Post-Crisis Politics

Why investigative reporters and political activists seem so depressed


At a recent convention for investigative journalists, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd found a lot of unhappy reporters. They're digging up tons of dirt–the Clinton scandals alone can fill several pages of every day's newspaper–but the public just won't get hysterical about it. "We live in this bland yuppified era when people just care about fresh-squeezed orange juice and watching the stock numbers in the paper," complained Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity.

Conservative political activists are equally depressed. They can't muster any public enthusiasm about their issues–from restricting the political use of union dues (an embarrassing loser in the California primary) to the danger of popular music to those same Clinton scandals. Meanwhile, the Reagan coalition is falling apart, riven by serious disagreements about governing philosophy. At a recent social gathering, I heard an honest conservative intellectual say what a lot are surely thinking: We miss the Cold War. We wish we had a big, bad enemy to rally against.

Conservatives are down in the dumps, but their counterparts on the left haven't exactly gained momentum. Ralph Nader tried to make the evils of Microsoft a popular rallying point and got nowhere; techies and lawyers may care, but the general public just wants computers that work. The Atlantic Monthly is on a crusade to convince us that environmental catastrophe looms, but again, no public outcry has ensued. This isn't 1970, or even 1990.

News magazines have increasingly abandoned politics and foreign affairs for cover stories on health, wealth, and science. Dr. Laura Schlesinger's relationship advice has replaced Rush Limbaugh's politics in the top slot not only on talk radio but in the hearts of some conservatives.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration survives because it cares mostly about surviving. Having lost the Democratic Congress to its health care ambitions, the administration now contents itself with small stuff: cigarette billboards, day care, tax credits for college. The president still musters the rhetoric of crisis, complete with the appropriately trembling lip, and the media dutifully record the story. But the public yawns.

Welcome to the post-crisis political world. It's a strange place, not at all like the one we're used to. It's not "the end of history," but it is definitely a different era. It requires a new approach to both politics and political discourse.

Since the turn of the century, our politics and media have followed a pattern. News, as Paul Weaver observed in News and the Culture of Lying (1994), has been defined as a story about "crisis and emergency response–about the waxing and waning of urgent danger to the community and about the actions of responsible officials to cope." Something terrible is happening, and immediate, dramatic action (mostly by the government, but sometimes by its opponents) is necessary to prevent disaster. That's the news–and hence, the politics–of crisis. That's the world to which we've grown accustomed.

Everyone in politics, regardless of ideology, has been shaped by that world and its assumptions. Everyone resorts to the rhetoric of crisis and emergency response: If you want to enlarge government, you find a crisis that demands a program, from Medicare to ClintonCare. If you want to shrink it, you find a countervailing crisis that demands deregulation, tax cuts, or fiscal austerity. Ross Perot made the budget deficit the Republicans' favorite crisis.

It helps that the 20th century has been full of genuine crises: two World Wars, a Great Depression, the Cold War. No sooner had we gotten over the Cold War than we faced the one-two punch of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War, and then a recession. The politics of crisis thus survived most of Bill Clinton's first term, well into the new Republican Congress. A supposed emergency fed ClintonCare, and the threat of that economic takeover itself created a sense of crisis. From the high-turnout election of 1992 through at least 1995, Americans were terrifically engaged in political life.

And then they turned it off. The general public just stopped paying attention, stopped caring, stopped believing that any domestic problem was so urgent that politicians in Washington needed to Act Now! to solve it. Amid peace and prosperity, Americans decided they could solve their own, relatively manageable problems. They stopped expecting crises. And they stopped trusting the people who told them to see that emergencies loomed everywhere.

Without a genuine threat–war, natural disaster, economic collapse–crisis politics demands some sort of consensus, usually enforced by a formal or informal information cartel, that such and such is the pressing issue of the day. That consensus no longer exists. Wise to the manipulative ways of politicians, sophisticated about media conventions, and able to get information from a host of different voices, the general public has stopped believing in the politics of crisis.

Hence, the investigative journalists are down in the dumps. So are officials of both parties. So are pundits and activists and analysts. They keep casting about for crises that will engage the public imagination, that will command attention, that will make them look like heroes. Emergencies are good for business–for vote getting, for direct mail, for ratings. Emergencies help cut through clutter; they tell the public that this issue, this politician, this pundit, is too important to ignore. So people who make politics their business are always looking for emergencies.

