The Fiscal Dance of Death
As depicted in hundreds of medieval plays and paintings, the dance of death was a macabre embodiment of the European public's belief in the likelihood its own imminent demise.
A crucial element in this art was the concept of the Day of Reckoning: the appointed hour at which the skeletal personification of Death stepped on stage and led his victims off to their doom. Artistic depictions of this awe-filled moment varied, but some versions featured ecstatic human beings dancing off to the beat of pipes and drum. In others, complacent fools were awakened from their stupor and led away, complaining that they had been given no warning.
This is the unsuccessful defense of the protagonist of the 15th-century British play Everyman. Called upon to appear before God, Everyman protests: "Full unready I am such reckoning to give." Nothing that Everyday cherishes in this world -- neither goods, nor fellowship, nor even good deeds -- can prevent Death from carrying out his mission. The message to the medieval audience was clear: every man and woman faced the possibility of immediate destruction, and had best prepare for the inevitable.
These dramatizations were not just theatrical performances in the modern sense. They were outdoor spectacles, performed in the streets of every village and town by local inhabitants. They expressed what must have been the hysterical fear of a public driven mad by decades of unspeakable scenes of horror. The incongruous mood of utter despair and wanton revelry depicted in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal probably has it about right. The seventh seal had been broken and the world was coming to an end, so why not accept the inevitable and party one last time?
As it turned out, the artists had it wrong, or partly wrong. The period referred to as the Black Death (1338-51) and the outbreaks of bubonic plague that followed claimed an estimated 100,000,000 lives in Europe and Asia. But even with such losses, Europe was eventually repopulated and went on to achieve greatness in the following centuries. Historians have even suggested that the plague played an important role in the rise of the middle class. With millions of workers lost, those who remained commanded higher wages, and many made their way into skilled professions. Not much comfort for the plague victims themselves, but a big step forward for Western civilization.
Not only did two-thirds of the population survive, microbiologists believe that many of them were destined to do so. Large numbers of plague survivors carried a genetic mutation, the allele CCR5-Δ32, that protected them from the disease. No matter what they believed, or whether they joined in the macabre enactment of death, they were destined to survive.
For years now, but especially since the election of Barack Obama, the American left has engaged in its own dance of death centered on the conviction that America faces imminent destruction. Convinced that America's best days are behind it, and consumed by the belief that America deserves to fall, the left celebrates every setback as evidence of American decline. Not only that, the left is more than willing to help things along -- insisting, as the President has, that we must continue ruinous spending ("We can't simply cut our way to prosperity") even with the example of Greece staring us in the face.
With an administration that has no idea how to proceed except to continue borrowing, the national mood has become so glum that commentators like Thomas G. Donlan routinely speak of the Day of Reckoning -- the day when global investors will no longer underwrite America's debt.
This fatalistic mentality explains why the left has no solutions for funding Medicare and other entitlements other than increased borrowing and higher taxes. Even the President must be aware of CBO projections that show Medicare going bankrupt by 2024, if not before. Obama might as well dress up in a skeleton suit and lead the country in a dance of death.
It's important to understand one point in this deathly analogy: it is precisely because the left is cynical about America's future that it is committed to the ruinous course of unlimited spending. Even a progressive economist like Paul Krugman must understand that growth of the private sector, not more government spending, is the key to lowering and eventually eliminating deficits, and that private-sector growth is the product of lower taxes and reduced regulation. Yet Krugman continues to argue that government's response to the recession of 2008-2009 was "inadequate stimulus." With its ideological bias toward Big Government, the left will never endorse those measures that could avert the Day of Reckoning. They sit back complacently while the national debt mounts to $15 trillion and more.
So, according to the left, America is destined to decline into a long, dark era of poverty, weakness, and insignificance -- a new dark age during which we will be dominated by the rising civilizations of China and Islam. It is the familiar Spenglerian vision of the decline of the West, recycled by today's self-loathing leftists who revel in anticipation of America's much-deserved ruin. The dark ages of oriental rule to follow, whether at the hands of Chinese overlords or Muslim clerics, should satisfy even the most alienated of anti-Western leftists. After a millennium of enslavement, perhaps the West will have learned its lesson.
That, in any case, is the left's sense of how it will play out, and it is the reason they do not really care about our mounting fiscal crisis. It is why they are so eager to join in the dance of death and so reluctant to suggest solutions. Whether it be the economy, the national debt, or the war on terror (which they disdain even to acknowledge), we are destined to lose, so why not pass out benefits to the underclass and tango together?
That seems to be the message of the President in the skeleton suit, leading the farandole of bankrupt states, municipalities, and federal agencies over the abyss. Since America is destined to fail, why not continue spending until the dollar is as worthless as a Zimbabwean $5 trillion note?
Maybe then the left will be satisfied, but I doubt it. More likely, they will go on campaigning for more punishment. They won't be satisfied until America suffers its own version of the Black Death -- the torture cells and summary executions of the communist state or the Islamic caliphate. Maybe then, once the bourgeois class has been wiped from the face of the earth, the left will have had enough, but I doubt it.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture.