You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
When Partisans Cry Wolf

When Partisans Cry Wolf

By imbuing the normal stuff of liberal-democratic politics with existential stakes, crisis rhetoric makes compromise with “the enemy” impossible. Part one in a series.

Katherine C. Epstein

Part one in a series on crisis rhetoric and its immoral use by political partisans. Read part two in the series, "A Dispatch from the Exhausted Majority."

"So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community."
                – William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War”

The use of war as a metaphor for crisis has long fascinated me. Years ago, I read William Leuchtenberg’s article “The New Deal and the Analogue of War.” Some things you read hit you like a thunderbolt and stay with you; this was one for me. Leuchtenberg showed how President Franklin D. Roosevelt drew on the language of war to justify extraordinary government intervention in the economy in peacetime. In his First Inaugural Address, Roosevelt announced, “I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Roosevelt understood a key aspect of liberal-democratic political culture: People will permit the government, and especially the executive, to do things in war that they will not permit it to do in peace.

Today, as Americans across the political spectrum declare their liberal-democratic nation to be under threat, we are once again awash in war talk, along with its close cousins emergency and crisis talk. Like Roosevelt’s, all three kinds of rhetoric seek to justify departures from politics as usual—because wars, emergencies, and crises are, by definition, unusual.

That makes them dangerous in a liberal democracy like the United States. Our system of government is proceduralist, or rules-based. Proceduralism may not sound like an inspiring (or smart) hill to die on, but properly understood, it is. Proceduralist systems protect us from our worst instincts and impel us to live up to our intellectual and moral potential as human beings. Their rules—their checks and balances—exist to prevent us from acting out of blind emotion or confirmation bias. In effect, they elevate the golden rule to the level of a whole nation: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We cannot trample on the rights of our fellow citizens or injure them in other ways simply to make ourselves feel better in the moment. We cannot implement the policies we want simply because we think they are good policies. We must follow a process; the ends do not justify the means. Policy outcomes in a liberal democracy derive their legitimacy largely from having been achieved through proper procedure, not by conforming to some Platonic ideal of substantive excellence. Even when you have power, abiding by proceduralism is not just right but also intelligent, because it establishes a framework that protects you if you lose power.

By justifying departures from politics as usual, the rhetoric of war, emergency, and crisis runs the risk of undermining proceduralism, and thus liberal democracy itself. It need not do so. It is possible for such rhetoric to be used conservatively—that is, in such a way as to strengthen proceduralism and liberal democracy. But today, both the hard Right and the hard Left are using this rhetoric radically—to weaken proceduralism—and in so doing, to endanger our liberal-democratic nation. Conservative and radical, in this usage, having nothing to do with Right versus Left, but with strengthening or weakening proceduralism.

Today, while politicians and activists frequently claim that threats are serious and only urgent action can save the country, in reality they are using the terms war, emergency, and crisis promiscuously, with little regard for empirical accuracy. Worst of all, their inflated (and inflationary) rhetoric is exacerbating the very threats they say they fear. By justifying rule-breaking by their own side, they justify rule-breaking by the other side. The result is an escalatory spiral, with each side pointing the finger at the other’s bad behavior to rationalize its own.

Thus the principal internal threat to liberal democracy in the United States today stems from the interaction between the hard Right and the hard Left. That interaction is eroding the proceduralism at the heart of liberal democracy and rendering impossible the compromise that is its lifeblood. It is also empowering the activist bases of each wing, disempowering the exhausted majority in the center, and threatening to destroy our most precious freedoms—all in the false guise of protecting them.

The radical usage of war, emergency, and crisis talk legitimizes the pursuit of ordinary partisan goals by violating ordinary liberal-democratic procedure. Political parties rationalize that, because of the emergency, their ordinary partisan goals have become identical with the good of the nation, while the opposition’s partisan goals would irreparably damage the nation. When partisan victory is at stake, the obstacle to victory is the loyal opposition, and the language and assumptions of peaceful democratic politics are appropriate. But when national survival is at stake, the obstacle to survival is the enemy, and the language and assumptions of war come to the fore.

Examples of this process at work can be found on both the Left and Right in America today. At least on the surface, war talk tends to occur more on the right—to wit, the Republican candidate’s 2020 campaign website was called “Army for Trump”—while the Left tends to traffic more in emergency and crisis talk. But the conflation of speech with violence, prevalent among a powerful faction on the Left, also belongs to the war-talk paradigm. It too confuses the normal, peaceful stuff of liberal-democratic politics with a state of warlike violence. In so doing, it too collapses a distinction that is vital to the maintenance of liberal democracy.

