Fear and loathing in the district of colUmbia
by Connor McInerney
As the saying goes “nothing can be certain except death and taxes.” But nowadays, we might as well tack on “and the absurd, ruthless news cycle” to the end of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote. Because that’s what the news cycle is – relentless, outrageous, exhausting and never-ending. And it’s certainly not stopping any time soon. It feels like we’re trapped in the Theatre of The Absurd, an avant-garde, illogical, nightmare world.
Whether it’s nuclear war threats while people are still wearing their Sunday best, or subpoenas and pardons on a Thursday afternoon, this constant, nonsensical bombardment of uncertainty has us all looking for an escape, except we can’t. It’s everywhere. Which is why, it seems, that we’re all taking a tip from yet another Franklin, Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, who allegedly left office saying, “there’s nothing left to do but get drunk.” All around America, it seems like the bars are fuller and everyone is a little bit drunker.
Now, imagine being in the thick of it. Imagine working in and around government, in the political epicenter of the United States, Washington D.C. How do you escape when it’s all around you, when you’re working in the same institutions that are morphing America into a country of the absurd? If the rest of the U.S. can’t get away from the news, what happens when maybe your job basically fuels and causes the political news stories themselves? How do you rid yourself of the fear and loathing discourse of your daily professional life? When there is no option to look away, how do you cope? If people in the rest of the country are drinking more, those in D.C. are ordering doubles.
However, despite finding themselves going out more as a consequence of our contemporary political climate, Washingtonians aren’t drinking themselves into depressive stupors or losing sight of a more optimistic future. Rather, D.C. professionals find themselves co-opting the heavy drinking lifestyle already present within their city as a common space for a necessary catharsis, impromptu forums for a meditation on the shared experience of being a living human in a world fueled by an incessant news cycle.
God knows, D.C. is by no means a dry city. In fact, it charts in at the second drunkest ‘state’ in the Union, and the over consumption of alcohol ‘cuts across all ideologies’ as a consequence of the District’s culture of work and ruthless careerism. Marijuana is legal as well, but because of the cultural stigma, government professionals would rather chug it down than spark it up.
Booze seems to be the social drug of choice in Washington, mostly because it’s legal, but also because anything else would probably be too much. It’s like in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “This is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.” The obsessive coverage of the current unpredictable administration is already quite a trip.
“I drink a lot more because of politics,” says Beth, who works at a mid-size nonprofit that works alongside the State Department. The reason and thought behind the drinking being, misery loves company. Regardless of your political party, no one can really escape the news, so let’s all grab a stool, belly up to the bar, and drink our proverbial pint of beer under the dark lights of a pub.
D.C.’s bars have morphed into therapeutic havens for government professionals. It’s ironic, government professionals are using alcohol as a way to withdrawal from their, and pretty much everyone’s, real addiction, which is the turmoil of the news itself.
“There’s definitely more solidarity in drinking, especially with my work friends,” states Paul, a former associate of the Clinton campaign who currently works for a civil rights advocacy group. “For example, we’ve had a really rough week at work and so my boss at 3:45 today just told everyone they could go home. And so in those moments, we all start taking out bottles of wine.”
Having an emergency stash under your desk is a little bleak, but maybe feeling a bit more necessary these days. This sentiment of politics and booze is something of a motif in political history. Alcohol and government professionals seemingly go hand-in-hand. Though, it’s hard to pinpoint a time when things were so bad that one needed an SOS wine desk drawer at work.
“It’s those moments where it’s like, wow! It’s been a really shitty week, but we’re all here together,” added Paul. And that’s true for all who work in politics, no matter the sector, and even, if not especially, the journalists and reporters who have to constantly break the news to the world themselves. Take the NY Daily News for example. When their Tronc overlords fired nearly 85% of their staff earlier this week, where did they all go? Straight to the bar.
Not long after the newly laid-off staff posted up at their local watering hole, fellow political news writers sent money via Venmo to cover bar tabs. Staffers at publications like Newsweek and the New York Post, among others, bought rounds and sent food delivery to their fellow brethren. In unpredictable, fear-inducing political times like these, all we have is each other, and buying someone a beer when they really need it can go a long way.
That being said, there are many who would rather avoid mixing politics and booze at the counter; particularly those who work in the service industry and whose livelihoods predate our contemporary political nightmare.
“Round the time of the election, I slapped up a big ol’ sign out back that says ‘No politics in front of the fucking bartender,’” adds Jack, a bartender in the booze-abiding Shaw neighborhood of D.C. “Which kind of worked. It also got a lot more people talking about politics to me. All good and well from a customer standpoint but when you’re at work for twelve, thirteen hours, it drives you crazy after a while.”
But even someone who maintains as diplomatic a position as Jack has a limit. For him, it boils down not so much to political affiliation, but rather to whether or not someone is, in his words, “an asshole.”
“The first time it became really noticeable was probably a couple days after the 2016 election, there was a bar crawl that happened to end up here. Bunch of young dudes wearing cutoff white dress shirts with ties on, and they were carrying around a boombox,” he says.
“The theme of the bar crawl was ‘we run this town now.’ Obviously, political affiliation is a protected class in DC, so we would never kick them out. Not everybody can be right. They were booted pretty quickly though, for being, well, assholes. That was the first moment it became clear things were getting real fucking weird in this town.”
There’s a shared perspective and through line for D.C.’s professionals that, while there may be discrepancy in ideology and background, social outlets can provide both a location for collaboration and place of support. While from a glance, a whole generation of Washington professionals getting sauced on a weekday may appear depressing, it has created a new cafe society for creative thinking and community.
“If I could dictate the general vibe of conversations I’ve had about this administration, it’s like, ‘Cool, we’re fucked. Cheers. Let’s move forward,’” said Pasha, a political professional working in D.C.
He's right. We’re all screwed when it comes to this administration. Some very much worse than others. But it's also true that this is history in the making. Which brings up another Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas quote, “History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash.”
And, essentially, that’s what we're all trying to avoid doing, coming to a head in a flash. Letting ourselves explode. So, if that means drinking more as a form of release from the shackles of the ridiculous and bizarre state of affairs that is America's new normal, that's okay. As long as you remember - beer before liquor, so you'll never be sicker.