Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Why Are Dems Left Hanging on Edge of “Fiscal Cliff”?

Dec 3, 2012

Why Are Dems Left Hanging on Edge of “Fiscal Cliff”?


How the Dems could win the fiscal cliff debate: mobilize for the moral equivalent of war. Credit: Flickr/Library of Congress/StockMonkey.com/HNN staff.

Where’s that surge of public outrage that’s supposed to force the Republicans to surrender in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations? The Democrats are still waiting for it ... and waiting ... and waiting, while they teeter on the edge of the cliff.

The Dems are so busy scrutinizing the polls, they forgot to notice the impact of the little word “cliff.” Sure, it’s just a metaphor. But every metaphor tells a story. And the stories we tell (or, more commonly, take for granted, without ever spelling them out) shape the way we view things, which in turn determines the policies we’ll adopt or reject and the way we’ll live our lives.

Any story about a “cliff” is simple: We are safe now, with our feet planted firmly on solid ground. The whole broad earth supports us. But if we take one more step in the direction we’re currently heading it will be an apocalyptic step. Suddenly we’ll be plunging down through the abyss toward certain destruction, helpless to save ourselves. If we step in any other direction we will remain securely on solid ground; we’ll escape the apocalypse.

The story of the “fiscal cliff” is more complicated because the public is getting so much conflicting advice about which direction is safe and which is the truly dangerous one. When you are standing on the edge of the precipice, with so many voices yelling “Go this way!” -- “No, that way! -- “No, the other way!” -- what’s the sensible thing to do? Don’t move at all. At least that way you know you are safe.

And sensible reasoning is reinforced by emotion. When we’re confused and in mortal danger our “fight or flight” response can easily get paralyzed. We freeze; play dead. It’s a primal response, the psychologists say, from deep inside the reptilian brain. 

When people are too afraid to move, they see all images of change as images of danger. Inertia carries them on in the direction they’ve been going. It seems like the safest direction because it requires no new decisions. Conserving the status quo feels like the most comforting path.

In short, when apocalypse looms and it’s not clear how to prevent it, people are likely to become more conservative. So if the Democrats want dynamic movement -- a surge of public support for innovative new policies to reduce economic inequality -- “cliff” may be exactly the wrong metaphor. 

“Cliff” may also be the wrong metaphor if you want a story that actually fits the facts, as two reports in the New York Times explain: “America’s fiscal condition will be altered without a deal between President Obama and the Republicans in Congress. But not radically so, and in many cases not immediately.”

“Policy and economic analysts … said the term ‘fiscal hill’ or ‘fiscal slope’ might be more apt: the effect would be powerful but gradual, and in some cases, reversible.” “The slope would likely be relatively modest at first,” according to Chad Stone, the chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

So why do the Dems ignore more appropriate metaphors and go along with the popular metaphor of the “fiscal cliff”?

For the same reason Republicans embrace the “cliff” image, says Washington Post wonk Ezra Klein: “Legislators from both parties have concluded that crises are the only impetus to get anything -- and thus the opportunity to get everything -- done.”

That may well be true in the back rooms of DC, where there’s little sense of urgency and some confidence that a final deal will surely be cut. But outside the beltway, crisis is more likely to breed conservatism.

Except, perhaps, when we go to war. Historian Michael Sherry has shown that the most effective impetus to get anything done in American political life is to convince the public that we’re living “in the shadow of war.” Then we have a feeling of apocalyptic crisis, since Americans have always tended to talk about their wars in apocalyptic terms, as if the only alternative to victory were the demise of the nation.

But when war breaks out we also have a clear consensus on how to respond. We don’t freeze. We band together and mobilize to fight back.

The enemy need not be a foreign foe. Sherry offered copious examples of domestic societal problems framed as wars as far back as the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt often proclaimed that fighting the Great Depression was much the same as fighting the Germans in World War I. During FDR’s first term, there was widespread agreement that the New Deal was the best way to resist the enemy of a broken economy. So the nation mobilized to fight back.

However the New Deal teaches another lesson about the “war” metaphor: It triggers a dynamic common effort for apocalyptic victory -- at first. But war also breeds apocalyptic fear, which sooner or later creates a more conservative mood, at least on the domestic policy front. That was clear by the middle of FDR’s second term. Both world wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the post-9/11 response all produced similarly conservative reactions on domestic issues.

In any case, this isn’t the ‘30s redux. The “fiscal cliff” is not a war metaphor. The only “war” triggered by our current economic problems is the one between the Democrats and Republicans about what to do as we teeter on the “cliff.” So talk of a “fiscal cliff” doesn’t unite the nation and set it moving in a clear direction, as war metaphors do. The political warfare only heightens the confusion and, therefore, the conservative impulse.

It’s worth wondering how the Dems would have fared if they had refused the “cliff” metaphor and opted instead for “war.” If we can have wars on cancer or poverty, for example, why not a similar war against “special privileges” or “to save the middle class”?

Those obviously metaphorical “wars” on the domestic front don’t usually generate apocalyptic fear the way actual military conflict does. Perhaps the “war” metaphor might have mobilized the kind of support the Democrats had hoped for.  

We’ll never know. For better or worse the Democrats are content to leave us, and themselves, hanging on the edge of a “cliff.”

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