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No one does blame better than Washington. No one fears it more, either.
The quickly unspooling banking crisis—sparked by the out-of-nowhere collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, the subsequent panic about other regional lenders and the world banking system at large—triggered D.C.’s reactive instincts to duck and weave.
But here’s the thing: most Americans don’t really care who is to blame or to credit. They just want their lives to go forward with some measure of normalcy. The jockeying for an advantage is often as misguided as it is misfired. Americans don’t like the disruption, but they loathe the naked exploitation of it even more. After all, no one likes to feel like a prop in a political skit, particularly when such performances just might prompt bank runs across the country.
Even so, the banking blame game started almost immediately. Depending on the color of your partisan jersey, this was either a failure of Joe Biden’s team to watch the banks’ ledgers or evidence that a Donald Trump-era repeal of some of the post-2008 safeguards was ill-considered. The economist class urged against panic while Republicans running officially or unofficially for President said this was actually and obviously the fault of wokeness.
Among Democrats in particular, a schism is re-emerging at a moment of high emotion and higher risk. The ghosts of the 2008 Wall Street rescue still haunts many lawmakers, and the possibility that the regulations passed during that frenzied period were insufficient, or that their more recent partial rollback ill-considered, threatens to tear apart already frayed populist alliances.
The hypocrisy, too, on display in recent days seemed especially shameless: the same small-government libertarian tech voices who complain about regulation were quick to pipe up with calls for a government fix when their payrolls got garbled in the collapse of the nation’s 16th largest bank. And when the responsibility started to start to settle in one space, the parties jostled with a nimbleness that would make gymnasts jealous.
None of this is original or shocking, really. These days, whether the crisis be a bank failure, a pandemic response, or even a railroad derailment, the culpability is immediately assigned and deflected. As small businesses and charities alike fretted about making payroll, politicians were looking for a scapegoat. It was a familiar tableau. As the nation faced its slice of a global pandemic, finger-pointing came fierce and fast, even as face masks masked the scowls. So, too, did victory laps for its vaccine remedy. And even the ongoing disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, drew verdicts for fault or favor that followed predictable partisan divides.
It’s all a sad reminder of just how tribal Washington and its students have become in the last few decades. This instinct has been hardening since Vietnam, when Americans lost faith in the presidency itself. In the post-Watergate era, political tricksters and campaign thugs found their work deplorable but highly effective. The public says it wants a conversation to hinge on merits, but those same voters often pay closer attention to drama and personalities. (Hence, the Trump presidency and its aftermath: Could you imagine how Trump would have been vilified—and how he would have punched back—if these banks had failed on his watch? Wall Street has never been happier than this past week that it no longer finds itself bracing for push alerts for every market-moving Trump tweet.)
The response in such moments is often conditioned to follow voters’ partisan identification. In 2004, George W. Bush coasted to re-election on the claim that he kept America safe in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that redirected the trajectory of the 21st century. Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 claiming, in the frame of his then-Vice President Joe Biden, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” Both Bush and Obama had clear vulnerabilities heading into their final political campaigns, but their messages to their supporters was sufficient to claim credit for highly complicated environments where, in truth, Presidents have very limited powers. But they can inspire rhetorical affinities among supporters, and those are often strong enough to power through.
External events at the scale of this week’s bank failures—much like earlier crises like a pandemic, a rail derailment, a global economic meltdown, or even 9/11—seldom have a single cause or culprit. Diagnosing either is often folly but also often fungible. But in a moment of crisis like those, the temptation to cast blame and claim credit is irresistible for some in politics, especially when the public is looking for an easy explanation. A shorthanded explanation that either Silicon Valley Bank or Signature Bank failed because of cryptocurrency is simple, but it misses huge parts of the conversation about interest rates, cheap money, venture capital, and loosened regulations on mid-sized banks. So while Americans might hear and parrot their favored one-sentence answer, the facts are way more complicated.
Americans can handle such complexity, but it helps to have leaders in Washington guide that conversation with substance, not aspersions. The risk here is clear, though: if they aren’t blaming someone or something, the blame could ricochet back at them. Given a choice between blaming and being blamed, it’s often an easy calculation for these officials. That is why so many dance away from responsibility—even when none exists—and instead raise their arms, point their fingers, and find someone else to chain to the crisis.
Even when they know better, such is the game of D.C. survival, and no one likes to lose it.
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