Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Apocalypse Not Now

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

October 25, 2013

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

One of the most notable features of modern political discourse is the increase in urgent, even apocalyptic, political appeals. We all get fundraising letters or hear political activists asserting that unless some action is taken or resisted, America will find itself on the brink of disaster. 

This type of discourse is a temptation on every side of the political spectrum, but it has become particularly pronounced on the Tea Party right. Leaders of that movement argue that implementing Obamacare will fundamentally alter the character of the country, transforming America into a nation of dependents. The old self-governing republic will cease to exist, and we have only a few years before the damage is irreversible.

I have been in the middle of intense political debates, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of this one. I believe that the system of health insurance mandates, regulations, and exchanges currently being implemented is flawed. And I am convinced that other political debates – on debt, or economic growth, or educational dysfunction – also have high stakes for the country. 

But the whole method of whipping up urgency with exaggerated claims is flawed and ineffective. 

First, we need to maintain some sense of history. In the 1850s, America really was on the verge of division and war. Until the 1960s, America was bitterly divided by laws that relegated millions of citizens to a humiliating, second-class status. America has faced times when the meaning and unity of the country was directly at stake. This is not one of those times. 

It is simply mistaken to describe Obamacare as a massive new entitlement that will transform American society. The program is mainly a series of complex mandates and regulations in the insurance market, which will make insurance more expensive for a lot of people. The number of Americans who will receive an offsetting federal subsidy is relatively small – far smaller than the number of Americans already in Medicare and Medicaid. While this law may be badly conceived and poorly implemented, it does not represent a fundamental shift in the relationship between the citizen and the state. 

Second, apocalyptic language, in this case, represents a distorted view of the political enterprise.  There is no perfect past for America to recover and no future utopia to build. The political task is to stand for justice in a flawed and fallen world. The calling of Christians in particular, as my old boss Chuck Colson used to say, is “Faithfulness, not success.” A sovereign God remains in control. We have serious responsibilities in the public square, but the outcome is in other hands – in better hands. And the stillness of a wise trust is the opposite of an anxious, angry spirit. 

Finally, using apocalyptic language is often politically ineffective. Such warnings may be useful to stir the faithful, but they do nothing to persuade the unpersuaded and may even frighten and alienate them. Except in a real national emergency, Americans are generally more impressed by rhetoric that is reasonable and irenic. Using a constant state of emergency to motivate followers can be counterproductive in the long term. People get tired and skeptical of constant sirens and alarm bells. In politics, conviction, patience, and faithfulness are ultimately more successful.   

- Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”