Health care is a perennial favorite. "Voters' Anger at HMOs as Hot Political Issue," reads a typical headline in The New York Times. Politicians at both the state and national levels rush to address the presumed crisis with gobs of legislation. But it's an empty ritual, left over from an earlier time. It serves no real need.

Pollster Everett Ladd, writing in IntellectualCapital.com, points out the inconvenient truth: The number of Americans who see health care as "the most important problem facing this country today" is in single digits, with the public about evenly split on whether any new regulation is justified. And depending on how the question is worded, either a plurality or a majority prefers regulation by an independent nonprofit organization to government oversight. "Americans are not content with the health-care status quo," writes Ladd, "but they are not angry either, and they are not seeking a significantly expanded federal regulatory role." No crisis there, just normal discontent.

HMOs are not an isolated example. Again and again, in "this bland yuppified era," issues get headlines but don't draw public attention or support. Americans are not clamoring for V-chips. They do not think Bill Clinton should be impeached. They're tired of term limits. They aren't afraid of the greenhouse effect. They don't believe the "year 2000" problem will crash every computer in the country. They have even stopped worrying so much about crime and drugs. And while nobody much likes the tobacco companies, there is nothing more boring to the general public (except possibly campaign-finance reform) than the constant nattering about smoking.

In post-crisis America, politics has not, of course, disappeared. Nor should it. But it has changed. And those who care about the proper relationship between government and society must change with it. Unless they want to be thought hysterical maniacs by a public tired of phony crises, they must learn a different, more honest, and more satisfying way of talking about issues. (None of this precludes using the rhetoric of crisis and emergency response in a genuine emergency–if, to take the summer's favorite movie scenario, a large heavenly body is about to hit the earth, or if the Chinese seriously threaten to nuke Los Angeles.)

In its public, high-profile form, post-crisis political activity has two main functions: cleaning up chronic problems and helping shape interpretive worldviews. When there are no immediate dangers, addressing long-term problems becomes more feasible. It's possible to invest the time necessary to draw public attention to such nagging issues as out-of-control entitlements or a deranged tax code.

In dealing with chronic problems–which, by definition, are not momentary "crises"–how you understand the world matters a lot. Consider the terrible state of the public schools, the chronic problem that looms largest in the public imagination. If you believe that educational quality is simply a matter of will and thus something that can be decreed, you will look for a central education czar and charge him with establishing standards. If you think quality is something that can easily be bought, you will simply spend more money. But if you believe that competition, experiment, and feedback lead to improving quality, and that diversity can be both a source of important innovations and a good in and of itself, you will look for ways to increase those factors.

The spread of this dynamic understanding of progress has, in fact, changed education policy. So it is that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs recently used the threat of a well-funded initiative campaign to get the legislature and governor to open California's educational marketplace to many more charter schools–a sharp contrast to the more-money-plus-harder-tests approach usually favored by business lobbyists, including many technology enthusiasts. Elsewhere in the country, philanthropists are injecting competition into moribund school systems through direct action, by funding scholarships that allow kids in the worst schools to opt for private alternatives. And many school reformers now advocate testing mostly as a source of valuable feedback for parents and communities, rather than a good in and of itself. For such feedback to work, however, choice, competition, and innovation must also be possible–which implies a whole different approach to founding, funding, and running schools.

Crises, real or imagined, are useful political tools. By making political change an imperative, they help break what Milton and Rose Friedman have called the "tyranny of the status quo." But relying on crises to drive change simply won't work any more. The public no longer believes the rhetoric of crisis and emergency response, at least not in times of peace and prosperity. A different sort of persuasion is necessary.

Politics is no longer like swatting a mosquito–see a problem and whack it down; it is gradually becoming more like tending a garden, which grows mostly on its own. So how we understand those "natural" social processes matters a lot. Political action in a post-crisis age, then, demands not only that we address chronic problems but that we explore and analyze, champion and explain a broader worldview. And it requires a different sort of political person, one less caught up in the drama of emergencies, more satisfied with enabling the wonders of everyday life.

After a century of crisis-and-response politics, such people may be hard to imagine. But so is a general public that will continue to fall for overhyped crises. The politics of emergency has run its course.