MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.
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Credit: Wiki Commons
As Congress and the administration went through their tortured post-election wrangling (or was it a dance?) over fiscal policy, Americans never seemed quite sure what mythic lens was best suited to viewing the proceedings.
Were we watching ourselves, all together, hurtling toward a cliff and trying desperately to avoid plunging over it? Or were we divided into two political and ideological camps, approaching a final showdown. I explored both the “cliff” and “showdown” metaphors in the run-up to the New Year’s denouement.
Now that a deal has been done and we can watch the public reaction through the news media, which mythic metaphor is the winner?
The many “Who won? Who lost?” evaluations seem to support the “showdown” view. The widespread view that this is merely round one, with more battles between the two parties sure to follow, also seems to give the nod to the “showdown” metaphor. Or perhaps, instead of a single showdown, we’ll start talking about a long, drawn-out "war."
But take a closer look. “Deal done, but Threats Remain; ‘Cliff’ deal averts economic disaster but hazards linger,” the headline article on the Washington Post website gravely warns us. USA Today titles its roundup of opinion, “'Fiscal cliff' deal doesn't bode well,” and the editors of that paper conclude that the deal sets “only resets the stage for the next suspenseful act.” (At least they understand that their job is to turn complex economic and political problems into dramatic stories.) The editorial page editor of the New York Times sums up the common view: “The Cliff is Dead. Long Live the Cliff.”
So we’ve actually ended up with a story that blends the two dominant metaphors. It tells us that we are still heading toward, or perhaps teetering on, the brink of a disastrous cliff, precisely because more showdowns between the two major parties lie ahead.
This isn’t a myth that Americans are very familiar with. The closest parallel might be the “government shutdown” deadlock of 1995, which led to two brief suspensions of many federal services. But few people are likely to recall that as a dreadful disaster; the immediate aftermath that’s best remembered is a spike in Bill Clinton’s popularity ratings.
Franklin D. Roosevelt tried his best in 1937 to depict a political showdown as a looming economic disaster for the nation. But his public showdown was principally with the Supreme Court, and only secondarily with conservatives (especially Democrats) in Congress. He lost both fights, and though the economy continued to struggle there was no precipitous decline (in part because the Supreme Court ended up approving a number of New Deal measure that FDR feared would be struck down).
Perhaps the closest historical analogy to the doomsayers’ view of the future would be the 1850s, when intractable political struggle split the nation apart. But that was not a struggle over economic policy (at least not in the public imagination). And the result was a temporary calamity resulting in long-term benefit to the nation, as far as most Americans are concerned.
So the idea that an ongoing political war over economic policies might truly bring national disaster has few if any roots in the soil of the American mythic imagination.
Of course the idea of living on the edge of disaster has powerful roots in modern American history in the realm of foreign affairs. During the early Cold War years Americans became accustomed to living on “the brink,” as it was commonly called, of nuclear war.
In 1956 Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained in Life Magazine that “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art" of Cold War diplomacy. Dulles left no doubt that he and the whole Eisenhower administration had mastered the art of brinksmanship. Historians still debate that claim vigorously.
But there’s little debate that during the Eisenhower era the myth of homeland insecurity -- the story of a nation living constantly on the brink of catastrophe, in what the president called “an age of peril” -- became “the new normal,” as a White House staffer put it. So Americans were afraid, but not terribly surprised, when Ike’s successor, John F. Kennedy, had to face the brink most directly during the Cuban missile crisis.
Nor should anyone have been surprised when the myth of homeland insecurity arose again with such power within hours after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. The sense of a nation living always on the brink, facing a constant threat of destruction, had indeed become “the new normal.” So -- again, no surprise -- Vice President Dick Cheney raised few eyebrows when he said that we’d have to get used to “the war on terror” as “the new normal” forever.
When it comes to national mythology, the lesson of the Cold War years was that domestic political showdowns come and go; they’re most commonly described as “squabbles.” But they’re all fought out under the shadow of permanent threat, in a nation teetering at the edge of extinction.
That lesson endures. So the showdown -- even if it is seen only as the first battle in a long war, the first act in a protracted drama -- will become merely a way to explain the most basic “fact”; that is to say, the winning myth: America is doomed to live on edge of the “fiscal cliff” for a long, long time. The New Year fiscal deal has confirmed the view so many already held: Our economic plight is now “the new normal.” We might call this the new normal myth.
As long as the “cliff” myth prevails, it will carry many of the same implications as the Cold War “brink.” When you are facing catastrophe your highest priority is to protect yourself and what you already have. It’s only logical to avoid making any major changes or even thinking about any substantial innovations. They’re simply too risky for people teetering on the edge of a cliff.
It's no wonder that this “showdown” was a drama acted out by extremely cautious people taking only the smallest, most cautious steps. Nor should we expect anything else in the future, as long as the “cliff” myth prevails.