The Power of Political Narrative

One of the frustrating things about the debt ceiling debate has been dealing with the competing narratives spun by those supporting the various positions.  It isn't that these narratives are necessarily wrong, but that the people offering them present them with the confidence of someone describing settled history, rather than one possible way (and often far from the most likely way) that events could play out.

A lot of conservatives describe a potential shutdown or default as if it were ripped straight from the pages of Atlas Shrugged.  Their explanation of why we need to precipitate a crisis is that it's going to happen eventually, and so better now than later.

The logic of this is dubious--we're all going to die eventually, but that doesn't mean I'm eager to hasten the day. As Dave Ramsey says, you don't declare bankruptcy until the bailiffs are at the door: as long as you haven't defaulted, you preserve the important option not to default.

But leave that aside.  The problem is really with the larger narrative, in which there is no option but to slash spending, and readjust to a newer, much smaller government.  But of course, we will not have a friendly author writing the script here.  The villians do not have to meekly submit to the comeuppance delivered by our steely-willed heroes.  When the government shuts down, the voters will not immediately turn to figuring out how to make a living without their social security and disability checks.  They will mob their representatives. In the face of this, the steely will of the GOP freshman may turn out to be artfully folded tinfoil.  Or the beseiged old guard may cross the floor to cut a deal with Democrats.  At last resort, the voters will remove the guys who took away their goodies with no notice.  Once the tea party has had their ass handed to them at the polls, borrowing and spending resume, albeit at a higher price.  But since the Democrats will be firmly in charge, there's a good chance that higher price is paid with tax cuts, not less spending.

The problem with the narrative is that it simply writes the people on the other side out as independent actors.  They're characters in a drama--a drama that we know the hero wins, because after all, he's the hero.  So it only remains to figure out exactly how we get the hero to victory.  If you assume that there must be some way for the hero to win and slash spending to 1920 levels, then of course, I'm just an obstructionist sellout.  But if you acknowledge the possibility that this might not actually be possible in a representative democracy filled with motivated voters who are more numerous than the Neo-Coolidge faction, then a whole universe of caveats opens up.

Even if you don't think these events are the most likely outcome, you have to acknowledge that there's a significant risk.  But when I pointed out this risk, I wasn't met with compelling counterarguments.  I was met with handwaving so fast that it began to mimic the sound of crickets.  Or a reiteration that the current path is unsustainable, and what was my plan for fixing it?

This doesn't actually rebut the point: your plan can fail spectacularly even if my plan is no better than the current status quo.  I happen to think that my plan--a decade long series of negotiations which will end up with higher taxes and lower spending, and hopefully a welfare state reconfigured to focus on the truly needy--is better than the status quo.  But it seems much better than pointlessly shooting up the joint before you get thrown out.

Now, because this a Megan McArdle post, I must point out that the tea partiers are not the only ones getting swept away by the power of their narratives. The left are not, of course, taking their cues from Atlas Shrugged.  Instead they appear to think that we are in a particularly gripping season finale of the West Wing, where steely counterbrinksmanship forces moderate Republicans in the House to join with the Democrats to enact a bill more to their liking.

Note the similarity in the base narrative to the Tea Party story: catastrophe has already happened (confidence in the US political system/our fiscal balance has already been destroyed), and the only thing that can avert total disaster is the courage to stand strong in the face of our nation's enemies.  They're not risking our credit rating by throwing a tantrum rather than accept that they can't have what they want; they're saving the country from something even worse.  We'll thank them later.

And what happens if they're wrong, and the GOP is maybe a little mad that Democrats left them hanging out to dry? What if they don't cross the floor to make a deal on terms more favorable to the Democrats, but decide that as long as they're going down, the jerks who sold them out might as well go down with them?  Or what if they decide the same thing that Krugman and Judis are trying to convince the Democrats of: that it would be better to shut the government down than sign a deal that utterly violates their beliefs about what's right for the country?  In other words, what if the GOP old guard start acting like the freshmen and the progressive Democrats?

Crickets again.  That's not in the script.  In the script, Martin Sheen gives a stirring speech, and shamed GOP freshmen join Benedictine monastaries in order to hide from an outraged public.

Maybe you find these narratives more plausible than I do--but no one who has been reading something besides his own side's press releases could possibly think that they were certain.  And the risks are huge--far greater than the potential gains.

This isn't a novel.  It's messy, unpleasant reality.  But the activists on both sides do not seem to be living in the same world that I am.