A central necessity of any healthy democracy is to feature a capital city that comprehends the rest of the country. Federal officials in Washington — like everyone else — can’t help but see things through their own eyes. American leaders making the rules for everyone from Washington must therefore not just know what is happening everywhere but must feel it and see it for themselves in Washington.
Washington woke up on Wednesday to the arrival of a smoky haze generated from the wildfires in Canada and spurred on by climate change. So many of us in Washington felt for ourselves what it was like to cancel or to move indoors the glorious field trips and field days that children enjoy at the end of a sunny and green school year in Washington. We saw what it was like to walk past the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument — the visual symbols of democracy — and not be able to see them so clearly. Climate change had come to Washington in the way a person in California could see a wildfire there or a person in Florida could see a hurricane there. It seemed that something new was happening, but also that nothing much was going to change.
Ensuring a connection between the capital and the country was one of the many reasons — and one of the more honorable reasons — for placing the federal government in Washington in the first place. James Madison, a representative from Virginia, gave a speech in the first House of Representatives in 1789 proclaiming the importance of “every part of the community” being able to access the capital with the same ease. Washington, so close to the geographical center of the country, made sense, then, as the permanent capital of a potential democracy. The city’s location both made it accessible to travelers from the rest of the country and made it easier for people in Washington to be able to hear them.
One means of generating this connection was to reject the divide between capital and country in the first place. Many parts of the federal government — from Congress to the Supreme Court — would only meet seasonally in Washington so that federal officials could spend most of their time working and even living in other places. There were only 153 federal officials working in Washington when the capital was moved there in 1800. As government became more complicated toward the end of the 19th century and onward, the federal government needed a permanent class of federal officials working and living in Washington. Members of Congress travel back to their districts a lot, but they are the federal exception, and even members of Congress have their most important staff and many of their important meetings in Washington.
This changed the relationship between the capital and the country. Those of us in Washington could visit other places, but we would relate to these places more as a tourist or a stranger rather than as a neighbor sharing their experiences. We needed the country to come to the capital to teach us or make us notice things we might not be otherwise seeing in Washington.
The March on Washington was significant, for instance, in part because it was a march in Washington. It generated at least some of the media attention and political energy that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A signature moment of the Great Depression was the Bonus March of 1932, featuring economically distressed World War I veterans coming to Washington and being greeted with the most violent scenes Washington had seen since the War of 1812. The Bonus March eventually resulted in President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress taking action to help the veterans and others like them.
Now that the effects of climate change have appeared boldly in the nation’s capital, what could that mean for climate policy?
Climate change has already affected Washington. The average temperature has increased more than 2 degrees here in the last century, and the flooding has already become catastrophic and will become even more so in the decades to come. But we just haven’t had anything much like the wildfires that California has faced or the hurricanes that Florida has endured.
Then this week happened. This is so often a glorious time of year in Washington — full of sunny skies and smiling faces — which made the hazy skies we awoke to this week all the more shocking. By Thursday the playgrounds in the District of Columbia were shuttered in a scene eerily reminiscent of the earliest and darkest moments of the pandemic. The air in Washington on Thursday was the worst in the world on that day and the worst in the history of Washington.
In a successful democracy, opening Washington’s eyes literally to climate change like this would open the eyes figuratively of the leaders of the federal government to the planet’s problems. During a different time, the smog that covered Eastern cities like Washington in the 1960s was part of what led to the enactment of the Air Quality Act of 1967 and the Clean Air Act in 1970.
But today, our politics are so settled — and so stuck — that moments that even open our eyes in Washington do not change the laws coming from Washington. Republicans in Washington used this week to attack climate change policies rather than to call for their expansion. I watched Fox News this week a few times to hear how their Washington reporters were covering this issue, only to find a few times that they were not covering it at all. Indeed, the banner headline at one point was about California Governor Gavin Newsom’s latest ideas about gun control. No proposed transformative legislation or executive orders or dramatic press conferences in the haze seemed to be forthcoming from the Biden administration either.
Politics can be distinctively productive when it is personal. To see or to know someone — or something — is to experience it in a different kind of way. Now, though, rather than letting our lives shape our views, we almost always let our national parties do so. It didn’t matter how hard it was for elected officials or staffers to breathe walking into Congress, it mattered what the national parties told them to do once they were inside of the building. Climate change marched on Washington this week — and not enough of Washington seemed to care.