Walk into any Washington party and The Question inevitably comes: "What do you do?" It's a rude but efficient query, a way of quickly establishing your place in the hierarchy of the people worth talking to -- or not. The conversation flows or falters depending on the answer, complete with a proffered business card or a swift escape to the bar.

Sounds awful, and it is. Visitors to the nation's capital often remark on the lack of polite small talk, the swift sorting of people into the valuable and the superfluous. The rote humiliation is all too familiar to political spouses. "There's a level of impatience that is striking," says philosopher Alain de Botton. "The feeling you get is, 'Who are you and what can you bring me?' The timeline is particularly short and almost aggressive."

Washington is full of very bright, highly successful people who act like spoiled, greedy children. De Botton has a theory about this. He calls it "Status Anxiety," which happens to be the title of his newest book. He argues that in our lifelong quest for love and respect, we are all secretly nervous wrecks -- constantly clawing our way up the ladder, comparing our success to others' and looking over our shoulders. The more successful we become, the more anxious we get.

This has always been true, of course, and philosophers long before de Botton have pondered the reasons why. But, he says, this is especially true in the United States, where anyone can grow up to be president if he's smart enough, strong enough, disciplined enough -- at least, that's the official mythology. Just listen to the politicians who promise that you, too, can have everything you ever wanted -- if you're talented, hardworking and honest, and vote for them. Virtue is always rewarded in a meritocracy.

But there's a dark side to the American Dream: If we deserve our success, then we deserve our failures, too. No one wants to be a loser, especially if it turns out to be our own fault.

No wonder we're nervous.

Somebody Like You

Americans didn't invent status anxiety, but we excel at it. The very stories that inspire us also make us insecure.

Two college computer geeks create an Internet search engine; less than a decade later, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are poised to become instant billionaires when the company goes public. An obscure author pens a thriller about the Catholic Church and Mary Magdalene; Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" has dominated bestseller lists for more than a year. A trial lawyer from North Carolina decides to try politics; six years later, freshman Sen. John Edwards just became his party's nominee for vice president.

How many students, writers, lawyers read about Google, Brown or Edwards and think, "Why them and not me?" Even multimillionaires, best-selling novelists and U.S. senators can be threatened by others' greater success.

De Botton, 34, brings a distinctly European perspective to the subject -- he was born in Switzerland, educated at Cambridge and resides in London. He is best known for "How Proust Can Change Your Life," a meditation on the consolations of literature. In "Status Anxiety" he examines the baser bits of human nature that cause us to grab what we can, envy our fellow man and crave more and more.

Basically, he says, we're just big babies. Everybody secretly wants to be loved for just existing, the way parents adore their children. So it's not the stuff or titles we want, per se: The money, fame and power are means to becoming a "somebody" who deserves love from the world.

Being a someone used to be simple. You were born into it, or you weren't. And if you weren't, it wasn't your fault. "Why am I a serf? Dad was a serf. No shame in being a serf," says conservative pundit Grover Norquist. "That was the great comfort of a feudal society."

The poor were not considered responsible for their condition, says de Botton, and had little expectation of changing it. It may not have been fair, but everybody knew where they stood.

The Revolutions -- American, French, Industrial -- upended this class system. Lineage was no longer the deciding factor; where you started did not predetermine where you ended up.

The American Dream was born: The heroic immigrant leaves the old country for the unlimited opportunities of the new. It was largely a white, male, Christian story, where the only barriers were character and discipline. Like all stories handed down from generation to generation, the complicated parts were erased. The myth does not mention that racial minorities, women and Jews were excluded from competing fairly in the marketplace, or that those who succeeded beat enormous odds against them.

De Botton's definition of a high-status individual circa 2004 is someone who accumulates power, money or fame through his or her own talents and efforts. Race, gender and age are perceived as less important than personal effort, despite ongoing debate over whether the playing field is truly level. One thing is clear: The harder it is to enter the status game, the higher the stakes. The rewards for winners are great. But if you buy into this American Dream, you buy into a world of worthy Haves and unfit Have Nots.

He quotes Karl Marx: "The ruling ideas of every age are always the ideas of the ruling class."

Capital Anxiety

A book party for de Botton was held last month at the Georgetown mansion of Jacqueline and Marc Leland -- his mother and stepfather. The house, filled with contemporary art, is the stuff of secret, lustful dreams. The crowd, assembled around the back patio and pool, included Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the ambassadors of the United Kingdom and Israel, and dozens of other well-heeled and well-connected Washingtonians.

