Strategy of hyperbole hits crisis proportions

The selling of political ideas from all sides tends to use an increasingly common practice: strident overstatement

By Jeff Manza, acting director of the Institute for Policy Research and associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University

February 20, 2005

Everywhere we look there is a crisis: our public schools, the environment, world terrorism, the government budget deficit, Medicare, the balance of trade deficit, traditional values, civil rights, corporate social responsibility, job creation, the family and, of course, the Social Security system. To hear President Bush talk, the system of public old-age pensions is on the verge of "bankruptcy" unless sweeping reforms are adopted.

The Social Security debate is only the most recent example of a recurrent rhetorical strategy used by enterprising politicians and political elites. The use of crisis rhetoric runs the gamut of the political spectrum: It is a truly bipartisan phenomenon.

For the Christian right, the most important crises involve traditional family values.

In the business community, the tax code and budget deficits evoke fears of system breakdown.

In the political center, the focus is on matters to do with efficiency and administration, on the need to "make government work."

For the Marxist left, the capitalist world economy is always in a state of crisis, always on the verge of breakdown.

Everyone seems to agree that the state of public schools and the threat from world terrorism each constitute a crisis, perhaps one of the reasons we get a higher-than-usual level of bipartisan agreement on the need for "educational reform" and to fight a global war on terror.

Why is "crisis" rhetoric so common?

Perhaps everything really is in a state of terrible crisis. Perhaps we are indeed on the verge of collapse.

A more plausible explanation is that crisis rhetoric allows political entrepreneurs room for maneuvering they might not otherwise have. A crisis requires immediate action. Old dogmas have to be rethought. Long-standing ways of doing things have to be overturned. Entrenched interests or beliefs must change.

But the rhetorical use of "crisis" is itself in crisis.

It is well-known among psychologists that efficient cognitive processing and decision-making decline when panic sets in. So too with the rhetoric of crisis. We debate the terms of policy proposals differently and easily can be compelled into thinking that "doing something" is necessary, whether it is really required or not.

The case of Social Security highlights the problems of such rhetoric.

The president and his supporters have done a great job in convincing the public--even sophisticated observers who should know better--that unless we enact drastic reforms, the entire Social Security system will collapse. According to polls, many Americans no longer believe Social Security will remain capable of providing them benefits when they retire.

That crisis rhetoric is at best inaccurate, and indeed, the president and his advisers have had to clarify that their proposed plan will not fix the financing crisis they have spent so much time talking about.

While Social Security may require some tinkering, no reputable independent analyst has concluded that Social Security's problems cannot be fixed with modest tax increases or changes in the benefit formula (such as raising the retirement age slightly), or some combination thereof. Such small reforms have been undertaken several times since Social Security was first adopted in 1935 and always proved sufficient.

Why would the current situation be any different?

Interestingly enough, the historical record shows that all earlier predictions of Social Security's impending "crisis" did not pan out. Previous long-run projections about the system have significantly understated long-term economic growth and exaggerated the system's vulnerability. They have always understated economic and job growth.

That's not to say there is no viable case for a debate about a significant reform of Social Security, such as the president's proposal for privatization. I'm skeptical about that proposal, but to have a meaningful debate about it requires that we strip away the sense of urgency that "crisis" rhetoric entails.

Instead of asking whether the Bush reforms will "save" Social Security, we should be asking who will be helped and who will be hurt by such reforms. Are the high costs of transitioning to a new system affordable? Are those costs worth paying? How substantial are the risks in moving to individual accounts?

These are complicated questions, but they can be debated without a doom-and-gloom scenario hanging over the discussion.

Exaggerated claims of crisis frequently result in policies we later come to regret.

Take how the inordinate fears of drug use led to policies that fill America's prisons and have no discernible impact on drug use. The vast expansion of drug-related incarceration has wrecked individual lives and families and cost taxpayers enormous sums.

But drug use is essentially unchanged 20 years after the Reagan administration launched the current war on drugs.

The rhetoric of crisis also blinds us to cases of success. Most Americans don't know that in recent years many urban public school systems have improved their performance--despite the increasingly diverse population that those schools must educate. Bombarded by claims of failing schools, we may move too quickly into endless reform efforts--ones that are implemented too hastily to have any beneficial impact and may even be counterproductive.

Similarly, the very successes of the war on terrorism--in which U.S. military strength has destroyed Al Qaeda training camps and pushed the war on terror into the domain of ideas--is not reflected in public debate. We behave as if the threat of terror is as strong today as it was in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. We throw money and force at a problem that no longer seriously exists, instead of changing our image around the world that motivates terrorists in the first place.

In the end, Social Security may indeed need some tinkering. Urban public schools are far from ideal, and continuing efforts to improve them are vital. Terrorism, even if rooted in local groups unconnected with another, will remain a threat.

The U.S. cannot go on running a balance of trade deficit at its current level forever. We need to continue to analyze such problems and think critically about policy and political reforms that would make things better--but without invoking panic and fear.

While a moratorium on the use of "crisis" in political rhetoric would be welcome, its use may simply be too tempting for enterprising reformers (of whatever ideological stripe) to give it up. But if citizens at least recognize such claims for what they are--manipulative rather than analytical--more informed, sober public debates might follow.

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