Beyond uses of war talk like these, politicians and pundits on both the Left and the Right constantly use the tropes of emergency and crisis to try to override rational thought and instill a sense of urgency. Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” essay is a good example of such rhetoric on the Right, while half of the op-eds in the New York Times on any given day are good examples of such rhetoric on the Left. (A recent favorite was Paul Krugman’s piece on the Democrats’ so-called Inflation Reduction Act, modestly entitled “Did the Democrats Just Save Civilization?”) By imbuing the normal stuff of liberal-democratic politics with existential stakes, such rhetoric tends to make compromise with “the enemy” impossible.

In contrast to the radical usage of war, emergency, and crisis talk, the conservative usage legitimizes the pursuit of ordinary procedure at the expense of ordinary partisan goals. The conservative response is easiest when the emergency is a threat (like an actual war) from a foreign nation, rather than a threat from within the nation.

When the nation is at risk from a foreign power, politicians face greater pressure to make exceptions to the normal rules of politics. That pressure cuts in multiple directions, not necessarily liberal-democratic: It is no mere coincidence that concerns about fifth columns within often arise when a nation is at war without. But it is also not a coincidence to find liberal-democratic parties putting aside some of their normal differences and compromising during wartime in ways that would be unthinkable in peacetime—for instance, Conservatives and Labour agreeing to form a national government in Britain during the Great Depression, or the Democrat FDR appointing Republicans like Henry Stimson and Frank Knox to key Cabinet positions during World War II. In effect, the threat of losing one’s liberal-democratic nation to an external foreign power triggers more liberal democracy, in the form of power-sharing with the loyal opposition, rather than less.

In such circumstances, liberal-democratic parties do not suddenly become angels and sacrifice their perceived self-interests on behalf of the nation—though politicians are people too, and the logic of sacrifice does operate on them, as on everyone else, more powerfully in wartime.  Rather, or in addition, their perceptions of their self-interest changes. In peacetime, they calculate that their interest is best served by trying to take power from their partisan opponents.  In wartime, they don’t stop trying to gain as much power as they believe they safely can—elections continue to be contested, for instance—but they believe that their own partisan safety also requires the survival of the nation. If the nation in its current liberal-democratic form ceases to exist, then the parties in their current liberal-democratic forms cease to exist. Such “survival” as they might experience in a conquered nation would be of the-village-was-destroyed-to-save-it variety, as in Vichy France, which is not “survival” in any meaningful sense. Thus, while the old logic of partisan power-taking does not stop operating, it has to contend with a new and opposing logic of partisan power-sharing.

Put differently, while the radical usage of war, emergency, and crisis talk operates on the logic that what’s good for me is good for the country, the conservative usage operates on the logic that what’s good for the country is good for me.

The latter logic is more difficult to activate in a liberal-democratic nation when the threat to the nation comes from within. Liberal-democratic nationhood is premised on the idea that quasi-military, quasi-foreign threats to the nation cannot come from within. The whole logic of liberal-democratic nationhood is to reject war as an acceptable model for interacting with fellow nationals. Foreigners are fair game, but the people on the inside of your national-political community, regardless of how wrong or scary you may think they are, are entitled to the same basic rights and protections as you. Hence any committed liberal democrat instinctively recoils at war talk.

Although this instinct to recoil is a good and healthy one, crises offer the potential for liberal-democratic renewal as well as destruction. The path to renewal runs through the center rather than the extremes. It is created by people of courage standing up to the extremists on their own side. Decrying the threat from the other team is easy; it’s decrying the threat from your own team that’s hard. You’re not really serious about saving the nation from internal threats if you only talk about threats from the other side—which is what extremists do. If you put the extremists in charge of your side, you drive away moderates, who are disgusted by extremists’ hypocritical double standards. You’re serious about saving the nation from internal threats if you talk about threats from your own side—which means asserting control over your own extremists. If you do, you provide a soft landing place for moderates, who don’t agree with all the policies your side favors but can see that your side is honest in a way that the other side isn’t. Because they trust you to play by the same rules you insist the other side plays by, they’ll trust your side to govern in the best interests of the nation, not in the best interests of extremists. They’ll vote for you for the positive reason that you seem good, not for the negative reason that the other side seems worse.

