When John Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans that they were about to enter a “community of peril” in venturing to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, he helped inaugurate an American tradition: the politics of crisis. One of the great paradoxes revealed by American life is that crisis can both invigorate democratic institutions and threaten their foundations.
The shock of crisis can simultaneously inspire feats of grand statesmanship and corrode the norms of a free society. The Constitution—one of the great acts of political engineering and democratic imagination—emerged out of the tumultuous paralysis of the Articles of Confederation. The Civil War secured the Union and extended the promise of liberty, but the wartime federal government cracked down on civil liberties and suppressed some presidential critics. Franklin Roosevelt marshaled a vast “arsenal of democracy” to confront the totalitarian threat, but his administration also pressed the rule of law to its breaking point—with internment camps, invasive state surveillance, and the use of federal agencies to harass political opponents.
Emergencies inevitably tend to concentrate power. To confront crises, a state needs an infrastructure for central authorities to act nimbly. The Articles of Confederation were flawed in part because they did not give the federal government enough vigor and flexibility. Two world wars and the Cold War helped swell the power of the presidency in the twentieth century.
At the same time, however, the urgency that marks a crisis also stands in tension with the institutions and practices of democratic life. When people must evacuate a sinking ship, there’s no time for them to hold a parliamentary debate about the order of retreat. At the core of the habits of democratic life are compromise, charity, and patience. Democratic stability partly depends on various factions accepting political loss and believing that the stakes of a given election are not existential. Raising the existential stakes of politics heightens the risk of violent conflict outside the political process—terrorism, street violence, even civil war.
A sense of existential conflict—often accompanied by a weakening of those social institutions that encourage civic stability—can precipitate collapse. At the height of the most radical phase of the French Revolution, Robespierre appealed to a politics of existential crisis to defend mass terror and surveillance: “The government in revolution is the despotism of liberty over tyranny.” It’s revealing that two of the principal engines of revolutionary terror during this period wrapped themselves in the language of “safety”: because of the existential threats facing the revolutionary republic, the Committee of Public Safety and Committee of General Security could spare no quarter in their prosecution of the alleged allies of tyranny.
This tension between crisis and the order of liberty supplies important context for the turn to emergency politics in contemporary American life. As with many other topics, Donald Trump and his opponents have functioned as distorted mirrors of each other on this issue. On the campaign trail last year, the former president warned his voters that “I am the only thing standing between you and chaos.” If Trump allies often cast him as an essential vehicle for preserving the country, many of his critics portrayed him and his so-called enablers as an existential threat to American democracy. In a recent viral Twitter thread, Johns Hopkins political scientist Lilliana Mason argued that many Trump voters fit a quasi-pathological type that has threatened American democracy for nearly two centuries: a “particular faction of Americans who have been uniquely visible and anti-democratic since before the Civil War. . . . We need to worry about the very real threat posed by an anti-democratic group that has always existed in the electorate.”
This sense of politics as existential conflict inevitably corrodes republican institutions. Now in power, Democrats have mounted a renewed push to use the “nuclear option” to undo the institutional character of the Senate and eliminate the filibuster. Leading Democrats unveiled a proposal to pack the Supreme Court earlier this year. Before 2019, such acts were generally viewed as crossing a constitutional Rubicon. Now they represent, in the words of political scientist David Faris, the “constitutional hardball” purportedly necessary to save democracy. But playing constitutional hardball was precisely Trump’s approach to the 2020 election: filing countless lawsuits, calling on state legislatures to override the popular vote, asking the vice president to overstep his authority by rejecting the electoral votes of certain states. Hence excess provokes excess, in a spiral of destructive angst.
The “existential crisis of liberal democracy” narrative has some plausibility. American politics over the past two decades leaves much to be desired. Political instability is growing, as are extremist factions. Conspiracy theories to delegitimize multiple presidential elections have sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
But the full-scale embrace of the psychology of emergency itself contributes to this crisis. A durable democracy requires a certain amount of political adrenaline, as it were, to respond to crises. But it needs other things, too. It needs moderating institutions. It needs devotion to a regime to check factional animosities among the leadership class. It needs the broader lived practices of trust and cooperation that cut against factional conflict. Emergency politics threatens all those things.
If Winthrop argued that entering a “community of peril” meant that the Puritans would have to rely on each other even more, contemporary emergency politics often pits Americans against one another. A war on “bad” Americans offers the illusory clarity that drives social-media engagement but corrodes the deeper sense of responsibility essential for democratic politics. Forging unity by confronting an exterior threat—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union—has a long historical legacy, but trumpeting a widespread and open-ended interior threat seems more likely to result in toxic polarization. Portraying a massive bloc of Americans as a pathological impediment to democracy delegitimizes them as participants in political life. Democracy and political pluralism can help to reconcile diverse worldviews in a country, but an ideology holding that swaths of voters are illegitimate or “anti-democratic” inverts those tempering, reconciling tendencies.
Of course, the politics of emergency is not particularly new. In 1800, New York’s presidential electors were determined by a combined vote of the state legislature. The 1800 legislative elections gave the anti-Federalists a majority of state legislative seats—and meant that the state was likely to vote for Thomas Jefferson for president. Desperate to block the election of his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton petitioned Governor John Jay to call a lame-duck session of the state legislature to change the law for appointing presidential electors so that John Adams could secure the state’s electoral votes. Hamilton argued that the “extraordinary nature of the crisis” meant that now was not a time for a “strict adherence to ordinary rules.” This scheme was justified, Hamilton claimed, “to prevent an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of the State.” Jay rejected Hamilton’s proposal, and thereby gave New York’s electoral votes and perhaps the presidential election as a whole to Jefferson. Contrary to Hamilton’s warnings, American democracy did not collapse with Jefferson’s election.
Hamilton’s appeal for extraordinary measures to preserve democracy from a notorious menace resonates today. Like modern proponents of constitutional hardball, Hamilton called on Jay to take sweeping action to save democracy itself: “Popular Governments must certainly be overturned & while they endure prove engines of mischief—if one party will call to its aid all the resources which Vice can give and if the other, however pressing the emergency, confines itself within all the ordinary forms of delicacy and decorum.”
Almost certainly, taming emergency politics means addressing some of the policy shortcomings of recent decades: restoring economic vitality in many parts of the country, helping young people marry and start families, diversifying opportunity, confronting the growing sense of precariousness for health care and other issues, rebuilding robust cultural institutions, and so forth. Deeper trends have fed polarization and alienation.
But the intellectual tensions of emergency politics nevertheless should be acknowledged. Normalizing the pitch of emergency degrades the institutions of liberty.