Washington's Cocktail Semiotics


Happy Hour is now enforced by law

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.

The … horr-or.

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.

Wait, I know that lady!

Now the butter knife has been replaced by a machete.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:

Never forget!

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.

More fun in the new world

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!

NEXT: Rise Up, Africa!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Caption Contest (2nd pic)!

    “That is one ugly dude. Now that I think of it, so’s the cueball.”

    1. Neither is the dude in the center picture.

    2. Your name starts with the letter J. Right?

  2. Those folks up on Capital Hill do love to party dont they?


  3. The “cocktail party” comments shouldn’t be taken so literally. The point is that Our Overlords are a social class and special interest in and of themselves. I don’t care if you meet them over drinks or because your kids go to the same private schools.

  4. “Cocktail Party” is just short hand for the set of people who have beltway establishment media. I don’t people actually think they all get together at cocktail parties anymore. Instead, when someone uses that term they are talking more generally about the big media in general. Cox is an example of a certain type of person who never seems to have done anything of value in her life but pontificate and has no particular expertise or knowledge yet somehow has been granted a really big bullhorn to inflict her views on the rest of the world. See also, Ezra Klein, Dalhia Lithwick, Emily Baylzon, the entire editorial staff of the New York Times (sans Krugman who although insane actually is an economics professor), Andrew Sullivan, Megan McCardle, Mickey Klaus just to name a few. These people, right and left, all buy into the common perception that they and those like them are smart, and everyone else is dumb.

    1. John is an example of a certain type of person who never seems to have done anything of value in his life but pontificate and has no particular expertise or knowledge yet somehow has not been granted a really big bullhorn to inflict his views on the rest of the world and his fucking bitter.

      1. Yes, I have never done anything. Not a thing. And the comment boards on Hit and Run are such an incredible bully pulpit to have. Sometimes my out sized influence even amazes myself.

        No matter how simple the point is, it always goes over someone’s head. I would dare say I have done more in life than many of the people I listed above. And you know what? I don’t deserve a giant bullhorn either.

        1. I deserve a giant bullhorn.

          1. We all can’t be as cool as you.

            1. That’s true. But I pale before The Jacket.

          2. The only thing NutraSweet regrets about drinking the bull semen is that it activated his gag reflex.

            1. Just stop. Stop asking. I’m not going to drink bull semen with you no matter how many times you ask me.

              1. Cut Epi some slack. Everyone has their kink and that is his. It is just his way of trying to bond with you.

                1. Seattle has only made him worse, John.

                2. Yup, that bull semen is some very sticky shit.

              2. You’re the one who asked me when you were drunk! Revise history much, you lush?

                1. Why don’t you go snort some more pot, hippie!

          3. Tobias: Well, the Blue Man Group might need me, and I do deserve a fancy phone.

            Narrator: They didn’t, and he doesn’t.

          4. SugarFree, you barely can survive a sasquatch encounter. A bull horn could kill you.

            1. I ain’t sacred of no shaved beast-man. Or Steve Smith.

              1. I ain’t sacred of no shaved beast-man.

                Is it just me, or is RC’z Law making a comeback?

                1. Mis-typed as it is, the phrase almost sounds like a line from an old blues song.

                  1. I am in no ways tired!

        2. John,”I would dare say I have done more in life than many of the people I listed above.” Citation needed.;-)

    2. I don’t people actually think they all get together at cocktail parties anymore.

      I did. And I’m kinda sad right now.

  5. And is it just me or do Carville and Matlin look more alike every year. And that is not a good thing.

    1. They are probably that sad older couple who wears matching tracksuits as they walk around the mall. The day I ran into my elementary school principal and her husband doing just that was the day the music died.

      1. That is brutal. But honestly Dagny, what are you supposed to do when you get old? I won’t be doing that. I hate malls and have never owned a track suit.

        1. You never know what the years are going to do to you, man.

          Some months ago my wife and I were crossing the street and some guy got annoyed that he had to stop for us in the crosswalk. He yelled out his window at us, “Fucking hippies!”

