The Devil Is in the “Debt”

red inkIt’s a trite cliché to say that on Election Day the economy trumps everything else. In 1932, for example, the incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover never had a chance. Yet when the Democrats gathered for their national convention that year — with the nation at the deepest point of its worst depression ever; with unemployment running at least 25%; with Hoover an easy target to blame for economic woes — what issue dominated the convention? Not “the economy, stupid.” No, it was the fight over the prohibition of alcohol.

When Republicans and Democrats gathered at the White House in 2011 to prevent a government shutdown — with the nation suffering its longest economic downturn since the 1930s; with the federal debt rising to heights that seemed dangerous to many — what issued dominated the debate? Not the level of federal expenditures, but abortion, at least by many accounts.

When Republicans gather for their national convention in 2012, they’ll have to decide whether to imitate the Democrats of 1932 and focus on social issues — which are, to so many, issues of sin — or on the dollars and cents of the debt.

Or they might follow the lead of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and declare that the two are inseparable sides of the same coin because “America works, freedom works, when people have that internal gyroscope that comes from a belief in God and biblical faith. Once we push that out, you no longer have the capacity to live as a free person without the external controls of an authoritarian government.”

The GOP isn’t likely to make DeMint’s view the center of its platform. Putting a spotlight on social issues poses more political risk than it’s worth, as the shutdown-averting negotiations showed. Better to stick with “the debt” (aka “the deficit,” though they’re not really the same thing). That’s a more politically popular candidate to play the role of the great evil facing our nation.

This does not mean we can expect a hard-headed logical debate on the economic pros and cons of federal debts and deficits.  If we had such a debate, we’d hear a vast spectrum of experts supporting any and every view of the debt, from dire peril to relatively harmless to economic boon.

Each expert may insist that his or her view is the only one that could possibly be accurate and reasonable. Such claims are an occupational hazard of academia. To outsiders (as most of us are) the only logical conclusion is that no really one knows for sure what the long-term effects of growing federal debt might be. Perhaps it’s such a chaotic field, filled with so many variables, that no one can ever know.

But there’s no place for such uncertainty in politics. Those who hesitate to claim the mantle of truth are lost. Moreover, there’s little place for careful academic analysis in politics (which is why the difference between debt and deficit is so easily ignored). It’s not truth proven by facts and reason that most voters want.

From long before 1932 up through today, and on into 2012 no doubt, the lesson of history is that voters are more moved by images, symbols, and narratives — the stuff of myth — than by facts and logical analyses. Even in hard times, when the economy is issue number one, it takes myth to generate the emotional charge that wins elections — which is precisely why the federal debt has become the hot issue of the day.

Whether it’s prohibition, abortion, or debt reduction, the plot of the story remains the same: good against evil. And the evil, in each case, is easily transformed into the devil. It’s not just a simple matter of adding that little “d.” These particular evils all symbolize an essential quality of the devil: profligate indulgence, whether it be in drinking, screwing, or spending.

Or, to put it the other way around, all these evils symbolize a perverse unwillingness to accept the voluntary restraint that is said to make civilized order possible. Throughout American history, conservatives have cast the lack of self-restraint as the great evil bedeviling the nation.

Of course there have been foreign evils too. But the two modes of evil have traditionally been linked. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, warned that if we wanted to contain communism — an evil bent on extending its red sea endlessly, unless we kept the containing dikes firm — we also had to contain the military-industrial complex at home. Another Republican, George W. Bush, warned us of mass-murdering terrorists both abroad and at home.  Now a Democratic president warns us that we face the danger of losing world supremacy to China if we do not restrain the federal debt at home.

Whether the foe is foreign or domestic or (most commonly) an intertwining of the two, the foe easily takes on the guise of the devil when it symbolizes unchecked, irrational excess. The passion for debt-reduction has grown so strong because it is today’s most viable mythic symbol of that diabolical foe.

I first understood this when I read “Voter Disgust Isn’t Only About Issues,” a piece in the New York Times by Matt Bai, the mass media’s most perceptive political journalist.  He reported on a focus group of working-class independents talking about the state of the union: “The dominant theme of the discussion, in which jobs and taxes came up only in passing, seemed to be the larger breakdown of civil society — the disappearance of common courtesy, the relentless stream of data from digital devices, the proliferation of lawsuits and the insidious influence of media on their children. The economy was discussed mostly in connection with these other stresses.”

People feel that society is crumbling around them, that they are losing or have already lost control of their lives and their country. It’s a theme we hear a lot in reporting on the Tea Party, whose newly-elected representatives in Congress complain that social issues distract them from their laser-like focus on the dangers of “big government.”  But those Congressional neophytes are merely insisting on substituting a new symbol of chaos for an old one.

Whether it’s government spending, sexual desire, or digital data, the problem on the right is always a seemingly uncontrollable flood of something or other. People once knew how to restrain such dangerous floods, conservatives assume, which is (apparently) why common courtesy once (supposedly) prevailed. Now the floodgates are down and anything goes, which means everything goes: government solvency, traditional social norms, all the structures that were once (it’s fondly imagined) so reassuring.

Now it’s the myth that is reassuring: the narrative of virtuous people, who understand the need for restraint, determined to impose it on the profligates who have unleashed the chaotic floods upon us.

ira chernusFor those who see politics as the recitation and enactment of myths, the devil is not in the details of bargaining and bickering over dollars and cents. The devil is in the mythic images of “the debt” (aka “deficit,” because in myth the same character can have many names). To prove the truth of this myth, you don’t need economists. Indeed, they just get in the way with all their complicated numbers and theories and contradictory claims. You only need an endless flow of conservative rhetoric.

For now, at least, the myth of debt-reduction is the torrent flooding our public square, sweeping all other issues before it. How long it will last, nobody knows. The only lesson history provides is that sooner or later some other mythic symbol will come along to replace “the debt” as the great evil which must be defeated if America is to survive.

Ira Chernus
History News Network

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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