Thus moderates’ votes hold the key. If you offer them only negative reasons to vote for you, they’ll either stop voting out of disgust or swing from side to side depending on who looks worse in any given election. The result will be a razor-thin, temporary majority for your side. By contrast, if you offer moderates positive reasons to vote for you, you can build the large and stable governing majority needed to chart a steady course ahead for a liberal-democratic nation, away from the cliffs carved by extremist minorities.

I have been thinking about these issues a lot in connection with the upcoming midterm elections.  Given the binary structure of our electoral system, many analyses that I’ve read have focused on the question of which side poses the greater threat to liberal democracy. But most political activity does not consist of voting. What happens in elections structures that activity—but so does our behavior between elections structure our choices as voters.

In practically every other context besides voting, I think that the question “which side poses the greater threat?” is a bad question. Not only does it discourage conscientious examination of one’s own side, but it also treats each side as operating independently of the other, when in fact it’s the interaction between them—the iterative feedback loop by which one side uses the other’s bad behavior to justify bad behavior of its own—that drives polarization, undermines any notion of an impartial standard by which all should be judged, and erodes the vital center. This feedback is why the threats to liberal democracy posed by the hard Right and the hard Left add up to a threat that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The which-side-is-a-greater-threat framing of the question fails to capture the catch-22 in which well-wishers of liberal democracy in the United States find themselves. Currently, neither party governs in the best interests of the nation, and both govern in the best interests of their extremist wings. As a result, one not only cannot vote for either party in good conscience, but one also cannot vote against either party in any better conscience, since a vote against one is tantamount to a vote for the other. A morally and empirically rigorous analysis would confront the symmetry and interaction between the two parties in this regard, instead of focusing on one or the other.

Because the threat from the Right has been more fulsomely covered than the threat from the Left in the legacy media, I will deal with it more briefly here. At least two actions currently being pursued by Donald Trump and his most fervent supporters constitute serious threats to our liberal-democratic nation. One is Trump’s ongoing effort, explained by Larry Diamond, to take over the state-level process for certifying election results. The other is Trump’s plan, immediately upon taking office for a second term, to fire tens of thousands of federal civil servants in powerful positions and replace them with people who will be loyal to him rather than to the Constitution. These plans have an institutional concreteness that makes them even more dangerous than Trump’s lies about the election.

But the threat from Trump and the Right extends further. Trump himself has a clear authoritarian streak, which emanates from his narcissistic psychology rather than from any ideological commitments. Beyond him personally, there are authoritarian currents on the “new right” or among “national conservatives”—whatever you want to call them—that bode ill for liberal democracy. So too does their rampant “enemy thinking,” to borrow a concept from Martin Luther King, Jr., which they indulge in with considerably less provocation than many Americans who forswore it in the past. There is nothing conservative about the Trumpist right. Its members want to own the libs, but they articulate no vision of the American future that protects what is best about its past, which is our nation’s attempt to make real the commitment of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to human freedom and dignity, in as much of its diversity as possible.

If the Republican Party was serious about dealing with threats to our liberal-democratic nation, it would spend less time lecturing us about why the Left is so scary and more time making the Right less scary.

While writers who focus on the threat from the Right aren’t wrong, omitting the threat from the Left renders their analysis of the overall threat to liberal democracy incomplete. For instance, in explaining Trump’s attempts to take over the state-level machinery for certifying elections, Diamond didn’t mention that the Democrats have supported election-denying extremist Republicans in some key primaries. Similarly, in an essay arguing for the necessity of voting Democratic in November, Francis Fukuyama didn’t probe the implications of his statement that “the Democrats have been dominated by the activist progressive wing of the party that continues to do its utmost to push away the moderate swing-state voters.” Accordingly, as I read Diamond and Fukuyama, they suggested that a vote for the Democrats is a vote against the threat to liberal democracy.

My difficulty is that I think a vote for the Democrats is simultaneously a vote for the threat to liberal democracy. Although they say they’re serious about dealing with the threat, they aren’t really. Like Republicans, they’re opting for the radical rather than conservative response. Instead of looking for opportunities to strengthen ordinary procedures even at the expense of ordinary partisan goals, they’re seeking their ordinary partisan goals at the expense of ordinary procedure. Effectively, they’re working hand-in-glove with the MAGA-fied Republican Party to exacerbate the threat to liberal democracy.

