10/16/2012 06:51 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

The New "New Normal": Saving Yourself From the Cliff

Are you worried about the looming "fiscal cliff"? Well if it's your only worry about the American economy, you're not worried nearly enough. There are plenty of other economic cliffs out there, just waiting for you.

That's the lead story on the front page of this past Sunday's Washington Post.

Even if Washington finds a way to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts, there's a real chance that other hikes and cuts will take billions of dollars out of the economy. But if we extend tax cuts and avoid spending cuts, we'll increase the federal debt, bringing all sorts of new trouble.

There's no glimmer of good news to counter the gloom and doom brought to you by WaPo. There's only an overwhelmed Congress and administration, forced to grapple with an impending economic apocalypse. We're likely to go over one cliff or another, it seems, no matter who wins the election.

We've seen endless news reports and opinion pieces for a long time now telling us that this is "the new normal." It doesn't always mean that we're doomed to go totally over the cliff. But it always means something pretty disastrous compared to the promise of endlessly growing prosperity, which was, until recently, taken for granted in our shared national story.

A permanent possibility of disaster is nothing new in the American story, though. Americans have long been accustomed to living with apocalyptic danger as the norm, expecting their government to manage the threat at best, but never to extinguish it.

We first learned this fear-ridden way of life back in the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower warned publicly that we were "not in a moment of peril, but an age of peril." In an internal White House memo, a staffer described this as "the new normal." Of course then the threat was "the reds."

But it was easy enough to substitute "the terrorists." After the 9/11 attack, Dick Cheney declared that an endless "war on terror" was the new normal.

Now, WaPo suggests, permanent fear is still the new normal. The only difference is that the peril comes from the economy within.

Over at this past Sunday's front page of the nation's other most influential newspaper, The New York Times, the horizon is a just tad brighter. There's a big color photo of Donna's Diner in Elyria, Ohio, with the dawn's early light barely relieving the gloom of night. The headline reads: "At the Corner of Hope and Worry: A Small Café, and a Small City, are Put to the Test by a Tough Economy."

Below is a photo of Donna, the proprietor, holding her hands in an obviously prayerful gesture, with anxiety etched on her face. It looks like there's still a chance that Donna, an iconic "ordinary American," will somehow avoid the cliff, pass the test, and make it through these tough times -- if she has enough hope and faith. But no one can say for sure.

Put these lead stories from the nation's two most prominent newspapers together and you get a complicated narrative: As we head toward a domestic apocalypse, there's not much the government can do about it. The politicians will try their best to manage this "new normal." But they are so hopelessly tangled in their internal contradictions, we can't count on them for anything. We would do better to put our hope in the faith and resilience of ordinary Americans, people just like you and me.

That sounds like a very Republican message.

Presidents of both parties offered much more when they pledged to protect the American people from "the red menace" and "the terrorists." They never said it was up to the people themselves to keep the nation safe. They promised that the government would do the job.

Democrats traditionally made the same promise when economic apocalypse loomed. William Jennings Bryan famously preached that the Democrats would save the people from being crucified on a cross of gold. Franklin D. Roosevelt asserted that, if Congress failed to halt the Great Depression, he would ask for "broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe." That was the biggest applause line of his first inaugural address.

In the same address Roosevelt summed up the traditional Democratic view of how ordinary Americans respond to crisis. He insisted "as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States -- a recognition of the old and permanently important manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer." FDR knew that the pioneers were no rugged individualists. They built their communities by working together, using government as their agent.

Barack Obama seemed to be building his campaign on the same kind of message, until he lost his narrative way. He still offers more from government than Romney, to be sure. But now, as the race tightens and he knows he'll have to work with another Republican House, he seems to focus more on the power of "ordinary people." In his closing remarks in the first debate, all he could offer from government was to "channel" the "genius, grit, and determination" of the American people.

If that is the political narrative of the future -- if the alternative that Democrats once offered is so muted in our national conversation -- then today's "new normal" is something new indeed. And the real looming tragedy is the way it diminishes the possibilities for a better future that we all could enjoy if, like true pioneers, we expected -- and elected -- government leaders to serve our common interests, rather than leaving us each to save ourselves.

Ira Chernus blogs at