          I had to look around to try to figure out who he was talking about.

          No one else was around.

          All at once, I realized that the fucking hippies were us.

          Life takes some strange turns, it really does.

          1. You know, if you don’t want people calling you hippies, you should maybe add some non-hemp clothing to your wardrobe. And wash the smell of weed out of your dreads, okay?

    2. It wouldn’t be so pronounced if Matalin hadn’t gone to her hairdresser and requested “Do you have anything that will make me look like I’ve completely given up?”

      1. She is doing a good deed there by posing for that picture.
        White girls need to be reminded that they don’t have the bone structure to pull off a Halle Berry to avoid those short hair train wrecks.

        They go in the salon, telling the stylist, ‘I want to be a pixie!’

        You are not a pixie, white girl. To clarify, a few of you actually are, Audrey looked great with short hair, Rider did too when she was much younger, but it is not worth the risk to find out the hard way that you don’t have it.

        1. Ultimately, if you are skinny, gorgeous and 18, you can pull off nearly anything. Sadly, older women sometimes forget that. Pixie look works great on some 18 year old 5’2″ size 2 ballerina. But you know what? Any look is going to work on her.

          1. Ultimately, if you are skinny, gorgeous and 18, you can pull off nearly anything. Sadly, older women sometimes forget that.

            See also: cover-alls, gaucho pants, skinny jeans, bell-bottoms, tube tops, and nearly all varieties of hats.

          2. One exception to the rule, on the Newshour they bring in a pixieish and classy looking lady named Amy Walter. She wears her hair too short, but it doesn’t really hurt her looks, and her skin is an amazingly smooth ivory sheen. I lose a few heartbeats during those segments.

        2. Alan, you are not seriously telling women how to style their hair. What’s next, the right clothes for your body type?

    3. Yeah.
      Shave her head and she would be indistinguishable from him. I suspect if he were nude that he would be indistinguishable from her….eeiiick!! I wish I had never thought that – its stuck in my brain!!!

  6. I think Matt’s point about Washington’s ongoing gentrification is apt, and exposes the real flaw in the Carr piece’s analysis.

    Individual Congressional and staff personalities might appear to have less direct power, and thus less ability to dice the country up over hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. But the political class as a whole continues to grow larger and wealthier, and you can measure its growth and the increase in its wealth by observing the way it is gradually devouring northern Virginia, Maryland, and the previously-maligned neighbors of the District.

  7. In fact, it may be precisely the fact that the political class as a whole has grown much larger, wealthier, and more powerful, that prevents the cocktail party culture of the past from existing now.

    You can’t bring the political class together at a salon any more because it’s far too vast to assemble in one place.

    1. That is very true. It is also true of the media. It used to be you had to live in Washington or New York to be part of the “media elite”. Now Andrew Sullivan can write from Provincetown in between joints and cruising for sex.

      Sadly though, that geographic diversity hasn’t really lead to much intellectual diversity. They still all sit around telling each other what they think the other wants to hear.

  8. IIRC, the “cocktail party” theory was that attacking the establishment would cause you not to even be invited to cocktail parties, not that it would hamper your socialization at them. Generally a savvy cocktail party host will try to avoid inviting people who are likely to cause a ruckus in the midst of their events.

    1. See, but even then, there’s a flaw — don’t you *want* some mild fireworks at your cocktail party?

      1. “mild fireworks”

        It’s the drunken fist fights on the front lawn you want to avoid. Those are for the family get-togethers.

      2. Absolutely. This is why Buddy Bradley still gets invited to dinner parties.

      3. I’ve never hosted a cocktail party, but I don’t think I’d want fireworks of any sort. Maybe a few of those glow in the dark necklaces, or if no one has to work in the morning, some roman candles.

    2. The “Cocktail Party” sounds like some kind of Dadaist response to the Tea and Coffee Parties.

  9. “It’s just become far more toxic here.”

    I’d be happy if pundits stopped regurgitating clich?s like “toxic.”

