Washington, it seems, is a city in decline. History has taken up residence in Budapest and Tokyo, Brussels and Seoul. After a brief spurt of prominence and wealth owed to the Depression, Hitler and the cold war, Washington, we are told, has lapsed into a somnambular state.
This is an exaggeration, but not too far from the truth. Government has grown huge, and a presidential hiccup can still panic the stock market, but Washington has far less impact on the direction of America and the world than it did a generation ago.
The marginalization of Washington is sometimes taken as proof of American decline. Nonsense. With the implosion of its only superpower rival, America stands alone in the world, its relative power -- which the decline theorists insist is the only relevant measure -- unsurpassed. (One reason, for example, that hostages are being released is that the thug regimes of the world realize that suddenly there is only one superpower left and they had better warm up to it.)
The marginalization of Washington reflects not the decline of America but the decline of politics. In the West -- and it is soon to be true in the East, now that they've got the easy part, revolution, out of the way -- history is not made by politics. It is made by economics, by demographics and, above all, by science and technology. Politics lubricates, corrupts mildly and takes a slice of the action. But it does not create new worlds as it did, horribly, in 1917 and 1933 and, blessedly, in 1946-49 when the U.S. established the structures of the postwar world. Politics has become, like much of life, maintenance. The house is built; Republicans and Democrats argue now over who is to repair the roof and how to pay for it.
Moreover, the great political debates are over. The romance with isms, with the secular religions of socialism, egalitarianism and totalitarianism, is dead. The fierce battles over whether, for example, the U.S. should lead the crusade against communism are finished too. American politics is no longer about bearing any burden in defense of liberty. American politics is about the Clean Air Act.
This is not to deride clean air. Clean air is important, and the clean air bill now working its way through Congress is a quite satisfying triumph of democratic compromise, smog-producing Detroit working out with smog-ingesting Los Angeles a political arrangement that the whole country can live with. But the great dichotomies of war and peace, left and right, good and evil are gone. Politicians still try to use these categories to carry the fight, but no one believes them.
This triumph of apolitical bourgeois democracy has been a source of dismay to some. They pine for the heroic age when great ideologies clashed and the life of nations turned on a vote in Congress. On the contrary. I couldn't be happier that the political century is over, and that all that's left is to shuffle cards on the cruise ship. The great disease of the 20th century was the politicization of life. The totalitarians, left and right, showed the way, politicizing everything: economics, education, art, religion, family life. Not even genetics could escape politics. One remembers with disbelief not just Hitler's eugenic lunacies but also Stalin's designation of Lysenko's crackpot genetics as official truth, enforced by secret police.