Once upon a time, Americans shaking their fists at the federal government could at least take comfort that out beyond the Capitol, D.C. was a city of high unemployment, high crime, blight, and municipal bumbling—a sad irony to the people actually living here, and evidence to the resentful, perhaps, that inside Washington beat a corrupt, corrosive heart.
Now, in the waning days of the Great Recession, they’ve found new reasons to hate us. This year, conservative opinion writers at the New York Times and USA TODAY compared D.C. to the totalitarian Capitol in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian Hunger Games books—an effete, hedonistic bloodsucker feeding on the impoverished districts of Panem. In August, a Washington Examiner columnist called D.C. the Death Star and the rest of America its imperial colonies. All over the political spectrum, media took note of D.C.’s proliferation of cranes, surging real estate markets, surfeit of Wagyu steaks, and unemployment below 6 percent.
The chattering classes will always view D.C. as an outward reflection of federal Washington, even if its residents would prefer to see those sides of the city as distinct. In today’s gentrified, more monied D.C., pundits see the results of a steadily growing federal government and its rapidly growing feeder professions, like lobbyists, lawyers, and contractors. As America still struggles with close to 8 percent unemployment, decadent Washington might as well be the District of Caligula.
But even in the era of the $14 artisan cocktail, Washington’s boomtime is a lot more complicated than that. The federal government may be expanding—at least unless it hits the fiscal cliff—but the Washington region’s economic resilience has as much to do with its high levels of education, as the New York Times’ David Leonhardt noted (in yet another piece drawing a parallel with The Hunger Games). Despite the prevailing line that what happens in the District’s wards is an outgrowth of decisions made in the federal core, much of D.C.’s current transformation can be credited to, well, the D.C. government, and its efforts to increase the city’s population and boost flagging corridors. But a D.C. with some power over its own destiny doesn’t fit into that old Washington narrative. Perhaps that’s one reason locals resent the feds, too.