Saturday, January 20, 2007

Same Party; Different Political Orientations

I was reading the Wikipedia article "Culture of the United States" to try to summon an idea of what on earth I would say if I were to respond to a request for a freelance article about American culture for a magazine targeted at international students. I probably won't actually write such an article, because I find culture, especially one's own culture pretty difficult to portray. However, I will impart what I find distinct about American political culture, which has lately been framed as urban vs. rural and less to do with difference between the regions of the United States.

I used to think that the former embodied the main polarity between political perspectives. Yet, from living in D.C., I am discovering that regional distinction is still relevant. Thus, West Coast Democrats are different from Midwestern Democrats are different from East Coast Democrats. I think East Coast politics values the establishment opinion. It tends to emphasize what experts are saying. It is risk-averse and in recent history is best embodied by an entity like the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. To me, East Coast politics--whether Democratic or Republican--is pretty frustrating and more elitist than I would have earlier liked to believe. It is probably makred by more cynicism than anywhere I've been, even though in other parts of the country, there is certainly fair distrust of Washington at all times. Here on the East, though, and maybe especially in Washington, people can easily fall into the trap of making a self-fulfilling prophecy out of the view that ideals are alien to politics. On the other hand, Midwestern politics tends to invoke the more hopeful tenets of democracy--participation, informed citizenry, a faith in the American dream or at least in rehabilitating it. From what I can tell of West Coast politics, it values the novel, innovative, and pioneering. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plans to make California a beacon of energy efficiency and universal healthcare. Neither has happened yet (they are proposals at the moment), but both aspirations are often discarded as too impractical by the powers that be. Western politics values similar things but may have a bit more of a libertarian character. My thesis about regions has its limits, certainly. Massachusetts has already instated a universal healthcare provision, and it of course, sits on the East, not the West Coast.

As you can see, I'm a bit disenchanted with the way things work in D.C. With so many experts, think tanks, issue advocacy groups, and lobbying firms headquartered in one place, often far away from the actual people they represent or claim to represent, it is easy to see how those "inside the Beltway" become aloof and in some respects is an argument for vigorous federalism.


Chris said...

Elaine, I have to say, it's really interesting watching your views and politics evolve, especially with your first-hand experience in DC. I can't believe you ended your post with cliffhanger involving the possible positive aspects of federalism! I think your thesis, broadly speaking, is pretty spot-on.

Elaine said...

Thanks for being an avid follower of my D.C.-provoked evolution, Chris! My experience in D.C. is definitely not one of intimacy with the subjects about which I write--Congress, the media, the Executive--so I can only base what I say on the sense that I've gotten in various interactions and in following the D.C. media. From those alone, the self-importance of this city and the enchantment people get in being (often illusorily) proximate to power somehow permeates.

Regarding federalism, though I think it often becomes necessary to harmonize laws rather than leave them up to a state, I can see that Washington does not always share the concerns and priorities of the states. I don't believe in states rights for states rights sake, but certainly Washington can hurt more than it helps in many situations. I guess this is where judicial interpretation of the interstate commerce clause comes in.