I was talking the other day with a new member of the U.S. Senate, and conversation turned to what had surprised him most in his first months on Capitol Hill. He said it was the number of people who still don’t seem to understand that we’re in crisis, that if we don’t move now on spending, it could do us in.
I’m always surprised when I hear this, yet I’ve heard it a lot. “There’s no sense of urgency up here.”
There are many reasons for this, and some, but not all, are political. If you are from the deep left, if you’re on the leftward ridges of the Democratic Party, you believe in high spending, higher taxing and a more dominant role for the federal government. So you wouldn’t be alarmed at the current crisis, you’d be more or less happy: You’re sort of getting what you want. If you’re told entitlement spending will ultimately force severe cuts in America’s defenses, you might think, “Good, fewer guns, more butter.” Since you likely think America is a prime source of trouble in the world, you wouldn’t be too concerned that nations that hold our debt might come to exert influence on our foreign-policy choices. In the new and emerging global world, what’s so bad about a more bridled America?
But that’s just the deep left. What about everyone else? How could a regular moderate Democrat, or an experienced old Republican bull, not be alarmed at spending projections and their implications?
I think some of the answer has to do with what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call crisis-ism. This is a condition in which you don’t know you’re in crisis because you’re always in crisis, you’ve always been in crisis, and you’ve always gotten through, so what the heck. Crisis-ism is the inability to apprehend that this time it’s different, that this time the crisis is an actual crisis.
There are senators and congressmen who’ve been on the hill for 10 and 25 years, and from the day they walked in, all they heard about was the budget crisis. “This spending will kill us.” But it never did. So maybe it wasn’t so bad, and, ergo, isn’t so bad. They are inured to warning. You can tell them 10 different ways that we’re in crisis and they’ll think, “Some think-tank guy told me that 20 years ago, and we’re still here.”
* * *
Another reason for budget denialism is that everyone now in Congress lived through the greatest expansion of wealth in the history of man on earth. It happened here, in America, in the past 30 years. And we were rich even before that. But when you grow up in a time of constant expansion, when you grow up immersed in the assumption that we are rich and will always be rich, that we’re powerful and will always be powerful, you start to think that America can take any amount of damage and still continue. This is called optimism, but it is not optimism, it is Rich Boy Syndrome. A boy is lucky enough to be born to rich parents who are themselves the product of generations of wealth going back as far as the eye can see. But he never got into the habit of making money, never learned to respect it, and never felt protective of the system that allowed it to exist. So the money went away. Rich Boy Syndrome is thinking wealth will just continue no matter what you do. A lot of members of Congress have Rich Boy Syndrome. They think they can do anything and America will always be rich.
A final reason is simply human. It is really convenient and pleasant not to see a crisis, because if you don’t see it, you don’t have to do anything about it. You don’t have to be brave, you don’t have to put yourself on the line, you don’t have to lead. You can tell yourself you don’t have to be brave and lead because really, at the end of the day, despite all the screaming, there is no crisis.
* * *
I end with optimism, as why not. One ways to change minds about the current crisis is through information. We all know this, and we all know about the marvelous changes in technology that allow for the spreading of messages that are not necessarily popular with gatekeepers and establishments. But there’s something new happening in the realm of political communication that must be noted. Speeches are back. They have been rescued and restored as a political force by the Internet.
In the past quarter-century or so, the speech as a vehicle of sustained political argument was killed by television and radio. Rhetoric was reduced to the TV producer’s 10-second soundbite, the correspondent’s eight-second insert. The makers of speeches (even the ones capable of sustained argument) saw what was happening and promptly gave up. Why give your brain and soul to a serious, substantive statement when it will all be reduced to a snip of sound? They turned their speeches into soundbite after soundbite, applause line after applause line, and a great political tradition was traduced.
But the Internet is changing all that. It is restoring rhetoric as a force. When Gov. Mitch Daniels made his big speech—a serious, substantive one—two weeks ago, Drudge had the transcript and video up in a few hours. Gov. Chris Christie’s big speech was quickly on the net in its entirety. All the CPAC speeches were up. TED conference speeches are all over the net, as are people making speeches at town-hall meetings. I get links to full speeches every day in my inbox and you probably do too.
People in politics think it’s all Facebook and Twitter now, but it’s not. Not everything is fractured and in pieces, some things are becoming more whole. People hunger for serious, fleshed-out ideas about what is happening in our country. We all know it’s a pivotal time.
Look what happened a year ago to a Wisconsin businessman named Ron Johnson. He was thinking of running for the Senate against an incumbent, Democratic heavy-hitter Russ Feingold. He started making speeches talking about his conception of freedom. They were serious, sober, and not sound-bitey at all. A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Another said, “I have to agree with everything that guy said.” Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, “The reason I’m a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.” But the reason Mr. Sykes did it is that Mr. Johnson made a serious speech.
A funny thing about politicians is that they’re all obsessed with “messaging” and “breaking through” and “getting people to listen.” They’re convinced that some special kind of cleverness is needed, that some magical communications formula exists and can be harnessed if only discovered. They should settle down, survey the technological field and get serious. They should give pertinent, truthful, sophisticated and sober-minded speeches. Everyone will listen. They’ll be all over the interwebs.