Jonathan Chait

In Defense Of Washington

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Professing hatred for Washington is part of the culture of living in Washington, so it's not surprising that Conor Friedersdorf's denunciation of Washington has won plaudits among some D.C.-based bloggers. Friedersdorf begins with by recounting an uncomfortable night at the movies:

"This is Michael Goldfarb," he said, introducing me to his friend, who wrote at The Weekly Standard and did press stuff for McCain/Palin 2008. "Have you guys met?"

"We haven't," I said, extending my hand to shake.

"Conor Friedersdorf," Mr. Goldfarb said. "Not a fan of my work."

It was an uncomfortable moment. Though he was right. I have no reason to think he's anything other than a wonderful guy on a personal level. But I'd forcefully criticized his writing on numerous occasions, and for good reason.

"We have our disagreements," I said, trying to be diplomatic.

"Of course," Sonny Bunch said. "We all do."

The movie began, afterward we all said amicable goodbyes, and an awkward but largely inconsequential exchange concluded. I've nevertheless thought about it several times in the months since, because it helped me to clarify my thinking about why it is undesirable that our nation's professionalized ideological movements are all packed into the smallish gentrified area of a single dysfunctional city. In that setting, work interactions bleed seamlessly into the social scene, and the inevitable career pressure to conform to certain orthodoxies of thought is reinforced and compounded by powerful impulse to be accepted and liked by the folks you see socially.

Friedersdorf's argument is, uncharacteristically, a bit muddled. He tries to make the case that the small-town feel of the city makes people too reluctant to break with ideological fellow-travelers. But of course this works the other way, too: you can run into someone on the other side just as easily as your own. Indeed, Friedersdorf own beginning anecdote actually features a liberal (Chris Orr) and a libertarian (Peter Suderman) along with a conservative at the screening. You could just as easily argue that the social geography of Washington makes it difficult for people to viciously denounce figures on the other side lest they run into them at a party, screening, bar, or what have you. Of course that argument would be silly, because there's no shortage of such cross-ideological denunciations.

Friedersdorf does persuasively describe the social pressures of ideological conformity. But he (admittedly) describes life as a Washington conservative, conceding a relative lack of familiarity with life on the other side. And, while this has changed a bit in recent years with the rise of liberal blogs and progressive institutions like the Center for American Progress, the left retains strong incentives toward ideological moderation. The commanding heights of the center-left remain institutions like Brookings and the New York Times, where some degree of ideological heterodoxy remain cherished traits. This suggests that geography is not the determining factor.

Friedersdorf's piece reads less like a formal public policy argument against Washington and more like personal advice to young intellectuals to stay away from the capital lest they be sucked into the city's politicized social vortex. . I beg to differ. When I moved here, I socialized mostly with friends from college. At this stage in my life -- married with kids -- I see people who live in or near my neighborhood, parents of my childrens' friends, and other people who I didn't meet through work. Like Friedsersdorf, I feel some discomfort with the blurry world of quasi-social professional networking, where you munch on finger food while trying not to make eye contact with the columnist you called an idiot the month before. But there's an easy response: skip that circuit and have a regular social life. Believe it or not, there are a lot of smart, fun people in this city who don't work professionally in politics or journalism.

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