The Problem of Political Alarmism

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore


How often do you hear the term “crisis” in the media these days? I imagine you could take almost any issue in politics, put the word crisis at end of it, and you’d have a headline that’s been written before. In modern politics, everything is being messaged as a life or death situation. That’s not to say there aren’t such situations, but it seems that more than ever we are being told that every issue is of world-ending proportions. Partisans on both sides want to fire up their bases, but at what point does this rhetoric go to far? We have reached a point where both sides are unwilling to work bipartisanly because they are entrenched in their own rhetoric. Political alarmism is hurting public discourse and de-valuing actual political crises.

Debate is important. Many people think debate is one person trying to change the view of another, but this is not the case. Debate has three main goals: to sway undecideds in the audience, to challenge your opponent’s argument and to refine your own argument. Ideally, through debate we can expose illogical arguments and bolster logical ones allowing us to determine what makes good public policy. Unfortunately, political alarmism can put an end to productive debate. When someone believes that they own the moral high-ground and that any movement away it will result disaster, there is very little incentive to debate. Their political opinion becomes moral law. This line of thinking leads to tribalism and extremism. When debate is lost, logic becomes irrelevant because one’s ideas are never challenged. Logical reasoning is replaced with moralizing and policy is based on emotion.

Photo courtesy of Glenn Fawcett

In 1962, the Soviet Union began to place ballistic missiles in Cuba. This put the Soviets in striking distance of virtually every major city in the United States. After thirteen tense days, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. reached an agreement and the missiles were removed. We know this event as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was the closest to thermonuclear war we’ve ever gotten. I bring this up to highlight the true meaning of the word crisis. It describes a situation of intense danger.

Contrast that with how the term is used today. Virtually every policy dispute is filtered through the lenses of being a crisis. We have so diluted the term that if there was and event like the one in 1962, I am not sure the public would care because it would be mixed in with the rest of the daily outrage that has become so prevalent in the modern media.

The current trend of political alarmism is a dangerous one. We have created a culture in which every possible policy disagreement is a matter of life and death. We are pushing out legitimate debate in favor of moral grandstanding. This culture of political outrage has led to a public that is apathetic to many political issues. The only way to fix this situation is to stop the moralizing and start constructive debates. Only then can we begin to work together as a country again.