The Corner

Crisis Rhetoric

I didn’t see the Medved clip you mentioned, but it’s true that crisis rhetoric (and moral-equivalent-of-war rhetoric) has often been used to justify expansions of state power, and is better suited to that agenda than to an anti-statist one. I think you can view 1929-1991 as a long “crisis era” in American politics. The country goes through a Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, inflation, a crime wave, rapid and destabilizing social change, and many expansions of government. Then things settled down with the end of the Cold War and the diminishment of various social pathologies.

Interestingly, Republicans lost the House at the start of the period and regained it at the end. Also interestingly, as soon as the period ended, Bill Clinton failed to sell an expansion of federal power based on the idea of a health-care “crisis.” Then Republicans failed in somewhat apocalyptic campaigns to abolish departments of the federal government and then to remove Clinton from office. I don’t think that the war on terrorism has done much to make crisis politics work outside a narrow range of issues, because it isn’t a war of mass mobilization. (And yes, these scattered thoughts do tend to reinforce your point about the utility of crisis talk as the president tries to win Social Security reform.)

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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