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The Height of Power

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By Joel Kotkin
Sunday, January 25, 2009

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.

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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 centrifugal 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."


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