Battle of the Narratives

What do you do when your core ideology turns out to be not just a practical failure but a national catastrophe? You contrive alibis. You invent facts. The final days of the 2008 campaign can be understood as a battle of narratives. It is now clear to most Americans that the financial collapse was caused by extreme deregulation, the practical expression of laissez-faire dogma. Though some Democrats were enablers, the ideology was more purely Republican. How to temper this awkward political reality? Devise a counter-narrative. Herewith the elements:

They all did it.

In the Agatha Christie whodunit Murder on the Orient Express, the charming twist is that all of the suspects did it. In the current remake, the financial collapse was caused collectively by bankers, brokers, speculators, Alan Greenspan, Fannie Mae, lying borrowers, corrupt Democrats, and cheap credit. If everyone did it, then right-wing ideology escapes blame.

Greedy homeowners did it.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania, in an op-ed piece blames: "one last group of bad actors, a group so powerful that most politicians have avoided railing against it: American borrowers. … The truth is we all enjoyed the ride, with record credit-card debt, a negative savings rate, and home-equity loans."

No, Rick, we didn't "all" enjoy the ride. For 30 years, incomes for most Americans have been flat. Deregulated Wall Street made out like bandits.

CRA did it.

The right-wing narrative holds that the crisis was actually caused by regulation. One alleged culprit is the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which encourages banks to serve moderate-income homeowners and small businesses consistent with sound lending standards. Allegedly, CRA caused the sub-prime meltdown by pressuring banks to lend to unqualified borrowers. But CRA only covers federally regulated lenders, and sub-prime was largely the work of unregulated mortgage companies.

Fannie and the Democrats did it.

Supposedly, Fannie Mae, abetted by corrupt Democratic politicians, brought us sub-prime. Congress did let Fannie get too big, and some malefactors were indeed Democrats. But the main buyers and packagers of sub-prime loans were Wall Street investment bankers. Fannie Mae never totally abandoned underwriting standards. Fannie's flirtation with riskier mortgages was enabled by Republican Phil Gramm, now senior adviser to McCain.

Herb Sandler and George Soros did it.

The most bizarre rendition of the right-wing story was displayed, of all places, on Saturday Night Live. In a diabolically deceptive skit broadcast Oct. 4, Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank are holding a press conference with President Bush, presenting "victims" of the financial meltdown.

The first "victims" trotted out by the Democrats are two low-life homebuyers—unemployed deadbeats with pregnant girlfriends and drug addictions. They got great deals on mortgages, gambled on houses they couldn't afford, and now are out of luck. Improvident deadbeats!

"Barney Frank" corrects a shrewish "Nancy Pelosi," who tries to blame President Bush for the crisis. Democrats in Congress blocked reform, Barney explains. (In truth, Bush's appointees pushed Fannie to buy dubious mortgage paper.)

Further "victims" are Herb and Marion Sandler. They, in real life, are leading Democratic donors and liberal activists. They are longtime critics of lax lending standards and underwrite the Center for Responsible Lending, a crusader against sub-prime and other predatory lending abuses. Their bank, Golden West Financial, did offer some sketchy mortgage products and was sold to Wachovia in 2006. But in SNL's gross exaggeration, the Sandlers dump a lot of bad loans on Wachovia, which causes Wachovia to go bust, and they walk away with $8 billion in profit. A caption running across the screen reads: "Herb and Marion Sandler: people who should be shot."

The final "victim" is billionaire investor George Soros, who boasts that he will end up with the entire $700 billion bailout. Soros is captioned as "owner: Democratic Party."

The message is that Democrats and lowlifes caused the crisis. It is a mark of right-wing cunning that conservative talking points ended up deep in the enemy territory of Saturday Night Live.

Watch for versions of this narrative, in op-eds, TV spots, talk shows, and debates. But you won't likely see it on SNL again. The duped and embarrassed producers first removed the skit from their site and then put it back, stripped of the astonishing line that Herb and Marion Sandler should be shot.

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