The Endless Party of the Party-Master-in-Chief
The streets of New Orleans have grown quiet as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) has passed into Ash Wednesday. Theoretically, those revelers from Tuesday all woke, a bit bleary, on Wednesday and marched off to church to mark the beginning of Lent, a season of self-denial and penitence. In reality, we live in a culture that never wants the party to end, counting the days until St. Patrick's Day or Spring Break. It seems human nature that we should want the self-indulgence of Tuesday without the self-denial of Wednesday.
This endless-party mentality can be found writ large upon our world in a variety of settings. In Greece, angry people flooded the streets last week, protesting violently the imposition of austerity measures. These Greeks do not want the party to end. Their government spent money wildly, as if Wednesday would never come. Now the average Greek faces the brunt of the cleanup.
That same don't-stop-the-party feeling animated the debacle in Wisconsin's state capitol last year as thousands of public employees -- people who have enjoyed relatively high wages, extremely generous retirement benefits, and outstanding job security -- raged against Governor Scott Walker when he suggested that the party could not go on forever.
The federal government, meanwhile, parties on at the Green Energy Bash, dumping millions of dollars into Solyndra and its ilk, while increasing subsidies on a short-range electric car that nobody wants and that apparently bursts into flames in certain situations. Sure, a study in Spain discovered that for every "Green" job created, two non-green jobs were lost, but who cares? It's a party! At a party, you can ignore reality, close yourself off to the outside world, and pretend your worries away.
We find ourselves today divided into two camps, two parties, which do not completely match up with our two major political parties. On the one hand, we have the endless-Tuesday party. This group, when faced with unpleasant realities like debt and insolvency, simply opts to crank up the music and pretend there's nothing wrong. "Party on, dude!" they cry, channeling the intellectual depth of Bill and Ted. When, in rare sober moments, the Tuesday party does acknowledge that the endless reveling will leave a gigantic mess, they, rather than facing the unpleasant task of cleaning up their own vomit, try to pin that burden on someone else. They attach blame for all negative outcomes on Bush and fix all upcoming problems by taxing the "rich" (who are defined as "people who make more than I do"). The Tuesday crowd cannot be held accountable. After all, they're too busy partying.
The other group is the Wednesday's-coming party. Hardly the dour killjoys as which the Tuesday party would paint them, the Wednesday party enjoys a good time like anyone else. The difference is that the Wednesday party understands consequences. Mardi Gras, they realize, cannot go on forever. Eventually, all of the partiers would run out of cash, the parades would stop, the hotels and clubs would close, and the party would come to a rather unpleasant end. New Orleans recognizes that Mardi Gras can happen only if the partiers go home and work the rest of the year so that they can come back next time. The Wednesday party recognizes that there's a bill to be paid for every Tuesday.
Over recent months, we've witnessed prolonged debate regarding the extension of the payroll tax cut. While the Tuesday party argued that "ending the payroll tax cut would cost average Americans $2,000 a year," the Wednesday party recognized that all of those $2,000 payments will not be going into the national coffers, will not be helping to offset any of the profligate spending of our government, and will certainly hasten the date of insolvency for Social Security. But who cares? It's a party!
The same thing can be seen in periodic extensions of unemployment benefits or the lifting of the debt ceiling. The previous president threw what seemed like enormous parties, rich with earmarks and tax cuts. Then the current president proved Bush to be a party-throwing neophyte.
And lest we think that all the party animals dwell in government, we need only think back to such private-sector partiers as AIG or Citibank. When huge banks bought mortgages that they had to know were unsustainable, when appraisers inflated their numbers in order to keep the wheels turning, and when realtors pushed buyers into houses and financing that they could not afford, it was as if an entire sector of our economy had thrown an enormous rave with millions of willfully or genuinely ignorant partiers streaming in and hoping the music would never stop.
Given our national preference to keep the party going, is it any wonder that we elected a party-master-in-chief in Barack Obama? Think back to the scene in Grant Park after Obama won the election in 2008 or on the National Mall the following January. Certainly all election-winners have the right to a season of celebration, but those celebrations and many of the president's campaign events before and since had a different air -- as if, with Obama at the helm, the party would never end. "Hope" and "Change" might make us feel better than "Duty" and "Responsibility," but they don't pay for the party or clean up its aftermath. That's why the president is intent on the party never ending. But it will.
As Ash Wednesday dawned in New Orleans this year, some of those partiers did head off to church. Others took up the self-denial of the Lenten season in more secular ways -- cleaning up the streets, restocking stores, or simply returning to their jobs. These people recognize that life is about more than consumption and self-indulgence. Such a Wednesday makes Tuesday's fun all the more meaningful.
In November, someone will be having a party on election night. As the winners of various offices, these people will have earned the right to kick up their heels a bit. Regardless, of who wins the presidency and the Congress on Tuesday, November 6, Wednesday, November 7 will come with a huge amount of cleanup and recovery from the last four years' party (and a good bit that cannot be pinned on the party-master-in-chief).
Whatever I do regarding the Lenten season rests between God and me. On the other hand, I would propose a longer season of self-denial and sober-mindedness, beginning with this Wednesday and continuing until at least November 6. During this time, voters need to be reminded of the apparently endless party enjoyed on Pleasure Island by the boys in Pinocchio. That party, with its cigars and pool and lawlessness, left them looking like donkeys and sold for slave labor.
If the Wednesday party, drawn from all across the political spectrum, can spend these months embracing reality and rejecting the artificiality of the party world -- if we can work hard and deny our selfishness -- then the party on Tuesday evening of November 6 will be sweet indeed. Either way, the party will end on Tuesday, leaving us with enormous work to do starting Wednesday. That seems a joyless statement, but it is the reality of a grown-up world. Only when we embrace our Wednesdays can we fully enjoy Tuesday.
Mark Browning writes about Christianity and literature at A Noble Theme.