    1. I just wish it really was toxic – that joining the political class had disadvantages.

  10. A few years ago, I took the train from New London to Virginia Beach to visit a friend of mine in the Navy. Along the way, I passed through DC and its surrounding suburbs. As I traveled, I began to watch as more and more of the people on the train, and more and more of the stuff outside, was government employed/operated/involved. It started to get crazy; everything was government as I passed through the worst of it. And I realized how much of a parasitical industry government is. All of those people, all of those places, paid for by all of us who don’t work for the government.

    I already knew all this, but actually being in the den of the beast brought it home much harder.

    1. It is very parasitic. And it sucks up more than just money. It sucks up intellectual capital. Not every government employee is fat dumb and lazy. I work with a lot of very smart people. And I look at the stupid shit we do and think “couldn’t we all be doing something more productive?” But with 10% unemployment and the complete wreck they have made of the economy, it takes some pretty big stones to walk away from one of these jobs. The government is a giant allocation of labor and talent.

      1. make that “misallocation” of labor and talent.

        1. As of 2006, five of the top ten counties (including all of the top three) in the US by median household income are in the DC Metro area (

          That was an increase from 2000, and is probably even higher now. All those millions of high-earning people are tax consumers (whether they are govt employees, work for businesses that survive on govt spending, or are lobbyists etc.). And as John said, vast numbers of the best brains in the country are tied up there.

          1. The employees can’t make over $150K a year. It is the contractors and lobbyists who are making the big money. They have to be making millions. There are literally hundreds of houses in the DC area selling for over a million dollars. Someone is buying them and it isn’t the GS employees.

            1. It is such an irony — progressives who want an expanded state don’t seem to realize that the massive federal government involves a tremendous transfer of wealth from taxpayers in poorer areas to some of the wealthiest sections in the country.

      2. talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

    2. It’s really quite sickening the amount we let these people suck the wealth and ambition from us. They get to drain the wealth from the goose that–to them–mysteriously lays golden eggs, all while thinking themselves an elite, rather than parasites living off of a vastly superior host.

      1. What is really sickening is when they wreck the economy just to chain good men, like John and his co-workers, to these horrible jobs. Oh, the humanity.

        I can’t wait for economic recovery so John can unchain himself from this torturous slavery.

        1. Is there any point you can’t misunderstand? The point is that all of the people tied up in government when they could be out doing something more productive is bad for the country. It is great for me. Hell I don’t give a shit. I will take my money and run. But from the perspective of the country at large, it is a really bad idea to have so many highly skilled people working in government producing services of dubious or no value.

          1. There is a lot more dubious stuff that comes from the private sector. Being a public servant used to be considered a noble career choice. You know, doing things for the people and not just figuring out how to squeeze more profit from a widget nobody needs.

            1. If the product is of no value in the private sector, the business goes bankrupt and the people in it find something different to do. If the government service is of no or negative value, it takes an act of Congress to end it. Thus we have hundreds of thousands of government employees engaged in tasks for which there is no need or the value is less than the cost of doing it.

              It goes back to why communism failed. Since central planners cannot get the same feed back the market gives private companies, they have no way of knowing if they are providing what the economy actually needs. That is why we are rich and the communist countries ended up poor. This whole argument was settled in 1989. Liberals are just too dumb to realize it.

              1. That post finally convinced me that Tony is a regular’s sockpuppet. “A widget nobody needs”, indeed.

                1. I am starting to suspect MNG is a sock puppet to. His “piss on the minority” rant on the daily links thread looks suspiciously like trolling.

                    1. What would be the point?

                    2. WW2 prison camp movies. It’s always the accuser. MNG = Tony = Gunboat Diplomacy

                  1. MNG has, at various points, claimed theft ceases to be theft when the government does it, that all workers should be in unions, that doctors should be forced to care for patients with no compensation, and that there is no difference whatsoever between mugging someone and defending yourself from being mugged.

                    If this morning was a sockpuppet, then he’s always been one.

                    1. Wow. He can seem almost reasonable. But he surely has to know that there is a good possibility that the Dems will be filibustering and vetoing stuff out of a Republican Congress next year. And when he supports that that, I am going to post his “piss on the minority” comment and laugh my ass off.

