Essay: Beltway and Media Induce Conservative Stockholm Syndrome

It’s small wonder the fawning media continue to note how “confident” and “cool” the new president is in office. The Sun King has assumed the throne and found it to his liking. Barack “L’État c’est Moi” Obama is a company man in a company town – a statist in a place where he needs only to stretch a hand to stretch the state. The federal apparatus in Washington, D.C. is vast, and designed to do one thing: grow and assume power. Obama is large. He contains multitudes. Small wonder too that the GOP lost its identity after 12 years controlling Congress. No matter how strong your small-government credentials, or how “in-touch” you are with the folks back home, living and working at the heart of a sprawling, powerful government apparatus “dulls the edge of husbandry,” as Shakespeare might have put it. Conservatives can end up captive to Beltway norms and mores, and end up conservative no more. It’s Stockholm Syndrome for conservatives. This is particularly so because the inherently liberal news media doesn’t question whether government should expand. So when the party of small government strays, who’s going to call them on it? Not the party of big government, and not the press. So government grows. Washington, D.C. has an entire radio station dedicated to federal government employees. (In Chicago, there isn’t a station specifically for Motorola or Montgomery Ward. Not even one for the Community Organizing industry.) Ads on all the D.C. radio stations target procurement officials, IT managers, facilities managers and many others – all within the federal bureaucracy. Heck, they have their own annual technology convention. They have their own unions. And they form a powerful constituency group. Soon after Obama took office, his wife undertook a tour of the various agency headquarters in town to let them know how important they were. At a typical stop at Housing and Urban Development, thousands of federal workers stood in line for hours on a weekday to get into Michelle’s pep rally. In reporting on the event, The Washington Post didn’t seem to think it odd that these government drones lost most of a workday attending a Michelle Obama “rock show” on the taxpayers’ dime. But the “public servants” are the public here, creating a remarkable insularity strengthened by the media, by the lobbying industry, the government contractors. Everything within a 20-mile radius of the Capitol looks inward. And at the center of it all, co-equal with the White House, is the Congress. I worked for many years at a financial services industry trade association headquartered in Arlington Virginia, (and then down at the center of hell, on K Street in D.C.) Our members were very smart people – creative, entrepreneurial executives who risked a lot and were rewarded a lot. And they created a lot of wealth. Once a year, many of these members would come to D.C. for a “grassroots” day. They would be briefed on various bills that impacted the industry; told how to effectively and address their topic in a 10-20-minute meeting, pumped up with some high-flown rhetoric about the wonders of representative democracy, and then dispatched to Capitol Hill to meetings with their senators and representatives (or, more often, with relevant staffers). Many of these executives, if they were relatively new to it, found this to be heady, exciting stuff. But in truth, it was terribly depressing. Few of the politicians or staffers they met with understood these executives’ business – some didn’t know the industry existed at all. Some were receptive, some could barely conceal their impatience (I’ll leave you to wonder about the relevant party affiliations). The worst part of each meeting was when the executives would explain why the politicians should care about their companies and their issues. “We employ X number of people in the district. We contribute X dollars in tax revenue to the state.” So time and again, there was the unseemly spectacle of a wealth creator begging for consideration from people that had never created anything – not a job, not a product. It was the host body begging the parasites to notice it. But what truly shocked me was that when I complained of this to some conservative colleagues, they didn’t get it. “It’s the exercise of a constitutional right,” one told me. “Petitioning the government.” But the founding fathers didn’t envision petitioning the government to be anybody’s full-time job. Nor did they imagine anyone having to petition for the simple right to conduct their business as they see fit. My friends may have generally clung to theories about small government, but they didn’t allow them to interfere with the go-along to get-along of life with the leviathan. Why fight the gravitational pull of all those bureaucracies? Whether dignified neo-classical or dehumanizing modernist, every vast government office building draws attention, sucks energy toward it, while every motorcade and every chauffeured sedan oozes an importance that is a narcotic to some. There are a few conservatives left in Congress who seem to be fighting the good fight. But a renewal of the right can’t come from them. It’s got to come from somewhere far outside the Beltway, in philosophy, if not in distance. Let’s hope it’s incubating right now, out of the New York and D.C. media eye, ignored by the Republican National Committee, un-coopted by self-absorbed politicians. And let’s hope it grows strong enough that, when it finally arrives in Washington, it can resist all that gravity for just a little while.

Matthew Philbin
Matthew Philbin
Matt Philbin is Managing Editor of MRC Culture