Emergencies can be many things: terrifying, paralyzing, and panic-inducing. But they can also be exciting, adrenaline-pumping periods when social connections are quickly and easily made and people have fun. In fact, emergencies can be and often are all of these things. We live heightened lives during emergencies. Everything is more alive and vibrant than on a random slow Tuesday afternoon.
What emergencies aren’t very conducive to is long-term planning and good decision-making. We tend to think more about what it seems like absolutely must be done right now than things like the good job we have done recently paying off our credit cards. Rash things happen and are spoken.
For the last several years, our country has been in a period of perpetual political emergency. For many if not most on both sides of the spectrum, the dullness of day-to-day politics as normal have been replaced by a do or die, now is the time attitude. We tend most often to think about how ours is a culture of outrage, but what if it really is a culture of emergency?
The father of this politics and culture of emergency is certainly Donald Trump. One of his many verbal tics is saying, “We have to, we have no choice.” This could be about China killing us on trade, or the crisis at the border, or political correctness. The intellectual case some made for his presidency, Flight 93, is an emergency, and he is the only man who can save us. Even if he is reckless at times, the times demand it.
But even if Trump started all this, Democrats became active, aggressive, and powerful purveyors of emergency the night he won the election. First came the breathless Russia investigation that was bound to see Trump exit the White House in handcuffs any day now. Fairly normal people like Pete Buttigieg started calling for court packing. And now almost every leading Democratic candidate wants to impeach Justice Brett Kavanaugh because of a milquetoast expose in the New York Times of a game of telephone played by drunk 22-year-olds four decades ago.
All of these ideas come with dangerous long-term dangers to the faith the American people have that elections won’t be overturned and that courts will operate apolitically. But wait, there’s more. Lest we forget, according to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez we are 11 years from the end of the world owing to climate change. Talk about an emergency.
And what is the only remedy? Spending a few Fort Knoxes’ worth of cash and handing almost the entirety of the private economy over to the government. Also nobody gets to drive anymore or eat hamburgers. In any normal time, these political policy prescriptions would seem, well, crazy. But crazy things make sense in an emergency. “We have to, we have no choice.” Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke wants to send police to seize Americans’ guns.
The one candidate in 2020 who seems to want off this ride is Joe Biden. In many ways, his candidacy is based on the idea of a return to pre-Trumpian so-called normalcy. Did you know he was Barack Obama’s vice president, by the way? Whether it’s his supposedly more modest policy proposals, his chiding of Harris that no matter how crucial the issue the solution must be constitutional, or his “aw, shucks” guy from Scranton routine, he’s not an emergency guy.
Biden’s success will rise or fall based on his ability to convince — first Democrats, then all Americans — that this is not an emergency. That after a period of division and quickness to act we need something calmer and quieter.
It seems like a tall order. The American people don’t seem quite ready to chill out. After all, once the emergency ends is when the bills come due and the consequences set in. Also, some of these emergencies may be real ones.
After the election of 2020, who takes the prize will go a long way toward determining if the perpetual emergency can fade. A Trump reelection would be met with another massive freakout on the left, but also the realization that Trump is in his final term, and a postmortem about how he beat them again. If it’s Biden, hard-core Trumpers will have a fit, but we are less likely to see an ambitious spate of policies that fully outrage conservative Americans.
Any of the other prominent Democrats, unless they pivot hard to a more normal approach to politics, seem likely to keep the perpetual machine of political emergency well oiled and humming on all cylinders. It’s dangerous to live in an emergency for too long, but be that as it may, many Americans seem ready to keep the current one going for at least a little while longer.