Politics and Crisis Management
KeywordsPolitical Leader Crisis Management Crisis Situation Approval Rating Political Concern
Crisis management is the process by which a government agency works to avoid crises or events which may be harmful to the organization or to the public at large and works to mitigate the effects of any crises which may occur.
When crises occur, it is natural for citizens to look to political leaders to help solve the issues quickly and effectively. When disaster strikes, governments often have tools and resources available that most other organizations or individuals do not, and we like to think that the government will be there for a community in its time of need. The government is the best way to solve issues that require collective action, including managing a crisis situation. When something goes wrong, governments can do more to solve the problem than any other entity. However, this process is not always as simple as it may seem, and any action taken by a government in response to a crisis has to be viewed through a political lens.
Any form of crisis, whether it is economic, military, or environmental, can have political ramifications. Because of this, any situation has the potential to be used for political gain and can cause political actors to make decisions that may have as much to do with political concerns as they do with the public good. There is a theoretical aversion to this line of thinking, rooted in the idea of a dichotomy between politics and administration. When a natural disaster occurs, most people would like to imagine that politics will take a back seat to resolving the crisis quickly and safely. After all, when a tornado hits a town, there is not a Republican or Democratic way to rescue people trapped under debris. However, this mindset drastically underestimates the desire for political actors to maintain control.
Political Ramifications of Crises
A crisis can rapidly define or redefine a politician’s image. Handling it well can instantly improve one’s reputation, elevate a leader in the eyes of citizens, and potentially lead to more power or a higher office. Following the incident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station, Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh’s approval rating skyrocketed. He was seen as having stayed calm, effectively leading emergency management operations, and raising money for cleanup efforts (Fink 1986). After the attacks on September 11th, President George Bush’s approval ratings topped 90 % due to his reaction to the disaster. John F. Kennedy came across as an international power player for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. These leaders gave the appearance of stability to an uncertain public, and they benefitted politically because of it.
On the other hand, poor handling of a crisis can derail a politician’s career. For example, a poor response to the 1969 Blizzard in New York by Mayor John Lindsay is commonly thought to have hurt his career and crippled his 1972 presidential bid. George W. Bush’s administration suffered greatly from its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. Because mishandling a crisis can have such negative effects, politicians have a great incentive to make sure contingency plans are in order and the public sees them as being prepared for whatever crisis may come up.
But leaders do not only have to concern themselves with the public’s reaction. While citizens look to leaders to help solve crises, political opponents look to capitalize on them (Boin and ‘t Hart 2003). Crises can show the need for reform or improvement in a government organization, which can imply that the status quo is problematic. In a crisis, opponents can blame current leaders for any issues that have arisen during their tenure. This can make those in power look inept and put forth the opposition as ones who can solve or prevent future problems. If a current leader has issues that led to a crisis, a new leader may be required to come in and clean house. Because of the level of blame ready to be heaped upon those in power, it requires not just a ready response after a crisis has occurred, but enough preventative measures to show that officials were not caught off guard and had done everything possible to mitigate the effects.
All Crises Are Political
There are many types of crises that can affect a society. Some of these are inherently political in nature. When a corrupt politician mishandles public funds or when political pressures result in innocent people being arrested, there is very clearly a political connection and political outcomes. Political scandals and corruption, while not always life threatening, are crises nonetheless. They can result in a breakdown of the system of government, causing other functions to suffer. Political issues must be managed in order that political structures do not collapse.
Throughout history, political crises have resulted in dramatic changes to the way people are governed. The Watergate scandal, for instance, was a fundamentally political crisis. No lives were ever at risk, yet it led to the resignation of both the president and vice president and caused an unprecedented lack of trust in the government. In the 1780s, Shays’ Rebellion highlighted problems with the Articles of Confederation and showed the need for the Constitution. In the 1800s, a nationwide system of corrupt party bosses in cities helped to usher in the Progressive Era.
Other types of crises, though not fundamentally political in nature, still have major political implications. Economic crises are not strictly political in nature. Often they result from private action, a change in consumer preference, or simply a bad year for a crop. Still, politicians are typically held accountable. When campaigns promise jobs and economic growth, it is damaging when those things don’t happen. Inflation rates, interest rates, growth rates, tax rates, and unemployment rates are all political issues. Rising unemployment can be a sign that a party’s economic policies are misguided and could hurt them on election day, whereas broadly felt economic growth can solidify a politician’s or party’s hold on political power.
Many environmental crises have direct political causes and effects. How to handle climate change, for example, is a contentious issue. Though the issue itself is firmly rooted in science, dealing with it places it squarely in the political arena. Some would argue that the government should regulate certain industries or products or that taxes be used as a deterrent force. Measuring economic concerns against environmental concerns is a value decision common in the realm of politics. When natural disasters strike, elected leaders are often measured on the quality of their response, as well as what measures were in place beforehand. Were tornado sirens functional? Were shelters well supplied? How coordinated was the response by emergency workers?
