Politico Accidentally Exposes Beltway Elite

Happy business executives with champagne.
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. Photo: Suedhang/Cultura/Corbis

Politico editors Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen today have published what may be the most revealing piece I have ever read about the Washington power elite. The value of the piece is almost entirely anthropological. That is to say, read at face value, it tells the reader almost nothing new. But examined as a cultural specimen, it offers profound insight. The piece reads as if it were written by Upton Sinclair, if he were taken prisoner and trying to smuggle messages out to the world past a particularly literal-minded group of censors.

The subject of the piece is Allen and VandeHei’s report that broad agreement exists on the correct policy agenda, as revealed to them through “conversations we have had over the past three months with top lawmakers, officials, their senior aides and the CEOs who advise and lobby all of them.” The story proceeds to describe the obviously sensible agenda agreed upon by these sources: It is vital to reduce the deficit through tax reform and stingier entitlements, along with more free trade, resource extraction, and liberalized immigration.

This is far from the Randian paranoia that has spread among so many millionaires in the Obama agenda. Indeed, I find most of it fairly sensible as policy. What makes the consensus so astonishing, and even nauseating, is the degree to which those who share it show no awareness of their own insularity. Their shared sense of a smart economic growth strategy excludes any monetary or fiscal plan to bring down unemployment through higher consumer demand, a position that commands strong support among economists. Their list of ailments also excludes skyrocketing income inequality and out-of-control carbon emissions. (Though, at the end of a passage extolling the glorious possibility that American oil production will exceed that of Saudi Arabia within a decade, VandeHei and Allen do note, “No doubt, there are environmental concerns, especially for drinking water.” Well, yes. Also for the future of the human race.)

Obviously, the CEOs, lawmakers, and top aides have a shared economic interest in defining the agenda this way. Mass unemployment doesn’t hurt them, and rising inequality helps them. They not only support more free trade (as I do) but lack any sense that its corrosive effect on the bargaining power of labor might make it anything less than an unalloyed blessing. Non-self-interested rationales exist for all these policies, but the role of self-interest in making them attractive to the economic elite ought to be obvious. Yet all seem to believe implicitly that what is good for the CEO class is by definition what’s good for America.

Even more remarkable is the approach Politico’s editors take toward the consensus. They have on their hands the most ripe material for a scathing exposé of a chummy, self-interested business-political elite. VandeHei and Allen, by contrast, understand their role here not as exposing the insider nexus but as uncritically transmitting its point of view. The authors begin by describing the consensus as the opinions of the CEO-Beltway class but never bother to mention dissenting opinions. By the middle of the piece, they dispense altogether with the convention of describing the opinions as such and merely repeat them as obvious truths (i.e., "Tax reform would raise more money to pay down the debt and help create the 'certainty premium' Moynihan spoke of.")

That mainstream journalists feel comfortable doing so is itself further confirmation of the extraordinary and almost unchallenged power commanded by the business and political elites. The Politico story is fairly typical of Washington reporting in its basic endorsement of the business-political elite consensus. The Sunday talk shows and editorial pages are filled to the brim with right-thinking people who would read this piece and nod along happily. What makes this one unusually valuable is that it approaches unusually close to what ought to be a moment of self-awareness — by making explicit rather than implicit the social web that produces the Beltway consensus — but then sprints as fast as can be in the other direction. It should be preserved for generations as the early-21st-century cri de coeur of an incestuous, self-satisfied economic and political elite.