If the Democrats were serious about the threat to liberal democracy, there are several things that they would have done or would be doing, with control of the White House and both houses of Congress, but that they have not done.

First, they would have made reform of the Electoral Count Act the first priority of Biden’s term in office. They wouldn’t have piddled away the better part of two years trying to ram through a bill, namely H.R. 1, that contains a host of provisions (campaign-finance reform, making Election Day a federal holiday, and more) unrelated to the very specific vulnerabilities in our electoral system targeted by Trump after the 2020 election. Those vulnerabilities—not new southern voting laws—were the threat to liberal democracy that urgently needed addressing. Instead of seeking bipartisan support for a tightly focused reform bill that would have defended ordinary liberal-democratic procedure while the horror of January 6 was fresh in most Americans’ minds, the Democrats opted to try to deliver an ordinary partisan win for their base.

Second, the Democrats would have made the smaller infrastructure bill that eventually passed the second priority of Biden’s term in office. They wouldn’t have wasted precious time by trying to pass Build Back Better, let alone have openly toyed with the idea of resorting to extraordinary procedures like reconciliation or abolition of the filibuster to get their partisan bill passed. They would have understood that bipartisan bills achieved through ordinary procedure tend to shore up confidence that ordinary procedure works, and that nothing is more important than confidence when people are tempted to engage in extraordinary procedures (like assaulting the Capitol). To preserve the liberal democracy that preserves your party when liberal democracy is under threat, you seek out opportunities to compromise, not spurn them.

Third, the Democrats would not use the term “emergency” so profligately (and in many cases, inappropriately) as to drain it of meaning when applied to actual emergencies. The Georgia voting law (“Jim Crow 2.0”) was an “emergency.” The overturning of Roe v. Wade was an “emergency.” No, they weren’t—they were painful but (with one possible exception—which is not one that the Left has focused on) ordinary losses in a liberal democracy, not extraordinary threats to liberal democracy itself. If the Democrats were serious about meeting the threat posed by Trump, they would stop abusing the term “emergency.”

Fourth, if the Democrats were serious about the threat posed by Trump, they would not be helping far-right Trump supporters in Republican primaries in the belief that they’ll be easier to beat in the general election. I cannot adequately express how disgusted and enraged I am by this tactic. Have the Democrats learned nothing from 2016? Are they trying to get us all killed? The hubris and stupidity is staggering. I want to underscore here that the problem isn’t the optics of what the Democrats are doing. The problem is the reality of what the Democrats are doing. No amount of political messaging can change the reality. My choice in the Pennsylvania governors’ race is between the Republican Doug Mastriano, who attended the January 6 rally, and the Democratic Josh Shapiro, who (<checks notes>)… helped Mastriano get the Republican nomination. In other words, my choice is between the Right-wing nutjob and the Left-wing nutjob who supported him. Thanks, Democrats?

Finally, if they were serious, the Democrats would stand up to wokeness in their own party. Wokeness is to the Left what Trumpism is to the Right. Just like the new Right, the woke Left indulges in rampant enemy thinking, for instance by conceptualizing Trump supporters as deplorables on the wrong side of history. It’s wrong when the Right does it, and it’s wrong when the Left does it too. I don’t see a whole lot of moral daylight between the Republican Party’s refusal to stand up to Trump’s base and the Democratic Party’s refusal to stand up to its woke base. Both are profiles in cowardice.

By “wokeness,” an imperfect and much-abused but still useful term, I mean the bundle of ideas about race, gender, and sexuality which tends to emphasize certain identity categories as essential and to deemphasize a shared human identity. As I (and many others on both the Right and the liberal Left) have written, wokeness doesn’t just promote a set of ideas that are substantively antithetical to liberal democracy, the governing identity categories of which are humanity and citizenship. It also promotes these ideas in ways that are procedurally antithetical to liberal democracy—by conflating speech and violence, by restricting free speech, by bullying rather than seeking to persuade, and, in extremis, by canceling (mobbing, ostracizing, rendering unemployable) fellow citizens who hold ideas deemed unacceptable. In these respects, wokeness among the most progressive elements on the Left is similar to support for Trump among the most MAGA elements on the Right: The same intolerance for dissent and willingness to cancel heretics characterizes both.

