A Tale of Two Cities: Big Washington Is Too Large to Bring People Together, Little Washington Is Too Small to Keep Them Apart

Town Hall, Washington, Virginia.

Big cities—and the big media centered in those cities—seemed out of touch with the rest of the country in 2016: “That idiot Trump won?” Donald Trump did win and he carried 31 of the 50 states, causing big media in Washington and New York City to think maybe they should send a reporter out to the countryside to find out what happened. Who are those Trump voters?

For background on those voters, here is a Washingtonian story, by William B. Mead, comparing life in Washington, D.C., and Washington, Virginia, a small town 70 miles west of the nation’s capital that calls itself “The First Washington of Them All.” The head on Mead’s story: “People in Little Washington Know Each Other in Ways That People in Big Washington Only Talk About.”

From the story:

“Many city people still make fun of country rednecks, but they are expressing a stylist prejudice more than a continuing reality. The people portrayed by Sinclair Lewis in Main Street and Grant Wood in American Gothic were truly cut off from the civilizing influences of urban life—important ones, like good education and communications, as well as more frivolous ones like fashion and fine cuisine.

“That gulf has long since been crossed. Developments in communications, transportation, and education have given rural Americans the opportunity to take what is good from the cities while avoiding much of what is bad. In the meantime, cities have spread and subdivided into neighborhoods and suburbs that reflect the varying layers of prosperity and hardship—an economic segregation. So rural people have become more citified, while urban people have become more stratified.

“Nowhere is this more obvious than the two Washingtons—big Washington and little Washington, located 70 miles to the west. Big Washington is a uniquely liberal and tolerant city, so much so that any expression of racism or lack of sympathy for the poor is considered rude and can get you a tongue-lashing from the Washington Post.

“Yet few of us who live in big Washington get much chance to demonstrate our egalitarian feelings. Aside from set situations at work, our paths rarely cross those of people much different from ourselves.

“Just as big Washington is too large to bring people together, little Washington is too small to keep them apart. You can walk from one end of town to the other in 15 minutes. So paths cross and people mix, without thinking much about it. Whites, blacks, lawyers, laborers, sophisticates, good ol’ boys, people who drink Chablis and people who drink Seagram’s 7 Crown—they all greet each other by name, send their children to the same schools, and shop at the same store.

“That’s not to say that small-town life is without its social divisions. But there’s less hypocrisy about it and more understanding, because the people know each other.”

Bill Mead’s Washingtonian story was published in 1983. The cover story in that issue 35 years ago featured homes of the stars: Don Regan, Meg Greenfield, Joseph Califano, Helen Thomas, James Watt, Ben Bradlee, George Shultz, Sam Donaldson, and Gary Hart.

Now big Washington is very liberal—Hillary Clinton got 94 percent of the DC vote in 2016. In Washington County, Virginia, where little Washington is located, Donald Trump got 75 percent of the 2016 vote.

There still are a lot of good people in both places.

As noted, Bill Mead’s description of Little Washington was written 35 years ago. A more up-to-date description from a fellow journalist: Little Washington has become pretty much a one-industry— the Inn at Little Washington—town. The Inn’s presence had gentrified everything within three blocks of it in any direction. If it were to go belly-up, it would leave a lot of antique and high-end knick-knack dealers high and dry.

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