Homo Politicus: The Strange and Barbaric Tribes of the Beltway

“I came to live in political Washington — Potomac Land, if you will — twelve years ago,” writes Dana Milbank in his new book, Homo Politicus. “For most of that time, I have lived among the natives as if I were one of them: working, eating, dressing, and socializing as they do and wearing the same government-issued ID cards and Blackberry devices. As I gained their trust over time, they allowed me to join them in their homes, war rooms, and tribal councils.” They’ll wish they hadn’t. Milbank, author of the popular “Washington Sketch” column in The Washington Post, has not written a kind book. It is not generous, and it is not fair. It is, to be sure, entertaining, but the attentive reader is left wondering if in all those homes, those war rooms, and those tribal councils, Milbank ever really listened — or did he just watch for the incriminating word, and wait for the ugly spat?

The conceit of Homo Politicus is that Milbank approaches Washington as an anthropologist would. Each chapter starts out with some motif stolen from an introduction-to-anthropology text. This provides a fun organizing pattern at the outset, but around the point he calls bribe money “moka” for the twelfth time you start to wonder if Milbank couldn’t just call it “cash.” But forgive the man his flourishes, for he is a felicitous writer with a keen eye for the absurd. He has an uncanny ability to unearth exactly the right quote and discover just the right detail, elevating a silly situation into an absurd one or transforming the unseemly into the unconscionable. After detailing former congressional majority leader Tom DeLay’s brutal leadership tactics, Milbank notes that the now-deposed politician “still was a warrior. And so he devoted his considerable talent to getting country singer Sara Evans declared winner of the Dancing with the Stars television show? ‘We need to send a message to Hollywood and the media that smut has no place on television by supporting good people like Sara Evans.’ ” Absurd, yes, but Milbank isn’t done. “Evans?made it to the final six couples but then pulled out of the show, saying she had filed for divorce from her husband,” he writes, sinking the knife deep into DeLay’s moralistic pretensions.

This sort of affair, however, composes the whole of the book. Homo Politicus is an endless series of two- or three-page vignettes, some tawdry, some silly, some perverse, some evil. Milbank’s Washington — excuse me, Potomac Land — is a grim place, populated by the base and the arrogant, run by the corrupt and the stupid. Milbank, in fact, hardly seems able to tell the two apart. One minute he’ll be questioning Howard Dean’s mental stability because he yelled in a way that sounded strange, and a few pages later he’ll be marveling at Congressman Tom Tancredo’s suggestion that we should drop an atomic device on Mecca. The difference between a cheer that should have been throatier and a comment that should have chilled the electorate is not explored. The result is the most dispiriting parade you’ve ever seen; all the sights depressing and grotesque, none going slowly enough for you to understand what you’re seeing or evaluate its importance, and most couched in anthropological jargon that doesn’t really fit.

Indeed, it’s a shame that Milbank didn’t take his conceit more seriously. The American Association of Anthropologists says of their varied and broad discipline, “always, the common goal links these vastly different projects: to advance knowledge of who we are, how we came to be that way — and where we may go in the future.” That would be a wonderful guiding spirit for a book on Washington. But Homo Politicus is not an anthropologist’s take on Washington. It is a cynic’s single-minded search for that which will arch his eyebrow.

Milbank gives us the perverts and the liars, the fools and the frauds. But speaking as a Washingtonian, his book is most notable for those who are absent. The young intern, chewing on ramen and working till midnight because he believes in social uplift, never appears. The exhausted Capitol Hill staffer, deleting emails from headhunters explaining that her law degree could make her three times as much money (“moka”) in the private sector, must not be invited to the same living rooms as Milbank. The lonesome nonprofit worker, newly transplanted from a city he loved to a town he loathes because he thinks his cause more important than his comfort, is forgotten. We never meet the think-tanker who has spent 30 years learning everything there is to know about his policy area, who churns out daily reports that are largely ignored, and who never gives up hope that one day his work will make public policy a bit better, wiser, and more just. We are never treated to the company of the congressman from the safe district who could settle into his cushy chair and treat his office as a sinecure but insists on doggedly attempting to legislate, investigate, and reform — even when he’s in the minority, even when the cause is hopeless — or, if we do glimpse his bald pate, it’s only to see him mocked because after 15 years of service, he uttered an intemperate comment while C-SPAN was filming.

What we get from Milbank is the worst of Washington. He boils honorable careers down to a regrettable soundbite, and he gleefully skewers the most grievously offensive individuals but never suggests that they are exceptions. In fact, the whole anthropologist theme forces him to pretend that they are representative examples of the broader forces that govern the nation’s capital. It’s worse than untrue, it’s pernicious. As any anthropologist knows, self-perception is enormously important to both individual and aggregate behavior. Children asked to mark down their demographic information before taking a test will see their performance conform more closely to the stereotype of their group than if they had met the exam without being reminded of how they’re seen on the street. Milbank, by offering this parade of horrors to Washingtonians and civilians alike, helps assure the former that their misbehavior is perfectly normal and helps reinforce the latter’s decision to ignore politics altogether. Indeed, you have to give Milbank this: like a real anthropologist, he appears content to study his subject rather than seeking to better it. There is no attention to the structural factors that aid corruption or the underlying trends that feed polarization. There is no talk of reform or renewal, no vignettes describing those who are trying to better the process and need the support of Milbank’s readers.

But they are just as much a part of this city’s fabric and character as the villains who populate Milbank’s book, and without their presence, “Potomac Land” is a far darker and more dispiriting place than Washington itself.