Tuesday, September 2, 2008

An Inside the Beltway Mentality

Sometimes you may hear of a "beltway mentality."

It refers to the tendency of those of us who live in Washington, DC and work in "politics" to lose perspective on how other Americans see things when it comes to government, politics and Washington.

It's a phrase often overused by politicians trying to paint themselves as outsiders in election years when polls show people prefer "change" to "experience." Those without such mindsets are supposedly much more attuned to what the voters are thinking and desire. Despite the overuse, it's a very real phenomanon.

When I consider what we get wrapped up in and think is the most important thing in the world, I stop and ask whether any of my relatives who live outside the beltway are even aware of it.

Usually the answer is "no." It's not because they're simply not "up" on the news. Usually its because in the grand scheme of real life, much of what happens here isn't nearly as important as we think.


Easy and Elegant Life said...

It was quite an adjustment when we moved away from NoVA and working in the District. Sometimes a little distance adds a lot of perspective. Even with C-SPAN, CNN, MSNBC and Fox. And for a real jolt, leave the country (or tune into BBC.) It is funny how un-political I've become. Provincial, I suppose you could argue.

Not to be too naïf, but do you think the coming election will change the views of the wide world towards the U.S.? Regardless of the outcome, it will be seen as historic.

The People's Business said...


I'd argue that you're probably more cosmopolitan now than you were in Washington. I'd certainly trust your view of how the "everyday American" perceives something before my own. And I think I have an advantage over most people here in DC because I, at least, understand how out of touch I am.

There is little doubt that history will be made in this election by the elevation. Senator McCain's VP choice guaranteed that at least.

I think an Obama win in particular would surprise many outside the US because a lot of people, especially in developing countries, don't believe Senator Obama will be "permitted" to win.

It would also shock a fair number of Europeans, who believe America to be a racist country if we were to have a minority head of state before they did.

I think you'd at least HEAR nicer things said about us in polls and newspaper interviews. I think we'd probably improve our relations with other nations (less because of Senator Obama's race, however, than the foreign policy inclinations of his administration, which likely would be more in line with European nations that the current administration's). I wouldn't want to overdo it in this regard, because nations' policies will always be based more on their own needs rather than whether they like the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but all things being equal it doesn't hurt to have good personal relations between leaders as we saw in the 1980s.

Easy and Elegant Life said...

Hello TPB and thanks! Funny, I always thought that the FC's were scared to death of Mr. Reagan. Especially after that "open mike gaff." ("We being bombing in five minutes...") Wire traffic would have gone nuts...

Certainly not more cosmopolitan, per se (but thanks); definitely apolitical compared to my days (as a nobody) at ACDA. And by that I mean that I read up as much as possible on both candidates' positions and fill out a "pros and cons" list. Whoever gets more check marks gets my votes. It's awful to be so uncertain.

Keep up the good work. I find it interesting!

The People's Business said...


Thanks for giving me a chance to clarify my statement about the role of personal relationships in diplomacy. Specifically, I was thinking about Reagan's relationships with several European leaders, e.g., Thatcher, Schmidt (and later Kohl) and Mitterand, rather than how general populations abroad viewed the U.S.

There's a very good account in George Shultz's memoirs (pp. 352-357) about how Reagan, unsatisfied with the first two summits of his presidency, decided that the leaders needed to work more closely "face to face." The approach led to a breakthrough in creating a joint US-Western Europe position on arms control and missile deployment in Western Europe.

Of course, Reagan was helped by two factors. First, Europe was led by center-right parties that were more in touch with Reagan's views than their opposition parties would have been. Second, there was still a threat (real or perceived) to Western European nations from the Soviet Union that made them better disposed to the US and willing to take our lead than exists in our current, unipolar world.

It will be interesting to see if a resurgent Russia will have a similar effect.