"A status-anxiety-free zone," joked Leland, a Harvard and Oxford alumnus who heads his own investment firm.

"I've never known anxiety, so I wouldn't know," said UPI Editor At Large Arnaud de Borchgrave with a sly smile.

The truth is the opposite, not that anyone would admit it. Residents of the Greater Washington region are some of the richest and best educated in the country. This place is full of nail-biting overachievers, teeming with class presidents, valedictorians, homecoming queens, editors in chief, "Most Likely To" bright hotshots destined for Big Things.

"When I first came here, I thought, 'Members of Congress. What could be better than that?' " says Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Then you realize after a while, 'They're one of 435. They may never get their name in The Washington Post. Probably never going to be on "Meet the Press." They may never even be on MSNBC, for God's sake.' "

The cruel truth is that status is relative. It's true in almost every arena here. A hometown hero arrives in Washington feeling like a million bucks, and is suddenly swimming in a bigger pool with faster sharks.

"You think you've made it," said Ornstein. "Suddenly you realize you're operating in a larger universe of ambition, and you're not quite as good as you thought. It can lead to an inferiority complex."

Nevertheless, Washington embraces meritocracy with a patriotic fervor that belies the web of connections, luck, timing and money that underpins all the brains and ambition. The official success story always includes a passion for politics, a desire to "give back," long hours and a disdain for flashy displays of wealth -- but not wealth itself.

"In some ways, Washington is kind of a geeky town," says de Botton. "The restaurants aren't that good, people don't pay that much attention to what they're wearing. It has some of the feeling of a college town."

What gets noticed is the ability to make something happen on the big field. Status is afforded by title, proximity and access to the White House and Capitol Hill. What makes Washingtonians even more anxious are the extreme highs and lows: The elevations can be swift and unexpected (Edwards, Dan Quayle), the demotions swifter and brutal (Paul O'Neill, Lawrence Lindsey). Political capital is very easy to lose; hitch your wagon to the right guy and you're a genius; pick the wrong guy and you're a loser, too.

Individual talent and energy are virtues, and 16-hour days are the sacrifices of workaholic saints. Nobody admits to being "nonessential" on federal leave days. If you're fired or laid off, you're nobody in many circles, at least behind your back.

So anxiety seeps out in seemingly petty ways: The nuanced behind-the-scenes lobbying for an ambassadorship. Getting an invitation to the ultimate summer boys camp, Bohemian Grove. Minor officials insisting on government cars and drivers. Leaking your name to the media for a prestigious shortlist of names (whether or not you were ever an actual candidate for the job). Being seen at the right table at the right restaurant.

"It's always the newcomers, the wannabes who are a little more flashy, a little more nervous," says Tommy Jacomo, general manager of the Palm. They slap him on the back, give him a hug, more to impress their guests than Jacomo. They'll walk through the restaurant talking loudly on their cell phone ("which drives me crazy") and order expensive wines.

Washington's most common anxiety game: Does your name appear in the index of a "big" book? Thousands of Washingtonians bought Bill Clinton's "My Life" only because they landed in the 38-page index.

The frontline troops of Washington's anxiety are the beleaguered bookers on the Sunday news shows who fend off the constant barrage of offers to place a boss, a friend, an expert on the next show. Every year, TelevisionWeek magazine surveys producers, bookers and "Washington insiders" for its annual survey of newsmakers. Last year, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) was dubbed "Most Energetic Self-Promoter," willing to opine on just about any issue. This year, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was named "Most Overexposed," followed closely by DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe and pundits Robert Novak, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and James Carville.

One dazzling speech can change your fortune overnight. After his prime time address at the Democratic convention, the largely unknown Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama was suddenly being spoken of as the first black president.

Rules of the Game

Washington exports its anxiety to the rest of the country with a hefty dose of hope. The business of politics, especially in an election year, is to convince voters that one candidate will better help you earn what you don't have but deserve.

"I think we live in an insecure society where even wealthy people feel anxiety about falling into destitution," says Chuck Collins, co-founder of United for a Fair Economy, a nonpartisan organization in Boston founded 10 years ago to address economic inequities. "The message is, 'You're on your own.' This is right below the surface. When you begin to probe the underlying stress, there's a fear of falling."

The Democratic and Republican conventions offer two versions of America's meritocracy. John Kerry and John Edwards spoke of "Two Americas": one with a wealthy elite who rigged the system; the other with families who are one bad break from disaster. President Bush and Vice President Cheney say capitalism is essentially fair and wealth creates more wealth.

