Politics – same pitch, different day

Joffe, Josef (2013-11-04). The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies

Quite possibly the best debunking of the misuse of statistics and political rhetoric I’ve ever read. For anyone who laments the loss of bipartisan cooperation in America, and the rise of shrill extremism, this is a must read. I’m just going to include a little excerpt from the book here rather than carry on with my own opinion:

Actually, “the sky is falling” should not be a very lucrative pitch. Such alarms stoke fear and panic; why invest in the future if the clock is running down? But the message has worked wonders since time immemorial because doom, in biblical as well as political prophecy, always comes with a shiny flip side, which is redemption. Darkness is the prelude to dawn. The gloomy forecast reviles past and present in order to promise the brightest of futures. Start with fire and brimstone, then jump to grace and deliverance in the here and now. Listen to Jeremiah as he thunders, “Turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; then you will live in the [promised] land.” Jeremiah may have been the father of modern campaign politics.

Preachers and politicos take naturally to this one-two punch because ruin followed by renewal is the oldest narrative in the mental data bank of mankind. The device is even older than the verdict of doom— the Mene, Tekel on the palace wall— revealed by Daniel. Start with the Flood, a universal theme played out over four chapters in Genesis, but found much earlier in Sumerian and Babylonian myth, as related in the Gilgamesh Epic dated 2700 BCE. Genesis, written in the fifth or sixth century BCE, expands and embellishes the original. It relates how “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” So He decides to “blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, for I am grieved that I have made them.” The end is nigh, but don’t despair. Mankind will be spared after all, because the Lord selects Noah, who has “found favor in His eyes,” and commands him to build an ark that will save mankind.

So after death by Deluge, it will be rebirth for the righteous led by an ordinary mortal who knows the future, and how to act on it. This story never ends. The Children of Israel were punished for the Golden Calf, the idol that embodied a wicked past, with forty years in the wilderness. Yet if true to the Law and to God’s messenger Moses, they will be rewarded with the Promised Land. As the Resurrection follows the Crucifixion, so misery will segue into salvation, but there has to be a leader, spiritual or political, to show the way: Moses or Jesus, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Barack (“ Yes, we can”) Obama. The pairing of doom and deliverance defines the eternal archetype.

In all these narratives, ruin is the means, and rescue the end. Terror is the teaching device that will change the course of history. For all his tirades, every Jeremiah actually wants to be disproved by making his errant flock atone and amend. “Declinism is a theory that has to be believed to be invalidated,” explains Samuel Huntington. It is the opposite of the familiar “self-fulfilling prophecy,” a term coined by the sociologist Robert Merton. The alarm starts out with a “false definition of the situation” and then triggers “new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true.’ ” To predict a bank failure is to unleash a run that will actually cause the collapse.

Declinism markets a “self-defeating prophecy.” Since these predictions deal with humans, and not planets or protozoans, they are designed to trigger reactions that lift the curse. Merton puts it thus: Evil does not come true “precisely because the prediction has become a new element” that changes the “initial course of developments.” So to foretell is to forestall— that is the very purpose of Declinism. Take the “impending exhaustion of natural resources” from Malthus to the Club of Rome, which foresaw the end of global growth some forty years ago, especially because of dwindling oil reserves. Myriad changes in behavior— from conservation to exploration— followed, causing oil gluts on the market in the 1980s and a gas glut in the 2010s. The world economy grew twentyfold in this period (nominally). Would that all catastrophes had such a short shelf life!

None of America’s Declinists over the past half century, as presented in the preceding chapter, actually wanted the country to suffer its foreordained fate. The prophecy is designed to be self-defeating, and the structure of augury is always the same: This will happen unless . . . Holding up another nation as a model is to correct one’s own, not to condemn it— from the Sputnik Shock of the 1950s to Obama’s “Sputnik moment” in the 2010s. To praise others is to prod America. Russia, Europe, Japan, et al. will overtake us, unless we labor hard to change our self-inflicted destiny. The basic diagnosis remains constant; only the prescription will vary according to the ideological preferences of the seer.

In politics, “the sky is falling” has yet another purpose. It is no accident that the figure of the prophet, in the legend or on the stump, stands at the center of the narrative. We have to believe in the messenger so that he can rise above us and guide us to a better tomorrow. Hence dramatization and exaggeration, fibbing or even outright falsehood, are part and parcel of the prophecy. To hype is to win. Never mind that the Missile Gap and the Window of Vulnerability were mere myths. Expediency beats veracity in campaigning and sermonizing. And so, hyperbole paves the road from the vale of tears— or to the White House. “Follow me, and ye shall be saved!” is the eternal message. Or in Kennedy’s words, borrowed from Churchill, “Come then— let us to the task, to the battle and the toil. . . .”

Prophet or politico, the strategy is to paint the nation in hellish colors and then to offer oneself as a guide to heaven. The country is on the skids, but tomorrow it will rise again— if only you, the people, will anoint me as your leader. It worked for both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who rode all the way to the White House on nonexisting Soviet missiles. Shakespeare wrote the original script. To “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” was Henry IV’s advice to his son and successor. The democratic equivalent is to scare up votes with foreign threats. After the election, dawn always follows doom— as when Kennedy called out, “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear that had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again, twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted, “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back” and again on top. Collapse was yesterday, today it is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why Declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration— and wilts quickly after victory.

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