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Generation after generation of politicians running as Washington outsiders have railed against the established system. Lambasting corruption and inherent evil has been an effective populist message for a long while. We saw it from one party in 2006 and 2008 and now, in 2010, we observe it in another. Every generation appears to have been sold the same basic message. But after each wave of reformers finds the going perilous and true change difficult, we engage in an equally long-running tradition, that of demanding why. Why is this institution so resistant to change and so stubbornly ingrained? Where does one even begin?
One must first examine why people go to Washington in the first place. I should qualify that by “people” I do not mean only newly elected politicians. Much to their credit, some come to do great good. Some come for specialized experience and educational opportunities available nowhere else in the country, if not the world. Many, however, come to acquire power, plain and simple. I am aware that this description sounds overly simplistic, and to a degree it is, but after one has observed it first hand, it is difficult to understate this unfortunate reality. Those whose God is power alone willingly sacrifice their humanity and integrity in the process of obtaining influence. Even good people are often tainted by the prevailing climate. Those who intend to stay a long while in DC make their peace with the existing framework somehow, either by compromise measures or occasionally through outright rationalizations.
How it came to be as it is and what factors converged to form Washington culture is a matter for historians and sociologists. I’m sure that answer exists somewhere. Sometimes I feel as though capital cities or any sources of very centralized power can easily become repositories of great evil. And yet, without them, as we know, it is much more difficult to properly govern. As it stands, the politics of the District, themselves a reflection of the strongest sources of power, those found at the White House and Capitol, are based around competition for influence.
Proving one’s importance is the District’s favorite parlor game, followed closely by name dropping. One also mustn’t forget the practice of social climbing. Humility, as you might guess, is not listed here, nor is a refusal to overstate one’s credentials for the sake of wishing to impress someone else. Not everyone is a high roller, but you’d be surprised how many pretenders to the throne exist.
If this sounds like Louis XIV’s court in Versailles, circa 1700, it’s because, in many ways, it is. The whole system is kept up by glass house residents throwing stones, or by true believers in the Emperor’s latest brand new suit of clothes. As we have discovered once more, one person alone cannot fix what has been broken for so very long. Neglect and lack of adequate leadership produce swamp land. The longer unhealthy attitudes and practices go unchallenged, the more difficult they are to be reversed. Draining the stinking scum will treat only the external issues. We would be better off taking on the reasons why people are drawn to it in the first place. Some of these unhealthy compulsions are likely due to human nature, but some of them could easily be curtailed with adequate oversight and strong leadership.
Yet, even so, we might be more wise in collapsing the house of cards and starting over. This has certainly been an attitude expressed by others I’ve solicited on this subject. What exists now has been in force for a very long time. Modest changes, in the District’s current form, are about all we can truly expect going forward. I certainly am not advocating active revolution since I deplore violence of any sort, but I am instead suggesting that revolutionary changes are needed. Right now, too many people are indebted to the way things have always been. This includes journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, government agency workers, non-profit do-gooders, and everyone both directly and indirectly influenced by the prevailing winds. Though the system is entirely broken, few wish to dismantle it and to assemble something else. Most are comfortable with the devil they know, casting a rather skeptical, fearful eye at the prospect of something potentially worse arriving next.
Remember again, friends, why people come to Washington, DC. Power is often paranoid and afraid of losing stature, which is confirmed each and every election cycle. Beyond politics, a very particular kind of personality is at force here behind the scenes. For those high-achieving, resume-padding, Type A, sharp elbowed, uber-competitive sorts, the ends often justify the means. And even though not everyone thinks or acts this way, there are more than enough present to create tremendous problems. These problems are ancient. They do not pertain only to the modern era. We might do better pondering where we fit into the equation, and how individually we contributed to a cesspool environment, through both our complicity and our silence. We might ponder how to prevent this process from forming in the first place, in areas small enough or new enough that we individually have some modicum of control or guidance over the proceedings.
Hear these words. Some know them by heart, some haven’t heard them in years, some have never heard them at all.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels.
And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’
“Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.
The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”