                      What is really infuriating is that he will never say what his opinion of Democratic filibusters. He just uses weasel words and says “you have no proof I thought that”. But he will never come out and claim he thought something different, just that I have no proof he did. It was really bizarre.

                    2. Why would the Dems need to filibuster anything, when they have a president with a veto pen?

                2. If no one needed a widget, then no one would buy one. Even for a sock puppet such as Tony, this is poor economics.

            2. “public servant”/”public service” – among the most self serving euphemisms ever created.

              1. That “Tony” was a sockpuppet.

                1. Aren’t all Tonys?

          2. I don’t think I misunderstand at all, John. You like to wax poetically about the big bad government, your employer, sucking people up and tying them down, whilst you dream about being a productive citizen in the private sector. Well, man up already and grow them stones you alluded to.

            Put your skills to the test and make it or not but at least try. Don’t come here making excuses about the economy and such, then proclaim the wonders you could do if let free from your gilded cage.

            But hey if you don’t give a shit and you just want to take the money and run go ahead. Your arguments lose merit but its your life.

            And fuck you too, Tony and your goddamn noble profession bullshit. Your ass needs that widget, punk.

            1. My favorite libertarian mantra is the do as I say, not as I do stance on health care. Most libertarians get it via employment and the rest don’t bother to purchase any insurance. John is it just being libertarian.

              1. Yeah, most libertarians don’t commit suicide because they don’t live in Libertopia. Hypocrites!

    3. Yep, all true. Trying to find a job that isn’t in the gummint or a contractor for the gummint makes job hunting in DC very difficult.

    4. Were you similarly terrified driving through Detroit and seeing that everything was related to the auto industry? Or Honolulu and seeing everything related to the tourism industry? Or Pittsburgh and everything related to steel? Heck, unlike Pittsburgh, Washington doesn’t have a sports team whose logo matches that of the major employer.

      Your peculiar horror at the fact that medium-sized cities tend to have dominant employers is as telling as it is amusing.

  11. 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.”

    Lonewacko LOOMS LARGE…


    2. He’s been gone a while. They should let him back.

      1. What did he add to the discussion, except a long petulant whine?

  12. The Kochtopus-tini:
    A shot of Goldschlager and three of Ron Paul’s tears.

    1. Winner! Winner! Winner!

      1. You asskisser! You just want to retain membership in the in crowd!

        Wait, CN is a huge dork. He’s not part of the in crowd. What was I thinking?

        1. We in the McKinley Mafia stick together, Epi, which you’ll learn to your regret should you ever venture into Buckeye Country.

          1. What-ever, dork. I’m going to go suck up to Chuck Schumer.

            Wow, saying that even as a joke makes my skin crawl.

    2. A masterstroke, sir. Bravo.

      1. I take my hat off completely to CN.

  13. “to libertarians, being a political outlier is both a permanent condition and constant source of fun, not discomfort.”


    1. To schizophrenics, being utterly out of touch with the real world is both a permanent condition and a constant source of fun.

      1. I completely agree.
        Wait. I don’t.

  14. Apparently, the only thing worse than David Carr’s QB play for the Houston Texans is his writing for the New York Times.

    1. He was behind the worst line in league history. He probably has more sacks than completions.

      1. Agreed. But until someone named Tarvaris Jackson or Kerry Collins writes an article, this is the joke we’re stuck with.

        1. Rex Grossman. That is all.

    2. You are forgetting, Carr sucked as Jake’s replacement when he was out two seasons ago due to the surgery. Carolina had to bring in Testaverde who I think was 44 at the time. Vinnie won a few games and then age caught up to him.

    3. He was no Dan Pastorini, that’s for sure. Now there’s a man who can take a beating behind a bad O line.

      1. And there’s your “Dan Pastorini” reference for the day.

  15. C. S. Lewis’s discussion of the ‘inner ring’ (here), based on a speech he gave to some university students, discusses a closely-connected issue: The grown-up version of peer pressure, the temptation to do or refrain from doing certain things in order to retain membership in the ‘in’ crowd. It’s not addressed specifically to U.S. federal government workers, but it can certainly be applied to them.

