The Beltway Myth

The time has come to talk about “the Beltway.”

The Beltway.jpg

Sarah Leen/National Geographic/Getty Images

The Beltway, Washington, D.C.

The term, a reference to the roadway that circumnavigates the District of Columbia and patches of its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, has long been in widespread use—as if everyone within the isolated island thinks alike, has the same amount of information and the same political opinions, simultaneously. But lately “the Beltway” has also become an epithet, hurled at those who live within it for some real or imagined transgression.

I’ve become used to the highly intelligent Rachel Maddow insistently asserting—and always scorning—what “the Beltway” thinks, ignores, confuses, faints over, and so on. Nevertheless, her program is informative enough that I try not to miss it. And the New York Times media reporter David Carr, one of the clearest-minded journalists and most gifted writers today and a hero of mine, recently made the “Beltway” press the bad guy, blaming the unanimous, across-the-board failure to foresee the thumping of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his primary this month on “Beltway blindness.”

This metaphorical Beltway has been assigned almost mystical qualities. It’s the castle in a Monty Python movie. The people within it are as isolated from the rest of the country as they are unanimous in their opinions. In order not to learn anything from anywhere else in the nation, it would appear that the “Beltway crowd” reads only local news, doesn’t watch national television news or talk shows, makes no long-distance calls, and doesn’t travel—or when it does it never discusses politics lest its confined collective mind be polluted by outside information. As a concept of how information and opinion move between Washington and the rest of the country “the Beltway” is epistemological nonsense.

The actual sixty-four-mile Capital Beltway was a very big deal to the area when it was built in 1964, but, like Dulles Airport, which opened two years earlier, quickly lost much of its utility and appeal. There’s nothing particularly special about a beltway—some twenty cities around the country have one—and the Washington version has long since become so congested and odiferous that those who live in its environs avoid it if possible. Maybe it’s time to apply the same approach to the Beltway metaphor, which is increasingly employed as a substitute for serious analysis.

To be sure, because this is the seat of the federal government, a larger proportion of people in Washington are politically minded than elsewhere, and politics consumes a high—all too high—proportion of the conversation. (One must take measures to escape.) But there are also numerous residents who are detached from the political scene. They fix shoes and sell clothes. They work in high tech or are docents at art galleries; they teach math and Latin or write novels and paint and play music. There are the many career civil servants who mainly go about the business of trying to keep the government going (and have done so heroically under some difficult circumstances). By the nature of their jobs and their dependence for their livelihoods and satisfaction on the decisions of politicians, many engage in the political conversation or are sought out by journalists for their expertise. Numerous others who live “inside the Beltway” but have nothing to do with the government are nevertheless quite ready to offer their opinions about political developments. The thing about politics—unlike, say, nuclear physics—is that it’s in English, and those who care to can be eager to let others know what they think, no matter how much they know. Anyone can be an expert. Beware the dental chair.

But what is usually meant by this hypothetical Beltway are the journalists who work in Washington, some with more influence than others, and those myriad “political analysts” with dramatically different degrees of expertise who appear on television talk shows—which have a great deal of time to fill—or are eager to be quoted in print. What those who toss around the epithet actually mean is that some prevailing view forms within this collective that misunderstands, misinforms, or misleads the rest of the nation. Under this use of the term, “the Beltway” never gets it right.

There were and still are journalistic fashions—but there are also many journalists who work here who don’t follow them. The metaphor first came into use in the 1960s not long after the Beltway was built. If the concept of homogeneity of outlook and opinion had any validity then, it was also a very different time. The right had yet to form “Foxland”—the collection of influential outlets on the right that include not only Fox News but also Bill Kristol’s media empire and the blogs and tweets that energetically and ably get their views into the conversation. There was no cable news desperate to fill the hours; obviously there was no Internet, and Twitter wasn’t imagined. The news out of Washington was in fact dominated by two or three powerful newspapers—particularly The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal—though other papers such as The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Star, The Boston Globe, and USA Today (and others that probably should be mentioned) also had some influence. The evening news broadcasts of the three television networks were a major event.


But even in that era the networks and the press weren’t as homogeneous as the febrile imaginings of the right—led on by Pat Buchanan and Spiro Agnew—had it. The strong, even intimidating, pressure on television producers to present a conservative as well as a liberal point of view on their programs began during the Nixon period. (That was Buchanan’s undying cause.) Yet even then there existed influential conservative outlets such as Human Events and The National Review. And now more than ever there’s a cacophony of opinions emanating from the various news organizations—in fact now more heavily based in New York than in Washington, with in many instances management in New York deciding the news agenda and making the assignments.