Infrastructure problems are another source of political crises. The 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis and the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan had serious political implications. Political blame abounded over who was responsible for funding, inspecting, and maintaining these systems.
Often multiple types of crises can combine to form a much larger crisis. Hurricane Katrina is a prime example. The storm caused infrastructure to fail and led to the flooding of New Orleans. The government’s disastrous response further compounded the issue, which not only resulted in the deaths of hundreds in New Orleans alone, but was politically devastating to the Bush administration.
Crisis Avoidance for Politicians
To a large extent, avoiding crises means taking steps toward preparation and maintenance of current systems. Inspecting flood walls, running drills, and doing routine infrastructure repairs can greatly reduce the damage inflicted by an environmental- or infrastructure-based crisis. Smart tax and finance policies and attracting a diverse yet stable employment base can safeguard a region against economic crises.
Politicians (executives and legislators alike) should concern themselves with crisis avoidance procedures. If a congressional oversight committee misses key warning signs, it could be disastrous both to those affected and to the legislators themselves. If an executive is not prepared when a crisis hits, they can lose political capital instantly.
Avoiding crises seems like a goal all politicians could get behind. However, this is often not the case. Differing political views can create values conflicts. Various ideologies may support funding to avoid a natural disaster or a military crisis. Some may see infectious diseases as an issue that needs to be addressed quickly, while others would prefer to focus on averting an economic crisis. While avoiding a crisis may be theoretically desired, debating which crises are seen as the most pressing often results in heated battle for funding, resources, or political attention.
When leaders do have the ability to plan for a crisis, it is important that they do so in the right way. Irving Janis (1989, 1983) discusses heavily the processes by which leaders make their decisions. Leaders who have oversimplified views of a crisis situation or the potential for a crisis situation may make bad choices. Leaders may make impulsive or emotionally based decisions, which often do not work out. Leaders may succumb to social pressure in pursuing a specific policy when evidence and expertise indicate another route should be taken.
Groups are the usual way to counteract the limits of an individual. Having a panel of experts or a brain trust can show the willingness of a politician to accept help and advice and is usually positive. Many decisions are too important to mess up, and more ideas and points of view can add value to a discussion and be the difference between a good outcome and a negative one. But groups also have their shortcomings, including a lack of vigilance, an overestimation of the group’s power or morality, and a pressure toward uniformity. Having a panel of “yes-men” is as likely to do more harm than good. Politicians need advisors who are willing to tell the truth, even if it conflicts with the opinions of the rest of the group or its leader.
But even leaders who are open minded can fall victim to faulty intelligence or just plain bad luck. A storm that intensifies despite all available weather forecasts can wreak havoc. Unexpected turmoil overseas can send domestic markets tumbling. Even with the best efforts of political leaders, crises can still occur.
Constant tests, drills, and training sessions are vital to ensuring that a response is effective. They also protect politicians from charges of negligence in the event of a crisis. Before a crisis, these steps may seem like a waste of time or an annoyance. The noise involved in testing civil defense sirens and emergency alert systems may frustrate the public, but the danger of them not functioning properly is much greater. In addition, knowing that preventative steps are being taken can calm the nerves of the public. If snow is in the forecast, seeing that roads are being pretreated can prevent a rush to the grocery for food.
However, while preparation is important, these actions are not at all glamorous politically. It is much more politically beneficial for a politician to dedicate a new bridge than to maintain an old one so it doesn’t collapse. When politicians leave office, they often point to visible accomplishments. Improving a city’s infrastructure rating is rarely noticed, but perhaps more important. And few citizens will remember if a crisis didn’t happen. People will not look back fondly on the economy not collapsing or a flood being averted. This may be why many areas are unprepared and so much infrastructure is in such bad condition.
Political Action During a Crisis
Even if every possible step has been taken to avoid a crisis, they will still occur. When a crisis happens, how a politician handles it can not only determine their political future but also determine how extensive the damage from the crisis becomes. To begin, political leaders must first decide if something is a crisis or simply an isolated, temporary, or small-scale event. Not every snow storm or market fluctuation represents a full-blown crisis, and responding to every event as if it were can strain resources and leave people with a false sense of security when a real crisis occurs. This decision must be made quickly, however. A delayed response can be disastrous and make politicians look unprepared, unobservant, weak, or scared to act.
Leaders must also communicate with citizens honestly without leading to panic. Showing that government agencies are prepared to handle a situation can prevent a small crisis from turning into a full-blown emergency. Government responsiveness and communication should be shown before, during, and after a crisis has occurred.
