I’ll confess: I was following the “fiscal cliff” story. One of my Twitter followers worried that it was going to drive me nearly mad, like the debt ceiling drama of 2011, but it was a different sort of thing — in this case, I was anticipating a kind of perverse glee if they did wind up going “over the cliff.” Now it appears that they are reaching a last-minute deal that involves setting up the conditions for a couple more last-minute deals (over spending cuts, the debt ceiling, and a potential government shutdown).
What information have I gained from following this story as it developed, rather than simply waiting until they reached a final agreement and noting what was in it? I’m going to venture to say that the time involved has been essentially a total loss. Not only have I been entertaining pure hypotheticals, almost none of which correspond closely to the actual deal (which, admittedly, may still wind up getting torpedoed in the House), but those hypotheticals themselves were likely based on purposefully misleading information “leaked” to, and then credulously reported by, what may be the laziest press corps in history. Those reports were in turn almost completely devoid of any analysis of the concrete consequences of any of the deals in question — instead, it was almost all limited to the level of political “inside baseball” or personality-centered concerns.
Following stories like this is basically an open invitation to be misled and manipulated, with no gain whatsoever in knowledge or insight. Hence I propose we all resolve to refuse to follow this type of story going forward. On the spending cuts, they will make a deal or they won’t, and we can look at the final proposal when and if it happens. Similarly on the debt ceiling — a lot of people will grandstand for a while, and then we’ll either default or (vastly more likely) we won’t. In short, we should resolve not to follow any purported “news story” that doesn’t involve any actual events.
The interesting question is why these negotiations are pantomimed in the public sphere of the media. What political function do such stories perform? Perhaps Agamben’s analysis of “public opinion” in terms of “glory” is helpful — perhaps we really do read the newspaper in place of saying our prayers, perhaps following news stories (and going through the sit-stand-kneel of outrage) is our contemporary liturgy. We all pause periodically in our daily work to simply pay attention to our ruling class (or actually their designated representatives, the actual rulers never directly appearing as such), to invest libidinal energy in it. I feel aggrieved at Obama for giving up too much, but the more important thing is that I feel involved and invested in what Obama does. I argue with my fellow citizens about it, passionately — even though none of us can affect it in any way. I develop in-jokes that help me bond with the like-minded by mocking the “other side” in this titanic struggle.
And at the end of the day, when the real crisis moment comes, the vote isn’t even close. The tax deal passed the Senate with nearly 90 votes, no fillibusters, no nonsense. TARP passed 75-25 in the Senate and 263 to 171 in the House. The Patriot Act passed the House 357 to 66 and the Senate 98 to 1 (the only dissenter by Russ Feingold, a recent Tea Party casualty). The Authorization to Use Military Force against Terrorists passed the House with 420 votes and the Senate with 98. The Authorization to Use Military Force against Iraq passed the House 297 to 133 and the Senate 77 to 23. Etc., etc., etc.