Certainly there can form a consensus among many political reporters that’s often enough off-base, especially when it gets into political prognosis. Eugene McCarthy used to speak, not inaccurately, about political reporters as blackbirds on a wire: when one flies off in another direction the others follow suit. X is ahead; no, Y is gaining. The “opinion-makers”—the most influential and visible figures—can treat seriously a rather preposterous figure until he falls flat on his face. So and so is clearly a presidential contender; then that hot prospect says something unrecoverably stupid or gets caught in a political scandal—and is quickly a goner. (This does nothing to discourage speculation about the next hot prospect.) Assumptions are made before people are tested, and an actual candidacy is a lot different from whatever is already known about a possible candidate. (A rather tired joke here refers to “President Muskie”; not many who write and affect opinion about politics saw early that Hillary Clinton wasn’t a shoo-in for the 2008 Democratic nomination.)

David Carr was harshly critical of “Beltway” reporters who didn’t bother to go to Eric Cantor’s nearby Virginia district to see what was going on; the Beltway media, he suggested, only focus on what happens within the confines of Washington. Carr’s comments won’t lure me into an argument over the quality of the Washington press corps: as a whole it’s too varied in talent, willingness to work hard, insightfulness, and sheer intelligence to draw any blanket conclusions. As for “the Beltway media” missing Cantor’s surprise defeat, so did everyone else, including those closest to the situation: Cantor missed it. Cantor’s victorious opponent, the Tea Party candidate Dave Brat, missed it. Cantor’s campaign staff missed it. Cantor’s pollsters missed it in a big way; in late May they told his campaign that he was ahead by thirty-four points. That was the only poll of the contest. The Republican party apparatus missed it. Even Nate Silver had it wrong.

Actually, some reporters, national as well as local, noticed that the race was tightening. But to my knowledge, no one predicted that Cantor would be defeated. I can be as curious as most people about the polls, but relying on them to make predictions and estimations is not the most useful way to spend time: their results are famously changeable since elections are dynamic, and some polls are simply wrong—based on faulty assumptions. Moreover, there have always been and will always be surprises. It’s certainly not that the press wouldn’t love to get to the scene of the accident before it happens. As Nate Silver pointed out after the Cantor upset, the political press loves the meme—one that began only four years ago—of Tea Party candidates upsetting mainstream Republican figures. But where to look? Silver observes that such upsets, especially in House races, are rare and random—they’ve occurred in 1-2 percent of all the congressional contests nationwide—and that this makes it very difficult to figure out which challenges to watch closely.

While we’re on the subject of political analysis, it’s also risky to overstate the meaning of any particular race. Within minutes of Cantor’s defeat, television commentators (and not just those located within the Beltway) attributed his loss with virtual unanimity to the fact that he had suggested some flexibility about immigration. But on the same night Lindsey Graham, who had taken a much more positive position on immigration, easily defeated a primary challenge from the right. Nonetheless, because of the early analysis on Cantor, numerous Republican candidates are terrified of the immigration issue and clasping onto more restrictive positions.


Further, in a primary with low participation it doesn’t take much to flip the result from one direction to another. In all, 65,022 people came out to vote in Cantor’s district. Intensity of involvement by one side might be detected—but often isn’t. Actually, Cantor’s loss was caused by the fact that, increasingly, his constituents didn’t like him. Cantor’s a frosty figure and his attention was increasingly directed toward the Washington business lobbyists—the more than $168,000 that Cantor was reported to have spent on steakhouses during the campaign became emblematic of his loss. The anti-business view developing on both left and right, and the backing by the Chamber of Commerce this year of more mainstream Republicans over Tea Party challengers, didn’t sit well with the far right. This growing sentiment tripped up Cantor, a close buddy of the chamber. But all of this became much more evident in hindsight.

And there’s another problem that can come to haunt incumbents who’ve served a long time: accustomed to winning without a struggle, they get rusty and often a bit too removed from their constituents—who, in turn, can start to detect, or suspect, a bit of arrogance. Delivering goods from Washington isn’t enough: voters want to know that their representative or senator is listening to them. (These are among the problems that put Mississippi senator Thad Cochran in reelection peril.) Also, redistricting to keep a politician safe can come back to bite him. Public opinion can develop slowly and silently and then lash out and bowl the politicians over. It can take almost everybody else by surprise, whether or not they are inside the Beltway.

There’ve been countless examples of election surprises: in addition to individual upsets, national ones, when political reporters, consultants, pollsters, and the candidates themselves, all over the country, didn’t see the signs. Real indicators of Ronald Reagan’s resounding defeat of Jimmy Carter didn’t show up until the weekend before the 1980 election, and the outcome was strongly driven by a last-minute event—Carter’s failure to gain the release of the Americans being held hostage in Iran. The Republican congressional sweeps of 1994 and 2010 came as largely a shock (if not to their engineers, such as Newt Gingrich in 1994). There have always been surprises and there will always be some.

At least I hope so.

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