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The Great Debate

Fiscal cliff: D.C.’s Mayan apocalypse

By Peter Wolson
December 20, 2012

We are careening toward Dec. 21, 2012, the date of the Mayan apocalypse, when the world is supposed to come to an end through a series of cataclysmic upheavals, according to assorted astrologers and mystics ‑ though not the Mayans themselves, who said it was merely the end of their calendar. We are also hurtling toward the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff,” when the American economy could re-enter a devastating recession ‑ a man-made mini-apocalypse.

What has motivated people, across so many civilizations and centuries, to devise and believe in an apocalypse? Understanding this might help us address the ideological gridlock now propelling Republicans and Democrats toward this fiscal “end of days.”

There have always been groups who believe in a coming apocalypse, suggesting this is inherent in human nature. People who experience life as traumatic, devastating or chaotic are prone to project such nihilistic visions onto the world at large. Anxiety about one’s own death can also evoke a catastrophic apprehension about the end of the entire world.

Yet virtually every story of the apocalypse contains a belief in a rebirth or renewal just before or after the end of days. The apocalypse destroys all that is bad in life, wiping the slate clean for a second chance ‑ like the Second Coming of the Messiah.

This is particularly true in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Book of Revelations, the apocalypse is a battle between good and evil, in which the earthly world is destroyed and replaced by an otherworldly paradise. In the New Testament, the horrific pain of existence is replaced by the second chance of being resurrected and joining Jesus, God the Father and the angels in an eternal heaven.

In this way, one’s life and death represent a personal apocalypse ‑ a precursor to an afterlife in heaven.

This wish for renewal could be the unconscious motivation of the astrologers who predicted the Mayan apocalypse ‑ and the unconscious motivation of the Washington Republicans and Democrats, who seem ready to throw the American economy off the fiscal cliff in the service of their ideological beliefs.

In his classic 1956 study on “cognitive dissonance,” Stanford University* Professor Leon Festinger found that when these apocalyptic predictions are not borne out, the believers actually become more convinced that their doomsday scenario is valid. For example, when the apocalypse did not occur on the day predicted, Festinger found that the members of the apocalyptic cult rationalized that because they were true believers, God had spared them ‑ and postponed the end of the world.

This reduced the discomfiting dissonance between their expectation and reality. That the predictions failed to come true only served to strengthen cult’s convictions and re-energize their recruiting efforts.

So maybe we should look at the fiscal cliff as, in effect, a man-made mini-apocalypse. It’s both answered prayer and worst nightmare for Democrats and Republicans ‑ especially when the United States is so economically fragile. If the American economy plunges over the cliff, to the horror of both parties, there would be higher taxes not just on the richest 2 percent but for the entire middle class. There would also be radical spending cuts that could cause greater unemployment and push us back into recession. Though polls reflect that Republicans will be blamed, President Barack Obama and the Democrats could also be held responsible.

For each party, to compromise is “cognitively dissonant,” negating and disconfirming its political values, a severe blow to its ideological pride, honor and self-esteem. But to rigidly cling to one’s political ideology to avoid cognitive dissonance at the expense of the country’s economic welfare, even at the expense of one’s political survival, places politicians’ ideological self-interests above the common good.

In response to the pressure of the apocalyptic fiscal cliff, the Republicans and Democrats will either remain deadlocked and go over. Or, like Festinger’s apocalyptic cult, they will rationalize a way to compromise while preserving and strengthening their political beliefs.

In this way, while bringing us to the brink of devastation, they might foster an economic renaissance. In psychological terms, the creation of the fiscal cliff might well have been motivated by an unconscious wish for renewal. Or, at least, as astrologers and mystics believe in their myth of the Mayan apocalypse, we would like to believe this is so.

PHOTO (Top): A figurine of Itzamana (C), the creator of writing, knowledge and the Mayan calendar, at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

PHOTO (Insert Middle): Credit: Molly Stephey, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

PHOTO (Insert Bottom): A full moon silhouettes the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., March 6, 2004. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

*In earlier version, Festinger was identified incorrectly as a University of California, Los Angeles professor. 

 

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