For more than two centuries, it has been a wannabe among the great world capitals. But now, Washington is finally ready for its close-up.
No longer a jumped-up Canberra or, worse, Sacramento, it seems about to emerge as Pyongyang on the Potomac, the undisputed center of national power and influence. As a new president takes over the White House, the United States' capacity for centralization has arguably never been greater. But it's neither Barack Obama's charm nor his intentions that are driving the centrifocal process that's concentrating authority in the capital city. It's the unprecedented collapse of rival centers of power.
This is most obvious in economic affairs, an area in which the nation's great regions have previously enjoyed significant autonomy. But already the dukes of Wall Street and Detroit have submitted their papers to Washington for vassalage. Soon many other industries, from high-tech to agriculture and energy, will become subject to a Kremlin full of special czars. Even the most haughty boyar may have to genuflect to official orthodoxy on everything from social equity to sanctioned science.
At the same time, the notion of decentralized political power – the linchpin of federalism – is unraveling. Today, once proudly independent – even defiant – states, counties and cities sit on the verge of insolvency. New York and California, two megastates, face record deficits. From California to the Carolinas, local potentates with no power to print their own money will be forced to kiss Washington's ring.
Americans may still possess what the 19th-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner described as "an antipathy to control," but lately, they seem willing to submit themselves to an unprecedented dose of it. A financial collapse driven by unrestrained private excess – falling, ironically, on the supposedly anti-Washington Republicans' watch – seems to have transformed federal government cooking into the new comfort food.
To foreigners, this concentration of power might seem the quintessence of normalcy. As the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote in 1964, elites have dominated and shaped the world's great cosmopolitan centers – from Athens to Rome to Baghdad – throughout history. In modern times, capital cities such as London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Tokyo have not only ruled their countries but have also largely defined them. In all these countries (with the exception of Germany, which was divided during the Cold War), publishing, media, the arts and corporate and political power are all concentrated in the same place. Paris is the undisputed global face of France just as London is of Great Britain or Tokyo is of Japan.
Although each had their merchant classes, these cities were strongly hierarchical, governed by those closest by blood or affiliation to the ruling family and populated largely by their servants. In contrast, Baltzell observed, U.S. cities such as New York have been "heterogeneous from top to bottom." Their power came not from the government or the church but from trade, the production of goods and scientific innovations, as well as the peddling of ideas and culture.
But Washington has always occupied a unique and somewhat incongruous niche among U.S. cities. It came into being not because of the economic logic of its location, but because it was a convenient compromise between North and South. It never developed into a center of commerce or manufacturing. Nor was it meant to be a fortress. Instead, it was designed for one specific purpose: to house the business of governance.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French-born classicist and civil engineer who developed the plan for the city, envisioned a majestic capital that would "leave to posterity a grand idea of the patriotic interest," as he wrote in 1791. Yet for most of its history, Washington failed to measure up to the standards of European or Asian capitals. In January 1815, a South Carolina congressman described the capital to his wife as a "city which so many are willing to come to and all so anxious to leave."
This lowly status stemmed, to some extent, from what the historian James Sterling Young has defined as the "anti-power" ethos of early Americans. The revolutionary generation and its successors loathed the confluence of power and wealth that defined 19th-century London or Paris. A muddy outpost in the woods seemed more appropriate to republican ideals.
Even as other American cities, such as New York and Baltimore, expanded rapidly, Washington grew slowly, at a rate well below the national average. Bold predictions that the city would boast a population of 160,000 by the 1830s fell far short. Instead, it had barely reached 45,000 people, including more than 6,000 slaves. It remained eerily bereft of all the things that make cities vital – thriving commerce, a busy port, decent eateries and distinguished shops. Visiting the city in 1842, Charles Dickens marveled at a city of "spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere."
To some observers, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Washington's relative decrepitude reflected one of the glories of the young republic. The fact that the country had "no metropolis" that dominated it from the center struck the young noble, on his visit to America in the early 1830s, as "one of the first causes of the maintenance of Republican institutions."
Washington's status improved only marginally in the next century, even as other brilliant centers of power, culture and commerce emerged on the Eastern Seaboard and then across the Midwest and West. The rapid rise of New York was challenged in quick succession by the even more sudden emergence of Chicago in the industrial Midwest and San Francisco on the Gold Rush coast of California. Washington was surely the nerve center of politics, but commerce, culture and the vast majority of the media chose to concentrate elsewhere.
