Imagine that this is one of the notorious “Washington Cocktail Parties.” Maybe it is. I don’t know. My son, Doug, found it for me after I had spent a week looking for one. I wanted one that played up the lavish drinks and luxurious women, but this one is close enough. I mean, just look at those chandeliers!
What’s going on here? There are two views. We could call them the elite view and the populist view. We could call them the incumbent view and the challenger view. Or we could just call them “then” and “now.
It was a piece by Sheryl Gay Stolberg in Sunday’s New York Times that got me thinking about this. Here’s the passage I had in mind. Here is the whole article.
And the genteel Washington of yore — where lawmakers and spouses socialized across party lines, sharing cocktails and swapping ideas — has disappeared, replaced by a culture in which families stay in the district and members jet home each weekend.
Want to establish contacts across party and ideological lines? Cocktail parties. Want to beat the “bowling alone” problem? Cocktail parties. Want to build the long-term relationships between committee chairs, the ordinary source of major compromises? Cocktail parties. The extraordinary intransigence that was apparent in Congress’s struggle to raise the debt ceiling is a result of too few cocktail parties.
And why are there now so few? Of all the reasons that could be given—the Stolberg articles surveys them—I pick populism. If you are the incumbent Congressman or Senator and you attend this party, that means one set of things in Washington: rag the committee’s ranking minority member about the double bogey on the 12th hole; compliment Mrs. Ranking Minority Member on her gorgeous gown (I pick the off-the-shoulder black gown of the woman standing at the left of the picture) and ask about how her kids have been doing in school since last you heard; pass along to a lobbyist who is close to a sometimes hostile committee chair a report one of your staff handed you and that might help the lobbyist press your case with the chair.
If you are a potential challenger in the district or anyone of the other party in the district or any group that hopes to stoke the anger of poor people by suggesting that their representative is living it up in Washington with their tax dollars, it means something else entirely. Here’s the campaign.
What is Congressman Smathers doing is Washington? Just look at the picture. Here in the district, there are hard-working families who are struggling to pay the mortgage, to afford their medicines, to put food on the table. Clearly Congressman Smathers has lost touch with real folks here is Dubuque.
That would have worked in a few cases back in the old days. There have always been campaigns like that. But it wouldn’t always have worked in the old days. Only if Congressman Smathers had made himself particularly vulnerable on that kind of issue: had voted against funds for the low income families of his district; was known for lavish vacations; didn’t come back to the district at all to meet with the voters, and so on. Now, Stolberg suggests, you don’t have to do anything to be vulnerable to the populist smear. You just have to go to the parties where a great deal of the mollification of angry opponents used to take place.
If that work still went on at cocktail parties, you couldn’t afford not to go. In the “Washington of yore” Stolberg refers to, you couldn’t afford NOT to go. So now, you go because your job demands it and open yourself to people who make their living riling up angry voters or you don’t go, to support your re-election bid, and you allow Congress to continue sliding in the direction of Civil War. It’s a nasty choice.
 Robert Putnam put this issue on the front burner by observing that there has been no decline in the number of people who bowl, but there has been a substantial reduction in the number of bowling leagues. The bowling league was a social institution that brought people who weren’t friends together year after year. Familiarity, not charity or toleration or anything that big, is Putnam’s notion of increasing our social capital.