May 19, 2010

A paradigm shift, a loss of words.

I've written before in this space of communication theorist Walter Fisher's proposal that America's most enduring narrative, the American Dream, comprises two competing strands, both rooted in our founding documents and history.

One of these strands, which I'll call the free enterprise story, envisions an ideal of individual potency, entrepreneurial success, and limited government restrained from tyranny. The other strand, the fair play story, envisions an ideal of universal fairness, public service, and strong government of, by, and for the people.

One can interpret the history of American public debates as a gladiator-like battle between these two stories, chained together, forever wrestling, each gaining and losing dominance, but never permanently.

There are times when the contest is relatively quiet. One narrative or the other dominates, forming most of our assumptions and expectations. But inevitably, the ruling story encounters problems, often arising from its own premises, that expose its weaknesses and overwhelm its abilities. When that happens, the shift is on. The contest gets louder. The new/old narrative presses the debate with increasing confidence and persuasive power; the regnant story digs in to protect its hegemony.

In the late 1970s, the fair-play narrative had driven the action for more than four decades. But it ran out of words to account for and address problems of its own creation: soaring inflation, economic stagnation, embarrassment on the world stage, and declining confidence. Ronald Reagan inspired us with a new story, comprising a vocabulary juxtaposing American individuals' power, value, and potential with government impotency, bureaucracy, and failure.

The result was a sweeping paradigm shift, nearly Kuhnian in its scope. The language of the Reaganite free-enterprise narrative—lower taxes, deregulation, American global power, the idealization of entrepreneurship—not only drove public policy but also informed and shaped the way we think and talk.

For the last 30 years, our words have been lifted from the free-enterprise lexicon; our sentences, from its script: Government is the problem. The era of big government is over. The government should never interfere with the market. Trust business more than government. Entrepreneurs are good; bureaucrats are bad. Public figures are brands. Run schools (and everything else) like a business. The profit motive produces self-regulation. The private sector is better than the public sector. [Fill in the blank] should be privatized. Taxes destroy freedom.

I've heard every one of these and more—and said a few. I'm sure you have too.

We're in a time of transition between the two stories. A new paradigm shift is taking place. Hence the election of Barack Obama, who eloquently expresses a modern rendition of the fair-play narrative. Hence the loud and sometimes frighteningly extreme language of conflict in today's public debates.

The free-enterprise narrative is losing its ability to speak reasonably. Reminiscent of the Coolidge-Hoover version when the Roaring '20s crashed, the latest edition has no sentences to account for or address problems arising from its own premises. In my next post, coming very soon, I'll offer three recent cataclysmic events—the Massey mine disaster, the BP oil debacle, and the Goldman Sachs interpretation of the financial collapse—as evidence.

Rings true to me. And you?

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