I've been thinking about it steadily since a friend said it a week ago. "I know it sounds far-out, but I think they're blackmailing Obama. I think they took him aside right after the election and said that if he wanted his family to live out his term, he'd better toe the line."
My friend doesn't have many illusions about the moral stature of politicians. During the 2008 presidential campaign, she responded to upwellings of enthusiasm with the voice of caution: after all, what could one man do? A few years later, even someone so skeptical of electoral politics finds it more—what? plausible? bearable?—that the President is being coerced than that he has chosen the path of appeasement grounded in cynical realpolitik.
We talk about the culture of politics or theater of politics as if deploying metaphors. But that is a huge understatement. The budget drama being enacted in Congress is at its core and essence theater: a national performance of symbolic speech designed to generate emotional responses so powerful they obscure the falsity of the enterprise. Its scope is epic; and its credibility—at least to this critic—appalling. Indeed, the absurdity of our actual existing national political culture is so mind-bending, that even the skeptical are driven to seek alternate plotlines. Conspiracy theories beggar credulity slightly less than does reality.
Another friend asked me a few days ago what I thought of the debt ceiling battle. I said that oddly enough, I found myself aligned with zillionaire Warren Buffett on this one: "“All it does is slow down a process and divert people’s energy, causes people to posture. It doesn’t really make any sense,” he told Politico.com. He pointed out that “The debt limit has “changed almost 100 times over the years” and “I think seven times in the Bush administration.”
"Well, yes," my friend said, "but that's not the way the media is framing the issue. What do you think of the plans?"
I think this: that the federal government wastes vast sums of taxpayers' money subsidizing war, tax breaks for the wealthiest, energy-corporation and Wall Street profits, and other investments in enriching special interests that have nothing to do with democratic public purpose. I think that there's a tacit agreement across party lines to keep the bulk of these bad policies off the negotiating table (since most big campaign donors have a stake in preserving them), and instead, to enact preset parts in a symbolic battle over funding for social programs, as if that could ever rescue an economy that is spiraling down due to insufficient public investment in jobs and infrastructure. I think the commercial media love this long-running drama because it has the angels and demons, the battle scenes, the inside-baseball background, and the trumped-up urgency that make for exciting television.
Think I'm exaggerating? How about the moderate voice of old Washington hand Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review?
The President argued that it’s critical to make cuts that will “get our fiscal house in order,” so that the American people and the politicians would accept the idea of new programs leading to growth and more jobs. But there are numerous indications that the public is ready for such programs now, and serious analysts see no reason why he should not also be taking such steps now, even if this increases the deficit in the short run. But that would be at odds with Obama’s current self-portrayal. People who are looking for work, or worried about their unemployment insurance, or getting their kids to college, may not be impressed with the argument that they must be patient while the President adjusts his fiscal image in time for the 2012 election.
The Republicans are behaving with bad faith, ill grace, and criminal disregard for the impact of their actions, to be sure. But where is the countervailing force?
Think I'm exaggerating? How about Washington Post writer Greg Sargent's characterization, on the eve of the debt deal, that
…[I]t apppears the GOP is on the verge of pulling off a political victory that may be unprecedented in American history. Republicans may succeed in using the threat of a potential outcome that they themselves acknowledged would lead to national catastrophe as leverage to extract enormous concessions from Democrats, without giving up anything of any significance in return.
Our attention is being powerfully drawn to a pernicious piece of political theater not of our own making, further damaging the culture of democracy.
Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase "panem et circenses" (bread and circuses) to describe the debased currency of that moribund democracy:
… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses… (Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81)
Think I'm exaggerating? Check out Al Gore's take on how special interests "call the tune."
The potential silver lining is that we are not too far gone to notice what is happening. Consider the recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center Poll on the budget negotiations:
Asked for single-word characterizations of the budget negotiations, the top words in the poll — conducted in the days before an apparent deal was struck — were “ridiculous,” “disgusting” and “stupid.” Overall, nearly three-quarters of Americans offered a negative word; just 2 percent had anything nice to say. “Ridiculous” was the most frequently mentioned word among Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.
Everyone I've cited in this essay is liberal, to be sure, and also about as mainstream as you can get: I don't want to be vulnerable to accusations of exaggeration. I'm hoping that my message will come through without too much interference. To me, it comes down to four main points:
- It's only a play. Don't get swept up. You don't have to accept the mise-en-scene as it's constructed by the producers. Instead of being mesmerized by the mainstage action, look behind the curtain to perceive the real-world consequences.
- Don't watch too much TV news or spend too much time in other media on the inside-baseball story of budget negotiations. Think instead about whatever you can do to achieve perspective and the kind of equanimity that equips us for constructive purpose. Instead of wasting mental space and time on this charade, do that.
- Pick your own way of taking public exception to our national theater of the absurd. Let people know you aren't buying it. There are plenty of ways to take action. Right now, I like the "Contract for The American Dream" project, which has brought MoveOn.org, TrueMajority.org, ColorofChange.org and dozens of others into alignment.
- Keep hitting hard on the many clear, practical, feasible ideas for rebuilding the economy and getting out of debt. Rep. Dennis Kucinich spells out eight of them in a single minute. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has developed a groundbreaking People's Budget, described here by the co-chair, Rep. Keith Ellison.
I can't think of a better soundtrack to this story than "Revenge" by Danger Mouse And Sparklehorse, limning the consequences of the politics of spite that animated the Republicans' successful blackmail strategy and sent the Democrats scurrying:
No you can't hide
What you intend
It glows in the dark
Once we've become
The thing we dread
There's no way to stop
And the more I try to hurt you
The more it backfires
The more it backfires
The more that it backfires