Going Beyond the Beltway
“Wow, you’re from Iowa? That is so far away. How’d you get here?”
I interned at a national nonprofit in Washington, DC, this summer, and if I had a dollar for every time that someone implied that I did not belong, I would have a lot of dollars. DC is the big city where policy happens, whereas things were much slower back home. It’s the New York for politics majors like me – I have dreamed of living blocks from the Capitol building since I first visited six years ago. During the summer, I always wore my Midwesterner badge with honor, but I couldn’t help but feel an inkling of cognitive dissonance. How do I negotiate the place that’s home with the place where I want to be?
Once you move to the District of Columbia, it’s often hard to see outside the bubble lined by the Beltway – a commonly-used cliché that actually refers to the interstate circling the city. Every morning during my commute, the Metro went under the Potomac and crossed into Foggy Bottom, which could very well be a completely different world from the Virginia I left behind.
According to Census Reporter, DC’s median household income is a staggering $82,372 with about 57.3% of residents holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. In the United States as a whole, the median income is $60,336 and 32% of citizens hold a bachelor’s degree. In my experience, DC-area news often focused on wonky policy information, with special attention to the political infighting, new regulations, and the newest legislation to hit the floor of the House. The things that DC residents care about are different than the things the rest of the nation cares about.
That could explain why I was expected by many to be less knowledgeable because I had spent so much time in the Central Time Zone, away from the firsthand experience of DC politics. After all, Iowa must be all cornfields and tractors, with the occasional excuse for a city every 300 miles. When I talk to Iowans, though, I am floored by the expansive knowledge of politics and the frustration with DC politicos. I have learned that it might be DC that is out of touch, instead of the Midwesterners.
Last week, about thirty minutes after I drove across the border from Missouri into Iowa, my mom and I stopped in Mt. Pleasant to grab lunch and refuel. In the car, I had told my mom that almost every Iowan has a story about politics. In the McDonald’s, I was determined to prove that statement as true.
I asked the cashier if she had seen any candidates in the area lately. She shook her head and explained that she was working during many of the candidate visits, but went out of her way to see Joe Biden. Her father was in the Air Force, the cashier told me. Every day, he shook his head at the chaos coming out of Washington, threatening to upset the world’s balance of power. It’s time to have people who really understand foreign policy, who understand what American citizens actually need. And to this woman in Mt. Pleasant, Joe Biden could break through the noise.
Maybe this story can explain why only 17% of Americans approve of Congress, according to a Gallup poll. Or why 67% of Americans have a favorable opinion of their local government, compared with only a 35% favorability rating for the federal government (Pew). And why 68% of Americans are not proud of our political system (Gallup).
DC has often been called a swamp or out of touch. But it’s even more serious: there seems to be a fundamental difference between the lives of DC residents and the rest of the American public. For politics to change, politicos writing policy must make an intentional attempt to pop the bubble and understand the lives of those across the Potomac. The demographics of the town may not change, but its residents have to treat the rest of the country not as inferior but as equals – because in the end, it’s people like the Iowa-nice cashier I met in Mt. Pleasant who have the ability to choose whatever administration comes next.
Iowa may be “so far away” from the chaotic madness of the Beltway, but we’re paying attention. So yes, the road to 2020 starts here.