    1. Don’t confuse federal workers with politicians and media members. My experience with federal workers is that their views tend to be pretty diverse. They are definitely guilty of thinking that their particular agency or project is worth doing, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. But that is human nature. I do not however find that they as a group think Washington should be running everything, just whatever they are running. The media and political class definitely has a lot of peer pressure to believe in the effectiveness of government to solve any problem.

      1. The media (especially radio and TV) is under a lot of pressure to tell a simple story that viewers or readers can digest quickly. It’s not like a newspaper or a blog where you can put out a ton of information and people can choose the level of depth they want to go into.

        And treating the government as the omnipotent and omniscient entity whose every action has exactly the intended effects does a lot to simplify political coverage. Trying to explain how raising taxes can reduce revenue, and how giving everyone insurance can make it harder to get medical care, is suicidal when you have to compete with the Wendy Williams Show and American Idol.

  16. I don’t know about the professionals, but the political parties seem to have realigned over the years. Rather than stay in whatever party your dad belonged to, people are self-assorting along more ideological lines. This leads to less overlap between party ideology and membership.

    And, the internet allows single issue people to find each other, and reinforce their single issue mindset.

    It’s like political fetishism.

  17. I recently read (somewhere I cannot recall) about how Washington’s convivial culture of “loyal opposition” has been wrecked by the unfortunate tendency some legislators have shown to return to their districts and listen to the peasantry and all their dopey whining about big government and excessive taxation.

    Oh, the humanity!

    1. P Brooks: You read it from Cokie and Steve Roberts in this piece of yuk, which covers much of the same ground as the piece by Carr:…..ubric.html

      Prepare to vomit.

    2. Has anyone ever done a study on how incumbency retention has changed over the years? Now that congressional districts can be sliced and diced by computers in order to produce a winner of the same party every (or nearly every) time, then those holding those district seats can afford to be less convival to their colleagues across the aisle.

  18. Cocktail parties probably aren’t a good measure of the toxicity in Washington, they’re a spur of the moment kind of thing, nobody’s ever felt the need to RSVP for a cocktail party…

    When people start canceling or skipping tee times at the Congressional Country Club, then I’ll start wondering if partisanship has risen to toxic levels…

    I mean, first you golf, and then you drink, and you don’t even have to take your wife with you. Any random Caucasian males you throw together should be friends after that!

  19. But the political class as a whole continues to grow larger and wealthier,

    And more entrenched, every fucking day, which is what truly frightens and disgusts me.

  20. “But the political class as a whole continues to grow larger and wealthier…”

    I don’t know about the wealthier part. The halls of power used to be pretty exclusive to the well born and exceedingly wealthy, but nowadays anybody with a name–I mean, they gave Sonny Bono’s wife a seat! Think about that.

    On the “larger” though, I think you may be right. …obesity is an issue that cuts across the whole class spectrum.

  21. David Carr, quarterback, writes for the post now?

  22. I don’t care about her politics, Ana Marie Cox is hot.

    1. She isn’t bad looking but only if she doesn’t open her mouth.

      1. There is a lot more dubious stuff that comes from the private sector. Being a public servant used to be considered a noble career choice. You know, doing things for the people and not just figuring out how to squeeze more profit from a widget nobody needs.

        “Oootchie cootchie coooo!”

        *pats Tony on head*

      2. What if she opens her mouth to…well, you know. Smile like a donut and all that.

      3. That’s why I avoid hooking up with deaf girls.

        1. OK, the comment I was replying to got deleted, so now my comment looks not only stupid but also hearingist.

    2. Matt, If your tolerance of the pc left isn’t a put on to stay socially acceptable, then you really are a sick puppy.

    3. Douglas, you need to run their tourism campaign. Sounds like fun.

  23. DC is a lovely town filled to the brim with unmitigated, unrepentant assholes.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.