivial elites who battle by day and clink glasses at night, no longer exists. In the old paradigm, people with different points of view would assemble in various salons of Georgetown and set aside their differences over an Old Fashioned before the coq au vin was even served.
Now the butter knife has been replaced by a machete. People with opposing political points of view are less likely to eat with the loyal opposition at night than to try to dine on them in a quick hit on MSNBC or Fox News. And even once that is accomplished, there is the endless peering into the BlackBerry to observe the day trading in political capital that goes on in blogs, on Twitter and in e-mail newsletters. […]
"People don't know each other, they don't go out, and it is more and more difficult to get people of different political persuasions together," [Quinn] said. "It's just become far more toxic here."
I really couldn't tell you whether that's true, though it sounds mildly plausible and A-OK by me, not being the world's biggest fan of "convival elites." But I'm pretty sure something about the following section is at least semi-off:
Actual political might has been migrating away from the parties, never mind the people who go to parties, more rapidly than ever. And the official version of Washington has little allure outside the Beltway: one of the more important credentials for incumbents is how little time they actually spend inside the District.
"Power in Washington has been dispersed geographically, demographically and politically, and I think establishment Washington is having trouble coming to grips with that," said Ana Marie Cox, Washington correspondent for GQ, who is working on a power list for a coming issue. "I can't remember the last time I was in Georgetown."
Wait, is this true? (Not Cox's fascinating appointment schedule, but the power-dispersal.) D.C., unlike virtually all the rest of the country, is a boomtown right now. The once-blighted neighborhood I live in continues to gentrify at a rate of roughly one fancy wine bar or Bang & Olufsen per fortnight. "Establishment Washington" might be in a state of flummox, but I've heard that song now for 18 years running–oh, that outsider/newcomer president person, he doesn't understand our unique local culture! Sure, incumbents might be running like hell away from the Beltway label in a long season of voter revolt, but elected politicians make up but a wee sliver of the professional class in this town.
And yet I'm intrigued by a greater truth in the Carr/Cox theorem. Power in this country has dispersed from its various centers, whether politics from Washington, media from New York, entertainment from L.A., or farm-derived industry from Chicago. Consumers and individuals have been seizing much of the stuff themselves, and are the sources of most of the fun and innovation to be found in those crusty old sectors. Yet the clusters blunder on, and (in the case of Washington, which is unique in that its industry has a guaranteed revenue stream), grow stronger and more voracious. The tension between those seemingly opposed trends is both fascinating and unstable, particularly when (as now) one side of the barbell is materially suffering while the other side thrives.
So, drink up!