Both parties promise to keep the game honest -- no discrimination, decent schools, safe neighborhoods, no unfair advantages for the rich or poor. The rewards of meritocracy are dangled like candy to every class, race and gender.

"There are people who say that all you have to do is work hard enough and you can get ahead," says Rep. Linda Sanchez. "But you can spend your whole life working your tail off and, if you don't have opportunities, you're never going to get ahead."

Sanchez and her sister, Loretta, made history as the first sisters elected to Congress. Their story is classic American Dream: Mexican parents, big family, hard work, an emphasis on education. Linda Sanchez, a first-term Democrat from California, has a running argument with one of her brothers, a Republican who sees himself as a self-made man and can't understand why others don't do it. She said to him: "You started out with advantages you didn't realize were advantages: a two-parent family, parents who emphasized education, who were involved in our lives."

Young Latino girls see Sanchez as a role model; her success comes with a sense of obligation. "There's a pressure that comes from that, because no one's perfect," she says. "You don't want to make mistakes or disappoint people."

WJLA-TV anchor Maureen Bunyan grew up in a family that expected her to achieve, and she became one of the most respected local news anchors in Washington. She has been up, down and back up -- and views the whole subject of status and anxiety with an un-Washington-like equanimity.

"The thing about America is that if people find their talent and discipline, they can achieve tremendous things," she says. "What happens in minority communities and to young girls is that we are not taught how to find our talent." The result: They're attracted to careers that provide overnight success -- rock stars, television stars, athletes.

"We in the media create a picture of success that comes very quickly and with little effort," she says. "If you grow up with the love and respect already, you don't go look for it in some splashy, superficial space."

Ah, but every success -- even the splashy, superficial ones -- creates hope. Americans, says de Botton, remain remarkably optimistic and want to believe the game is fair.

"What interests me is that both Kerry and Bush have acquired their wealth in very un-American ways: Bush by nepotism and inheritance, and Kerry by marrying money that was, in turn, inherited." But it is Edwards's rags-to-riches story, like Ronald Reagan's, that appeals most to many voters.

In short: We want very much to believe that someone is going to be the next Bill Gates, the next Tom Cruise, the first black president. Why not me?

Sick About Making It

Ambitious people become nervous people, says Collins, and nervous people do what they can to protect themselves. One job loss, one catastrophic illness, a divorce, or even rising college tuition could be the difference between security and ruin. So they build walls of security around their families. They buy an SUV so they'll be safer if they get into an accident. They live in a gated community, they send their kids to private school, they buy private health insurance. All of this is expensive, so they work more hours to pay for it, telling themselves anyone who doesn't do all this is somehow less.

Things that were luxuries a generation ago are now considered necessities: two family cars, air conditioning, a dishwasher, two or more televisions. The journey from "I want" to "I need" to "I deserve" has become increasingly short. What is startling about this is how completely so many people buy into this status consumerism -- and its attendant stress.

One might think that Americans are working themselves sick. But researchers have uncovered a link between perceived social status and health. All other things being equal, people who describe themselves as lower status have higher rates of infection and stress-related disorders.

De Botton offers his own solutions to all this anxiety: Focus instead on art, religion, philosophy or even reject the whole status thing as foolish hooey. Not that that's likely to happen in Washington for the next, oh, thousand years. In the meanwhile, we'll do what bright, nervous, high-achieving people always do: obsess over whether our kids will do better.

"We don't want our daughter to go to a no-name college," two parents told Diane E. Epstein, who directs a college admissions counseling service in Bethesda. Epstein's job is to help students find a good academic fit; parents fixate on the "right" university, private school and even nursery school.

"I actually had the family of a 2-year-old call me," she said. Their child, they sighed, had the wrong birthday. The child's birthday fell just beyond the cutoff for their preschool of choice, preventing their little darling from admission until the following year. Epstein patiently explained that although many things are possible, changing a birth date was not one of them.

Another generation dips into the anxiety pool.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, above, made it: Their college research into search engines led to the creation of Google, and now they are poised to become billionaires. John Edwards, below left, made it: His foray into politics resulted in his becoming the Democratic nominee for vice president. And Dan Brown made it: His novel "The Da Vinci Code" is still flying out of bookstores. But in addition to inspiring us, these examples undermine us: Why aren't we making it too? Philosopher Alain de Botton, below right, has a name for our pain: "Status Anxiety."A classic American Dream story: Linda, left, and Loretta Sanchez, born to immigrant parents who stressed hard work and education, became the first sisters elected to Congress.