In ways parallel to the Trump cult on the Right, wokeness and cancel culture on the Left have undermined habits of mind and spirit that are essential to liberal democracy. They have encouraged Americans to channel wildly disproportionate amounts of intellectual and emotional energy to the culture wars, at the expense of such minor matters as the rise of China, the defense of the dollar, and the crumbling of the liberal international order. They have inspired Americans to assume the worst about each other’s motives, deterred reasonable people of good faith from talking to each other, and narrowed key spaces for discussion and debate (such as newspapers of record and classrooms). It is impossible to have a liberal democracy when citizens are afraid even to clarify their areas of disagreement, because they are afraid to be honest about their beliefs. It is equally impossible to have a liberal democracy—or any other kind of polity—without national security or a stable economy.

The Left’s pooh-poohing of fears about wokeness as figments of Americans’ imaginations is an exercise in psychologically cruel gas-lighting that would do Trump himself proud. The way the Left has reacted to criticisms of one important manifestation of wokeness—the teaching of ideas about race and racism that are in some way related to Critical Race Theory in schools—is a case in point. A friend of mine calls it the “there’s no such thing as CRT, and it’s awesome!” reaction.  Debates over how to define Critical Race Theory are not unimportant, but the Democrats have used them as a dodge to avoid confronting the fact that something has changed, profoundly and for the worse, from how race and racism were discussed even in my progressive school just twenty to thirty years ago. I can see the change with my own eyes in the assignments given to my eighth-grader. It’s obnoxious in the extreme to tell me that what I’m seeing is a figment of my imagination.

Why and how can Left-wing ideas about race and gender being taught in schools and given dominance in the media possibly scare Americans more than the threat from Trump and the Trumpified Republican Party? Just ponder for a second what a low bar “make yourself less disturbing than Donald Trump” is to clear—and yet the Democrats, in their infinite wisdom, are failing to clear it. Their failure is so mind-boggling that one is tempted to explain it in terms of witchcraft or sorcery. Then one remembers that this is a party in which the philosophy known as “popularism”—as in, take popular positions—is controversial. Perhaps a non-magical explanation is possible.

The Democrats’ inability to make themselves less scary than Trump has much to do with the model of power on which they operate. They tend to be most afraid of the Right’s formal political power—its success in acquiring Supreme Court and federal judgeships, its (allegedly) baked-in advantages in the Electoral College and the Senate, its changes to voting laws, and so forth. Conversely, while the Right fears the Left’s formal political power too (hence its talk of the “deep state”), its more animating fear is of the Left’s control of cultural institutions, most importantly the media and schools. When people on the Right imagine how the Left would govern if it gained power, they don’t just look at the Democratic Party: They also look at Hollywood and academia. Who can blame them for being repelled by what they see in these deeply hypocritical institutions.

The distinction that the French philosopher Michel Foucault made between “sovereign” power (formal political power ultimately backed by the state’s police power) and “disciplinary” power (informal cultural power that works more through mind control than through brute force) is helpful here. Although the politics of Foucault’s idea are protean, it has tended to be used by the Left to understand how hegemonic discourses about race, gender, and sexuality could cause damage even when they had no formal reliance on the police power of the state. The left remains very interested in disciplinary power when it comes to addressing the perceived injustices of historically hegemonic discourses like “whiteness” and “heteronormativity,” but it has neglected the concept when it comes to analyzing fears of the Left on the Right, where it would be very useful.

On a day-to-day level, for most people, disciplinary power—the type of power wielded by cultural and educational institutions—penetrates private, intimate spaces more pervasively than does sovereign power. Trump may be planning to steal the next election by hijacking the mechanisms of sovereign power, but that prospect feels abstract and remote for many Americans compared to the concrete, often very painful reality of their kids coming home from school and accusing them of white privilege or announcing a change of pronouns. There’s a quotidian, in-your-face, in-your-home quality to the Democrats’ exercise of disciplinary power that any Republican scheme to corrupt the next election lacks.

In short, if the Democrats were serious about meeting the threat from the Right, they’d put less effort into lecturing Americans about why they should be afraid of Trump and more effort into understanding why so many Americans are so afraid of the Democrats.

Katherine C. Epstein is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden. See also her recent writings on the importance of intellectual curiosity in our political culture; society's most divisive cultural debates; and embracing the moral complexity of our political views.

Image: Unsplash (Mike Von)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyCulturePolitical PhilosophyUnited States