Solidarity poster from Poland in 1989 -- an effective use of the "showdown" myth in politics. Credit: Wiki Commons.
Progressive groups are trying to rally their troops to stop any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They may wish they could turn out crowds large and noisy enough to make a media splash, the way the Tea Party did a couple of years ago. But their troops are all volunteers, and as far as I can tell not enough of them are showing up for duty to make that media splash.
Barack Obama and his ax-wielding budget aides will draw the obvious conclusion: Most people say they oppose cuts to the big three “entitlements.” But they don’t care strongly enough to make any noise about it. Mostly what they want is to stop hearing about the dangers of the “fiscal cliff.”
So Democrats can make cuts to the big three, satisfy the Republicans, end the “fiscal cliff” crisis, and pay a very small political price. In fact the Dems will probably come out with a higher rating in the polls because they’ll show that they can “make Washington work.”
That’s probably what’s going to happen in the next few weeks, unless some progressive crowds get out there with Tea-Party-like enthusiasm and start screaming “No! Stop!”?
Why aren’t they out there yet? One reason, I’ve suggested, is that progressives have not challenged the metaphor that everyone uses to describe the situation: We’re headed for a “cliff.” Every metaphor tells a story. And the stories we tell shape the way we view things, which in turn determines the policies we’ll adopt or reject.
The story of the “cliff” tells us that apocalyptic peril looms ahead. We’re all in this together, and if we take one more step in the wrong direction we’re doomed. But we don’t have any consensus on which direction is the right one. Most people, facing that kind of threat, are afraid to take a step in any direction. So they just stand still, cling to the status quo, and turn more conservative.
Recently I learned that there are some progressives who understand the power of metaphor. I met some folks who are organizing to save Medicaid. They certainly want Medicare and Social Security protected too. And they’re not talking about any “cliff.” They are talking about the “fiscal showdown.”
All of a sudden the whole situation looked different to me. It’s not all of us together rushing toward a precipice, trying frantically to figure out where to direct our collective steps, constantly bumping into each other -- and sometimes trampling each other -- in our panic. If it were, we’d have good reason to feel paralyzed, afraid to move at all.
No, the “showdown” metaphor gives us two clearly defined groups -- good guys and bad guys -- facing each other in a fight to the finish. We each get to choose which side is good and which is bad. But once we’ve made the choice, we get to stand with the good guys and join in the fight. We get to take action.
Once the good guys defeat the bad guys, the people who have been blocking progress toward a better life for all are gone. The way is clear to make all sorts of improvements for our society and everyone in it.
Sure, for progressives that’s a fantasy. Even if the Republicans go down to terrible defeat in this round of negotiations (which is hardly likely, given their majority in the House), they’ll bounce right back and start trying to force some other horrible new policies on us.
But imagine if all the headlines were about the “fiscal showdown,” not the “fiscal cliff.” “Showdown” is an energizing fantasy. It creates a feeling that we can eventually “clean up this town, make it a decent place where fine folks will want to raise their families.” I think I heard that in a movie or two, or actually a few dozen.
The film history of the “showdown” -- with its familiar mantra, “draw, podner” -- reminds us that this metaphor is classic Americana. The good guy is the all-American kid. Whatever virtues he represents are, by definition, all-American virtues. And he’s expected to win an unconditional victory over the bad guy. At the OK Corral or anywhere else, the “showdown” has a fine patriotic pedigree.
If progressives go out into the street for a “fiscal showdown,” they’re acting out a traditional American drama. In a strange way that makes them more appealing to the rest of the public, even to the most conservative among us.
On the other hand, if we are hurtling toward the cliff the best we can hope for is to avoid disaster at the last minute. The only film prototype I can think of is James Dean as the Rebel Without a Cause. That’s hardly an appealing image if progressives hope to get their message beyond their already rebellious circles.
Those of us who are committed to nonviolence may not feel very comfortable with the traditional American “showdown” metaphor, since it’s so loaded with overtones of violent death. But we don’t shrink from confrontation any more than Gandhi or Dr. King did. The “showdown” we want isn’t between two groups of people. It’s between two sets of policies, each with its underlying values and mythic narratives.
When we support more funding for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and all the government’s other human service programs, we are going out to fight for a society where we are all interconnected; all threads in a single garment of destiny; each caring deeply for and feeling responsible for the well-being of all others. We are fighting against a rampant, uncaring individualism built on greed and selfishness.
That’s what this fight is really about. And when you bring it down to that level of basic values, it’s hard to see how anyone can advocate compromise. Because if greedy individualism wins, we all lose -- even the richest among us, though they don’t know it yet. So the only way to avoid sending our society over the moral as well as fiscal cliff is to make sure progressives win this showdown.
And here in America, the traditional place for a showdown is in the street, out in public, where everyone can see the victory of right over wrong.