It would take enormous misfortune – the Depression – to provide Washington with its first great growth spurt. As the business empires of New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland buckled and the New Deal took control of the economy, power shifted decisively to the capital. This expansion of influence continued with the onset of World War II and then during the Cold War.
The ensuing rise of the military and domestic bureaucracies transformed Washington from a small provincial city into a major metropolitan area. The greater economic shift from a predominantly manufacturing to a high-tech, information-centered economy also played to Washington's strengths. In his groundbreaking 1973 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, the sociologist Daniel Bell predicted that the country's prevailing "business civilization" would inevitably become dominated by the government bureaucracy. Corporations would eventually look to Washington's lead for regulatory standards, to sponsor research and make critical science-related decisions.
In the past half-century, this confluence of technology and bureaucracy has transformed Washington and its surrounding suburbs into the most dynamic large metropolitan economy in the Northeast. Between 1950 and 1996, the region's population expanded by roughly 150 percent, three or more times faster than other cities along the Boston-Washington corridor.
By the mid-1970s, Washington and its environs had also emerged as the richest region in the country. Since then, it has remained at or near the top of metropolitan areas in terms of both per capita income and level of education. Despite deplorable concentrations of poverty, particularly in the city proper, the region's average household incomes remain the highest in the country – nearly 50 percent above the national average. The percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher, nearly 42 percent, surpasses even such brainy-seeming places as greater Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis.
The contrast between Washington and most of the United States has gradually become more pronounced. In good times and in bad, lawyers, lobbyists and other government retainers have continued to enrich themselves even as the Midwest industrial-belt cities have cratered and most others struggled to survive. "The vision of generations of liberals," admitted the New Republic in the mid-1970s, "has created a prosperous and preposterous city whose population is completely isolated from the people they represent and immune from the problems they are supposed to solve."
In today's crisis, the Washington area remains somewhat aloof, with the second-lowest unemployment rate among major metropolitan areas of more than 1 million. (Only Oklahoma City, largely insulated from both the financial and housing bubbles, is doing better, although collapsing energy prices could threaten its prosperity.) The rate of job growth, although slower, is still among the highest in the country, and unemployment is below the national average.
This disparity will grow in the coming years, as rival regions reel from the recession. Many once-powerful places are already losing their independence and allure. Wall Street, formerly the seat of privatized power, has been reduced to supplicant status. The fate of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "luxury city" will be determined not in deals with London, Dubai or Shanghai but by the U.S. Treasury. Similarly, the vast auto economy of the upper Midwest will take direction from congressional appropriations and whoever is named the new "car czar."
This loss of power in the provinces will broaden in scope during the coming months. Even proud Texas has lost its unique political influence. Its energy barons will now be forced to do the bidding of the lawmakers and regulators, instead of carrying them in their hip pockets.
Even industries that are well plugged in to the new Obama regime – such as venture capital and alternative energy – are facing financial ruin from the downturn in both markets and energy prices. To win new funding and subsidies for their next bubble, they'll increasingly rely not on their ballyhooed cleverness but on their pull with the White House, Congress and the new science apparat, under the green-oriented Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Obama's neo-Malthusian pick for White House science adviser, physicist John Holdren.
All this is bad news for much of America, but it should mean great business for many residents of greater Washington. Sudden interest in District pied-a-terres among investment bankers, venture capitalists, energy potentates and their hired help could do a lot to restore the battered condominium market. Office buildings in the District and surrounding environs can now expect a new rush of tenants, both from the private sector and the soon-to-be expanding federal bureaucracies.
The transfer of cultural power to Washington will also accelerate. After all, Washington is more than ever where the action is. Media outlets have already been shifting out of New York and other cities – the Atlantic Monthly moved from Boston to Washington in recent years, and USA Today, National Public Radio and XM Radio are headquartered in or near the capital. A city that, according to one 19th-century account, had a cuisine consisting largely of "hog and hominy grits" now boasts world-class restaurants, draws top-line chefs to its food scene and will continue to develop into a serious epicurean center. The area already ranks third in film and television production, largely because of a thriving news and documentary business, as embodied in National Geographic, the Public Broadcasting Service and the Discovery Channel.
Over time, those of us in the provinces may grow to resent all this, seeing in Washington's ascendancy something obtrusive, oppressive and contrary to the national ethos. But don't expect Washingtonians to care much. They'll be too busy running the country, when not chortling all the way to the bank.
This article originally appeared at the Washington Post.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.