When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running-mate the collective effervescence among various liberals was difficult not to notice. ‘Collective effervescence’ is the concept that the sociologist Emile Durkheim invented to describe those moments of ritualistic fervor that create feelings of group solidarity. Without these special moments, members of the group have no experience of their social being, solidarity weakens, and the group disintegrates. Durkheim had in his politically incorrect mind a bunch of Australian ‘primitives’ wearing masks dancing around a fire, but instapundits pounding out missives on the keyboard trying to whip up the listless liberal masses are just the same. For Durkheim, it’s not the flame that creates the fire, but the totem. And in this case, the Sacred totem of Obama now has its Profane counterpart in Ryan. Finally, the in-group knows its other! Ezra Klein, always ready to lead the dance, summed up the mood nicely: “Everyone always says they want an election focused on the issues. For better or worse, we’ve got one.”
There is just one problem with this, everybody is dancing around the same fire. The ‘issues,’ whatever exactly that means, are a narrow set of disagreements over one resounding consensus: how to reduce the deficit. As Michael Lind recently put it, “Obama will almost certainly run as the candidate of authentic deficit reduction, as Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale did before him.” After all, who pushed for the Supercommittee on deficit reduction? Who bragged about being tough on welfare and having “helped lead the welfare-to-work effort in the Illinois Senate in 1997”? Who proudly proclaims “I signed $2 trillion of spending cuts into law”?
Nor is this just a point about the presidential race between Obama v. Romney/Ryan. As we noted during last summer’s ‘debate’ over the debt-ceiling, the Democratic Party has been the party of balanced budgets for decades. In fact, for the Keynesians out there, one is far more likely to get deficit-spending out of Republicans than Democrats these days. In a way, Obama does not lie when he says Republicans “run up these wild debts” and says “I’m running to pay down our debt in a way that’s balanced and responsible.” It’s just that Republicans go for the most regressive and destructive deficit spending one can think of – war and tax cuts. Not all debts are wild, but those are. But of course, at the level of public debate, Republicans still beat the drums of austerity because they want to cut social services and public employment. A cause to which the Democratic Party has been increasingly willing to give its name.
The Democrats and Republicans are disputatious members of the same tribe. The collective effervescence of the election is, above all, the reconstitution of elite consensus around a very limited set of differences on political economy.