Friday, July 25, 2014

The Great American Freak-Out

Ever since the BP gulf oil spill we've needed a name for how we tend to respond to immediate crises in this country. I'll nominate "The Great American Freak-Out" for the honor. But if you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it.

The general pattern goes something like this:
  1. The media airwaves are saturated with stories about the crisis.
  2. Conservatives scramble to find a way to cast it all as Obama's fault.
  3. Liberals wring their hands over the President's lack of decisive action.
  4. Pundits pontificate about whether or not this is "Obama's Katrina" and are convinced that this will be the one thing that dooms Obama/Democrats in the next election.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration keeps plugging away at analyzing the problem and working on ways to resolve it. But in the end no one notices what they've actually done because by then everyone's bored with it all and has moved on to the next Great American Freak-Out.

The Republicans have exploited this tendency in the media ever since the 2010 summer of "death panels" by creating hostage-taking and government shut-down crises. But when the media doesn't have a real crisis, they can do one of two things:
  1. Create their own - "the government is listening every phone call you make and reading every email you send," or
  2. Rely on those that the right wing conspiracists are always generating - Benghazi!, IRS, VA.
The impression this leaves low information voters is that the President has failed to address the crisis because they never hear the end of the story. This isn't just the media's fault. They feed the cycle, but we participate by chasing after every hysteria and getting bored with the nitty gritty of actual solutions. For example, congratulations to you if you are up to date on what is being done to resolve the backlog at the VA. I'm pretty sure they're not talking about that any more on CNN's Crossfire.
Years ago then-Senator Barack Obama acknowledged this problem. He didn't have a simple solution though.
The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job. After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart. It's easy to dismantle government safety nets; it's harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It's easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it's harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion. But that's our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
In other words, he suggested that we NOT join the freak-out. This is one of those places where he displays an almost unfathomable faith and trust in the American people. Because he thinks we are capable of this:
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.
That's the kind of thing that makes partisans "suck their teeth" (as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it) and the Very Serious People call the President "naive." My response to all of them would be to ask "What's the alternative?" A cynical selfish electorate addicted to freak-outs?

Even after all these years of being obstructed and maligned, President Obama still believes we're better than that. Here's what he said in Austin, TX a couple of weeks ago.
There are plenty of people who count on you getting cynical and count on you not getting involved so that you don’t vote, so you give up. And you can’t give into that. America is making progress, despite what the cynics say...

Cynicism is popular these days. It’s what passes off as wisdom. But cynics didn’t put a man on the moon. Cynics never won a war. Cynics didn’t cure a disease, or start a business, or feed a young mind. Cynicism didn’t bring about the right for women to vote, or the right for African Americans to be full citizens. Cynicism is a choice.

Hope is a better choice.
So I'll keep plugging away here in my little corner of the internet in the hope that people will forgo the freak-out and be interested in a conversation that "can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will."


  1. I agree with the President, hope is the better choice. Keep up the great work you are doing. You keep me sane. Thanks.

  2. Keep plugging away, Sp. We can only hope that at some point the click-bait gets boring and people start paying attention to elections: something that actually matters in their lives.

  3. I like the analysis. Not sure the Great American Freakout is that new. While the media has no time for solutions because solutions don't create ratings, I share the President's faith in the American people. After all, they re-elected the man, didn't they?


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