BOOKS

When is a crisis something to worry about?

New book weighs the politics of crisis in America

Heath Brown
3Streams
Published in
5 min readNov 3, 2023

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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

This week, Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA) lamented shortages in nurses in his newsletter to constituents: “Our Country Needs More Nurses and Caregivers.” At a recent subcommittee hearing, Griffith explained “we discussed this crisis”, including reports that nearly half of Virginia nursing homes had halted admitting new residents at least once since the summer because of gaps in staffing.

Griffith wasn’t alone in worrying about an on-going crisis facing the country, yet most of his colleagues had their attention turned to the Israel this week. Democrats Jake Auchincloss (MA) and Joaquin Castro (TX) shared their concerns about that crisis as did Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA) and Deb Fischer (NE).

At the tail end of a once-in-a-generation public health crisis, Congress remains concerned about a host of American crises and Professor Dara Strolovitch has an answer to why members have used that term “crisis” in their constituent newsletters over 750 times, just since the end of the summer.

Strolovitch is just out with a fascinating and timely new book on political crises, When Bad Things Happen to Privileged People: Race, Gender, and What Makes a Crisis in America (University of Chicago).

In the book, Strolovitch treats the term “crisis” as a “keyword”: a type of word that has its meaning shaped by social and political processes as well as a word that’s political meaning imbues power. That power includes when it’s used as well as when it’s not.

Though bad times have surely always existed, Strolovitch finds that the use of the term “crisis” in this way is relatively new, not appearing regularly in political discourse until the 1920s (initially employed by abolitionists and racial justice activists at the turn of the 20th century), and increasing steeply only after the 1960s. In everywhere from data on congressional hearings and bills to party platforms and State of the Union addresses, this “catastrophizing language” has been on the rise.

Strolovitch doesn’t include Congressional communications with constituents, but she could’ve. Thanks to the amazing data Prof. Lindsey Cormack maintains at DCInbox.com, we know over the last decade and a half, members of Congress also have used this term at an increasing rate. In total, more than thirty thousand electronic newsletters have mentioned a crisis of one sort of another, further evidence that Strolovitch’s central argument is right.

Sitting in the background of the book’s analysis are party differences. These come up on occasion, including in data on party platforms. Partisanship isn’t the focus of this book, but it could’ve been.

For example, if we look again at the e-newsletter data, a clear pattern emerges that shows Republicans (in pink) are using the language of crises much more than Democrats (in blue). Over the last two decades, Republicans have used that term nearly twice as often as Democrats: 19,310 for Democrats to 11,481 for Democrats.

Figure 1 (source: DCInbox, dcinbox.com)

Republicans attach crisis to immigration with extreme and growing regularity. In 3,000 newsletters, Republicans mention the “border crisis” compared to just 39 Democratic newsletters. And, interestingly, this hasn’t been happening for very long. Just 1 in 10 of those mentions happened between 2010 and 2020. The vast majority of those “border crisis” newsletters — 90% — occurred after Joe Biden was sworn into office on January 20, 2021. As Strolovitch contends, this term is not simply used to describe a social problem, it is also used selectively to frame issues and to call for certain types of public policy solutions and not others.

To be sure, Congressional Democrats have their own crises to worry about. They mentioned the “climate crisis” 1,400 times during this same time period compared to just 56 for Republicans.

That the term crisis is on the rise in politics, and even that it is may reflect partisan differences, isn’t the only or even central contention Strolovitch makes in the book. This book is as much about when a bad situation is called a crisis as when it isn’t.

This nuance to the book’s central thesis comes out clearly when the sub-prime mortgage lending issue came to the fore in 2007 and 2008. Strolovitch shows that this national problem had particularly harsh impacts for women and people of color, but you wouldn’t know that from how that “crisis” was discussed. The racial and gender dimensions of this problem were treated as peripheral or even natural, non-crises amid a more pressing crisis.

For example, Strolovitch finds that less than 2% of the over 200 articles in the New York Times on the topic at the time “focused on the racialized patterns in foreclosures” and even fewer centered gender. The same pattern emerged in the Wall Street Journal, as well.

The consequence for public policy of this framing of the crisis and non-crisis are obvious. Crises demand government attention, non-crises, not so much. Strolovitch concludes “high rates of subprime lending and foreclosures among members of marginalized groups were naturalized as outside of the crisis and beyond the power of the state to remedy.”

Crises empower and disempower. The strategic use of the term, on the rise even today, avails some but not all of government redress.

Interestingly, while many members of Congress might not invest the same meaning in “crisis” as Strolovitch, at least one does. Last month, Virginia Foxx (R-NC) wrote to her constituents: “Contrary to the narratives and language we see displayed within the media that try to describe the current state of the southern border, I simply do not believe that we should be labeling it as a ‘crisis’ — it’s far worse. What we’re seeing play out is a catastrophe, and my update for you today confirms this even further.”

The next volume of Strolovitch’s book might just be What Makes a Catastrophe in America.

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Heath Brown
3Streams

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits