Experiencing Outside the Beltway

Right now, I am spending many hours on I-80 -- and I'm not done yet. I am still only in the middle of driving across country.

I love road trips.

Perhaps I inherited that from my mother (read more "Curses: Motherly Approval of the President"). We used to joke that my mother lived to haul crap back and forth across the country in her trusty trailer, as heaven forbid you ever throw anything away.

Or perhaps it's because the car is the one place I can blare my music and, most important, sing along at the top of my lungs. Or perhaps it's because a long road trip is enforced reflection time; the solitude and quiet of an open road is the perfect time to think about things -- whether life, questions, philosophy, or even, lord help us, politics.

So indeed I did. I did not spend time pondering the latest legislative parry or recent Supreme Court decisions, though I do often think about those things, sometimes to lament, sometimes to celebrate, which is probably why I felt no need to have them interrupt my quiet reverie.

What I spent time pondering was the classic disconnect between "outside the Beltway" and "inside the Beltway." As there is nothing that hammers this point home more than driving though middle America, stopping at gas stations in small towns and big cities, and getting to see and interact with those who do not live "inside the Beltway."

Here, I did not overhear people discussing the Texas legislature, DOMA, the Supreme Court, Congress, or even politics at all. Though of course we all know, everything is political. Here, despite or perhaps because of that thought, there was nothing that struck my highly-tuned political ear as profound political pronouncements. (Because something as "intellectual" as politics deserves alliteration.)

Here, despite the fact my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter feed had blown up with comments about courage and pink tennis shoes and equality in love, there was nothing. Though I did not ask, I was quite sure that most of the folks I stumbled across would not have had any idea. No. Here, what I overheard was conversations about finding jobs, losing jobs, struggling to make ends meet, and, obviously, the price of gas. Sometimes, about family members fighting in Afghanistan; once, sadly, about losing a brother there.

I did hear the words courage, bravery, and once, heroics. But not in description of a woman who had to do no more than stand and talk for some 11 hours (or even a man who did the same in the past). No. That, I am quite sure, would not register with any of these people -- many of whom, I would guess, have jobs that require that exact "courage" every single day.

No. Here, those words were reserved for the men and women they knew fighting far from home or even for those they knew here, fighting just to survive, to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table. Folks who did this every day -- many probably in the exact same circumstances themselves -- and yet who also took the time to volunteer at their church, to be involved in their community, or who simply remained seemingly unflappable.

Such a Midwestern word, unflappable. Such a Midwestern trait. Such an important trait.

While "inside the Beltway" was all a-twitter over the 24-hour news cycle and latest sound bite to make the rounds, the people I came across while traveling through "outside the Beltway" were focused on the right-now cycle and the latest job opening to make the rounds. While "inside the Beltway" was aflutter over the whereabouts of Edward Snowden and Rusty the red panda, "outside the Beltway" I came across folks worked up over gas prices and food costs.

The disconnect is not even a complaint any more apparently. It's just a fact of life. At one point, it was still a grievance: those durn city folk inside the Beltway have no idea what is really going on out here in the middle of the country. Now? Acceptance seems to have lead to resignation.

I remember once ages ago, when I still worked full time for the U.S. Congress, visiting my grandmother in her tiny town in northeast Iowa, and being flabbergasted that the newspaper from the nearest city regulated national news to a couple paragraphs on page A5. Of course, I was firmly of the "inside the Beltway" cult then, so was horrified to think a tractor crash was front page news over debates in Congress. Now that I live in a small town myself, I'm thrilled that national news is regulated to inside the local paper.

It's amazing how less important, how frivolous in fact, "inside the Beltway" in general becomes when you are away from it. Local news, with its quick summary of national events, becomes far more relevant and important. It is said that air conditioning ruined national politics -- making it a full time job for politicians, as one could now survive the swamp upon which Washington, D.C. was built.

It's too bad, as I think Congress would be well served by spending less time in the swamp, and more time in the "real world"."That disconnect is a huge problem, not one we should resign ourselves to simply accepting. Perhaps every Member of Congress needs to do a road trip like I am -- not just in their own district, but across the country. See who the people who make up the very heart of our nation are. It might make a difference in that 24 news cycle, that bickering, that disconnect.