Peter poked fun at Paul Krugman’s apocalyptic hand-wringing, but in fairness, the NYT economist is just following the tone set by the Democratic leadership. It’s not just Emanuel Cleaver talking about Satan sandwiches, although that’s fairly risible given the liberal smirks that arise whenever conservatives claim to be guided by their faith. Explicit, actual, that’s-what-the-word-means apocalyptic announcements came from Rep. Pelosi herself, who quite literally described Democrats as being on a quest to “save the world from the Republican budget.”
What’s notable about Pelosi specifically is how easily she indulges in that sort of rhetoric, and how easily it fits into the rest of the Democrats’ campaigning. During the 2008 election, she declared choosing Obama over McCain was imperative because “we’ve got a planet to save [and] nothing less is at stake other than civilization as we know it.” It’s easy to laugh at the overwrought hyperbole – and by all means, do – but it’s also worth noting how well it lines up with what historian Richard Hofstadter identified as the paranoid style:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.
Conveniently, the paranoid style makes it much easier to explain away policy failures as somebody else’s fault. Anyone can obfuscate America’s unsustainable fiscal situation by blaming conservatives for conditioning the debt ceiling increase. But to really get citizens to pay attention you have to talk about “destroying rights” and “dictatorships” and “repealing the 20th century” and “terminating the American Dream” and “joining the villains of American history.” Whole political orders. It’s not for nothing Pelosi long ago linked conservative economic policies to House GOP members being “unpatriotic.”
Now in fairness, outlining politicians’ over-exuberant paranoia isn’t really a neat trick, even if in the Democrats’ case, it goes all the way to the top. In contemporary American political culture we have a paranoid right, a paranoid left and even a paranoid center. There’s also not that much to be gained by pointing out all sides engage in rhetorical excesses. Tea Party conservatives and national security conservatives and – as of recently – the far left all think the Obama administration is endangering something fundamental about American power and values. Sometimes those claims are tenable, sometimes less so. Certainly, the sheer magnitude of proposed defense cuts makes long-term decline a frightening and very real risk.
But there’s a difference between that and insisting the failure to service our debts for a couple of weeks – maybe – is the equivalent of rolling back time itself. Either Democrats thought they were fighting Batman villains or they’re not the reality-based Scholastics they keep telling the rest of us they are. So in the future, can we at least be spared the journalists and social scientists who insist liberals are just too darn rational for their own good?