Washington DC: Geographic Dog Whistle And Our Nation's Most Important Primary

This past Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan made an appearance in a poor neighborhood in Washington DC to reiterate the Republicans' desire cut federal welfare programs, presented without irony as a proposal to "combat poverty."

It did not even occur to Speaker Ryan to invite the city's congressional representative, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, to the program. This is utterly true to form. For Republicans, Washington DC is not our national city, it is a notional one, a pretext and device to encode the politics of white grievance.

Republicans must resort to DC because they have little choice. The United States has thirty-one cities with a population over a half million living within city limits; of these, San Diego, Oklahoma City, and Fort Worth are the only ones with a Republican mayor in charge.

Nevertheless, the large and diverse city is crucial to the modern Republican Party--not as a place to govern, but as an anvil to forge a political identity. The GOP invokes and relies upon "the city" to define and legislate "white" solutions to "non-white" urban problems. As Donald Trump's nomination reveals, it is the GOP's embrace of cultural grievance that lies at the heart of its governing logic and electoral success.

But, absent elected mayors, Republican efforts to instruct and punish the wayward city would be purely theoretical, were it not for several tactics. First and foremost, the party leverages political power from elsewhere to limit and shape urban policy, whether from the US Congress, the statehouse, or, as is the case in cities like Miami and Indianapolis, via annexation of surrounding suburbs to a city's formal jurisdiction.

Yet none of these maneuvers supply a unilateral power to dictate policy. For that, Republicans turn to Washington DC.

Guided by the Heritage Foundation, the party's powerful policy interlocutor, Republicans cite the Constitution in order to justify inserting themselves into District affairs. Yet, as I discuss in detail, history refutes this simplistic contention. There have been many permutations in District governance--including voting representation in Congress, which still exists for the portion of the District retroceded to Virginia in 1846, when slave owners feared the growing reach of abolitionism. In a distressing and uniquely America pattern, those precedents and practices established to indirectly protect or benefit slavery have not only survived, they remain comparatively more robust. If the geographic ancestors of those who remain inside the District cared less about human freedom, residents would enjoy more political power today.

Instead those 19th century forebears resolved to make the District a site to stage the black freedom movement--"an example for all the land," to quote the title of historian Kate Masur's book examining Washington during Civil War and Reconstruction. Her story concludes where the District's modern history begins: the return of white Southerners to national politics, and with them a return to the most retrograde forms of autocratic governance. For much of the next century, the more African-Americans laid claim to citizenship, the more segregationists seized upon DC as a theater to enact policies of punishment. As I recount in my book on this subject, the modern drug war is in part a monument to their efforts.

In Senator Barry Goldwater's quest to convert white southerners from Democrats to Republicans, he seized upon the District of Columbia--both as a place to exercise congressional power, and as a rhetorical device, a geographic dog whistle, to usher segregationists into the Republican fold.

Like Democrats before him, he couched his preoccupation with the DC in terms of concern over crime. During his campaign for president in 1964, Goldwater assailed President Lyndon Johnson for neglecting crime in Washington, which was "a city embattled, plagued by lawlessness." In fact crime rates were low. Later in the decade, when street and violent crime rose, Richard Nixon walked briskly through the door Goldwater opened. Although DC police chief Jerry V. Wilson claimed that Washington had no need for "no-knock" authority in its law enforcement work, Nixon's White House insisted on it anyway; only weeks later, the same authority appeared in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the founding legislation of our modern drug war. Congressional lawmakers who were indifferent to the fate of civil liberties in the District found themselves ill-equipped to fend off similar incursions in drug control: "We had it in the District of Columbia crime bill," one congressman chided his colleagues; "we voted for it then."

This same pattern repeats itself to this day, even in spite of the Home Rule, which awarded DC a popularly elected mayor and city council in 1973. Congress retains the power to overturn a DC legislative act with two chambers, and, up until 1985, Congress needed only one chamber's approval in order to exercise a veto over criminal law.

Republicans have used this power to abrogate popular sovereignty on medical marijuana, marijuana legalization, government funding for abortion, and needle exchanges. Recently, Congressional Republicans took exception to the "DC Budget Autonomy Act," a District bill that would allow the city to spend its own locally raised revenues in a manner that its government saw fit. Sovereignty for Washington DC, the embodiment of urban liberalism and black power, is not simply inconvenient for Republican policy; it is, in and of itself, abhorrent. In speaking on DC Budget Autonomy, Speaker Ryan shared his view that the DC city council needed "to be reined in." In the same news cycle, Ryan expressed his displeasure over Donald Trump's evident racism.

As Ryan and establishment figures within the Republican Party lament the rise of Trump's racist demagoguery, their own record of contempt for Washington DC demonstrates that they resent not so much the intent, as the discarding of its traditional script--the removal of any ambiguity or policy interface that renders their racism less overt. They dare not let it go. If Republicans cannot manage to function as emperors of DC, their impotence in obtaining power in other large and diverse cities might be seen for what it is: near universal rejection of their policies by the people for whom they are intended.

Next Tuesday DC voters will go to the polls in what deserves to regarded as our country's most important primary: the only primary of a city, and not just any city, but the one that is key to unmasking and confronting the politics of white backlash.

In recent times, the Democratic Party has failed to display any urgency regarding the fact that Washington DC remains trapped in the political architecture of racism. This too is emblematic--in this case, of the party's tendency to take an urban coalition for granted. A party leadership resigned to rhetoric instead of actual risks looks to placate the cause of justice rather than assume it mantle, and their complacency has supplied Republicans with important policy precedents on subjects ranging from education policy to reproductive rights. In this way, the Democrats' torpid commitment to DC is not just unimpressive, it is shortsighted; a self-imposed timidity that obscures a prevailing urban policy consensus.

Democrats should reinvigorate their commitment to political sovereignty and urban policy by placing DC's primary as first in the nation, instead of as neglected afterthought. After all, it is important to destroy the politics of cultural grievance, not just decipher it; it is important to fight, not just fundraise.