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Pilgrimage to Washington

Zach Einterz | Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I spent my spring break as a participant in the Center for Social Concerns’ Washington Seminar. I, like most of you, watched School House Rock in middle school and took government class in high school. I even remember a little bit of James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10. But I didn’t truly understand the American political system, until I spent a week in Washington, D.C. I wish I could convey to you the intricacies of our system, but I know my explanation will be far from sufficient. I can only suggest that you visit our nation’s capital. Washington, D.C. should be America’s Mecca. Every adult of voting age has an obligation to visit it at least once in their lifetime. Sit in on a hearing, visit your congressman’s office or drop in on one of the myriad of public policy lectures that occur every week.

Unlike the Muslim who returns from Mecca with a renewed faith and greater devotion to God, I found myself leaving D.C. with a sense of despair in the American political system. My idealistic vision of intelligent, well-meaning diplomats was quickly supplanted in my mind by a conglomerate of special-interest groups, lobbyists and politicians scrambling for their own piece of the pie. As I traveled around D.C., I began to realize that most people in politics care about one thing – advancing their own personal agendas. Of course, they never frame their argument as such. They always state their personal agenda in a way that aligns with the common good. For example, if you ask a certain Senator from Oklahoma how he can claim to be a small-government conservative when he continuously supports subsidies for the oil and gas industry, he’ll reply by stating that strong domestic production is essential for “national security” reasons. It has nothing to do with the fact that his constituents benefit immensely from federal subsidies. It’s all about national security, a public good.

Perhaps more appalling than the self-interestedness of politicians was the way they advanced their agenda. I don’t think any of the people we met with ever outright lied to us, but a sly dishonesty permeated from many of the conference rooms. They only told one side of the story, or they cited a non-scientific report put out by a biased interest group, or they responded with the Potomac Shuffle; that is, talking around a question without ever giving a direct answer. It wasn’t sufficient for everyone to just sell themselves. They also had to shoot down conflicting ideas, hold personal vendettas against opponents and turn what was already menial debate into ad hominem attacks. The fight to obtain influence and political stardom makes for great drama. As one of my fellow Seminar participants put it, “Washington is just like Hollywood, except the people are uglier.”

Once I understood how Washington works, the Abramoff scandal, the Libby indictment and the Gonzalez hearings didn’t seem so anomalous. By the end of the week, I began to wonder why our political system is a haven for such ugliness. None of the people we met are inherently bad, and I think many of them probably came to Washington as idealistic, principled persons. But at some point in their careers, they began to sacrifice their principles for self-interest. They wavered to keep their job, to appease their constituents or to secure more funding. Little by little, their integrity eroded away until they are now at the point where they no longer realize how far they have strayed from their principles. They’ve begun to believe whole-heartedly in their mission, even if it is based on dishonesty.

Don’t take my cynicism to mean that everyone in Washington is narrow-minded and self-serving. We had the chance to meet with several nonpartisan groups and a few honest congressmen. Unfortunately, they seemed to be the exception rather than the norm.

One night we had dinner with a Notre Dame grad who works in the Pentagon. He told us that he had at one time considered the priesthood, until one of his friends convinced him otherwise. “We have enough ethical people in the priesthood,” his friend told him. “What we need are ethical people in government.” If you get a chance to embark on a Hajj to D.C., walk around the Washington Monument seven times and pray for more ethical government leaders. Or at least pray that we may have the good sense to elect them.

Zach Einterz is a junior majoring in economics and environmental sciences. He has turned to politics after giving up on an unsuccessful sports career. Contact him at zeinterz@nd.edu. To learn more about the College Libertarians, visit their website at www.nd.edu/~liberty.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.