A Failure of Democracy: Who Killed D.C.?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – August 15, 1997

For the huge taxpayer bailout of Washington, and D.C.’s loss of “home rule,” one man is being blamed. Mayor Marion Barry, it is said, dragged the nation’s capital to the brink of bankruptcy, and Congress and Bill Clinton had no choice but to snatch the city away.

Sorry, it’s not that simple. No one man created this ruin, and no numbers-crunching “control board” is going to heal this city. For the crisis is not due to mismanagement alone. Washington, D.C., represents the failure of an ideology, and until the idiot ideas that are killing this city are exposed and expunged, it will not recover.

Washington was not long ago a town of 800,000, poorer than today, run from the Capitol by Southern Democrats now reviled as wretched reactionaries. But that Washington worked. Its schools, transit and traffic systems, jails and courts worked.

But, with home rule, Washington has lost 250,000 people and needs a mass transfusion of tax dollars to escape total bankruptcy. Query: Why did D.C. work under bourbon-sipping good ole boys from Dixie but fail dismally when its dominant moral, social and political voice became The Washington Post of Katharine Graham?

Washington, D.C., is a disaster of American liberalism. Not in decades has a conservative held a position of power; never once has the city voted Republican. So we can’t blame this one on Ronald Reagan, can we? No, D.C. is the most liberal city in America and the worst-run. Dost thou think, my lords, there may be a connection?

Democracy is not enough, said T.S. Eliot. Washington proves his point, for it represents a failure of democracy. In the 1950s, the city had no elections — not for president, mayor, city council, school board, D.C. delegate or “shadow senator.” The “last colony,” they called it. One suspects the liberal matrons of Georgetown who used to walk precincts for Marion Barry would be elated to exchange the city of today for their lovely colony of yesterday. But, again, is it fair to single out the mayor, when The Washington Post endorsed him thrice and four times the people of Washington elected him?

To treat D.C.’s disaster like a plane crash caused by “pilot error” just will not do. This was no accident. This disaster has been decades in the making. And if, in a democracy, “people get the kind of government they deserve,” D.C. deserves Marion Barry! And by stripping him of powers conferred in a free election, Clinton and Congress are saying — no matter how loudly they deny it — that the people of Washington are unprepared for democracy and just not ready for home rule.

The political seizure of America’s capital city raises questions for the hubristic leaders of the “world’s last superpower.” How can we proclaim as the goal of American foreign policy the “expansion of democracy” abroad when democracy is being ditched in D.C.? How can we insist on democratic reforms in foreign countries as a condition of economic aid when Clinton and Congress insist on a suspension of democracy in D.C. as a condition of economic aid?

Will not those Asian nations that have chosen to marry free-market economics to authoritarian politics have a point when they say: “You Americans are hypocrites! You do the same thing in your own capital — where your political elite works and plays — that we do in our country. Only we are honest about our ‘Asian values’!”

This bailout will cost U.S. taxpayers, in one tiny item, $4.9 billion to cover a “shortfall” (nice word, that) in the D.C. pension fund. Also in the package are new federal loans and tax breaks for residents, businesses, investors and folks who buy a first house. Our “conservative” Republicans in Congress and local politicians are also beavering away on a new flat tax — to let D.C. residents pay, say, a 15 percent federal income tax, while the rest of America pays 40 percent.

Again, how do we Americans explain this double standard?

Thailand mismanaged its finances and is being rescued by Japan and the International Monetary Fund with a huge loan. In return, the Thais must let their currency fall against the dollar, cut spending and imports, and raise taxes. If Bangkok’s financial incompetence is to be punished with “austerity,” why is Washington’s financial incompetence to be rewarded with subsidies and tax breaks?

When you subsidize something, Republicans used to say, you get more of it. By subsidizing incompetence in D.C., then, without fundamental reform, is Congress not inviting more of it?

Where is the American Caesar, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, when we really need him?