One of the most important things a politician can do is to be involved. When leaders are on the front line, coordinating responses, and working with other agencies, it will drastically improve the impression that citizens have of them. Being involved shows that political leaders care and that they understand or even share in the suffering of the community. Politicians who are not involved run the risk of appearing indifferent, which can weaken their standing in the community and give support to political opponents in subsequent elections. Leaders should not get in the way, however, unless of course a politician is a trained emergency responder.
Politicians should also be aware that no emergency plan will ever be totally sufficient for a crisis. There will always be unforeseen circumstances which will require some degree of flexibility. Having alternate routes for emergency vehicles to travel after a tornado or having a rainy day fund for unexpected expenses can give a plan just enough adaptability to handle a problem.
In a crisis, it may be difficult for one person to take charge completely because issues are now so complex. Politicians must be able to work together to solve a problem. While this sounds straightforward enough, political considerations often prevent opposing politicians or political parties from effectively cooperating. Deciding who will receive credit can not only result in bickering between parties but slow down any response, needlessly drawing out a crisis situation. While political concerns may motivate leaders to act quickly, those same concerns may prevent leaders from acting together.
Political Concerns After a Crisis
In a political context, what happens after a crisis can be as relevant as what happens during one. There can be much to learn from a crisis, and learning what went wrong can lead to improvements and better outcomes in the future. Still, many difficult questions must be answered. What crisis prevention mechanisms worked well? Which ones did not? Were there warning signs missed? Was this a system breakdown, human error, or simply bad luck? While these questions are important for all involved, they are of particular concern for politicians, who are likely to deal with accusations and blame from political opponents. Following large crises, there are likely to be official investigations or hearings. Figuring out what happened and why can help deflect blame and serve as a potent political defense.
It is likely the case that due to an increasingly complex set of systems, breakdowns in several different areas contributed to a crisis. In this case, improvements in coordination are often advocated. This can create new political structures and introduce new concerns about funding and oversight. For example, the Department of Homeland Security was created in response to the attacks on September 11th due to a lack of coordination and communication among various government agencies. While many felt this was necessary to prevent future attacks, others raised concerns over citizens’ privacy and the cost-effectiveness of some measures.
Crises can also present opportunities to propose new policies that may otherwise have not had enough support to be politically viable. An oil crisis can lead to new calls for investment in alternative sources of energy. An economic crisis can lead to new regulations to safeguard against future problems. The Great Depression, for example, resulted in several New Deal policies which may never have been passed had the crisis not occurred.
Political Ethics and Accountability
Politically, results matter. Whether or not crises are prepared for and handled effectively is important for everyone involved. The end result of crises, however, may not be the only consideration. The means in which crises are handled and resolved matter a great deal.
To begin, political leaders must be seen as legitimate (Stark 2010). Having representative structures in place can help with this, showing that while leaders are in charge of dealing with a situation directly, they are still held accountable by citizens for their actions and for how they handled the crisis. Keeping people accountable is important, as it ensures that the public will and public good are at the forefront of politicians’ minds. When there is no one to hold accountable for how a situation unfolds, the public usually suffers. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a prime example. Many of the decisions that led to the crisis were made by emergency managers appointed by the governor – unelected officials who are unaccountable to voters. These decisions resulted in thousands of children being poisoned with no one to hold directly accountable. While appointing unelected officials may appear apolitical, the decision to use such methods is heavily politicized. A basic tenet of democracy holds that people should have some say in how they are governed – in the decisions that affect their lives. By removing this democratic feature, political accountability was also removed, changing the political landscape of Flint’s local government.
Beyond political accountability and technical concerns are ethical considerations (Svedin 2011). Even if the government’s response to a crisis is flawlessly carried out, if the action is seen to be unethical, the reaction by citizens can be negative, and mishandling the response can result in a real lack of faith in leaders. Deciding what is ethical is often hard to determine. For example, can going to war be considered ethical? Should the government force people to evacuate their homes in a flood? Forcible removal of residents is generally seen in a negative light, but if doing so keeps people alive and prevents the need for dangerous and costly rescue efforts, people may be more willing to accept it. These sorts of ethical questions are important. Politicians need to be seen as holding the moral high ground. People generally understand that hard choices have to be made by those in charge and are often willing to extend political forgiveness to those presented with such difficult decisions. However, when a politician is selfish or deceitful in the decision-making process, or when they stick to a rigid ideological structure even when it is impractical and harms citizens, voters may not be as understanding. Citizens expect their political leaders to make the right decisions and to make them in the best possible way.
The handling of a crisis by a government is full of political concerns. A politician’s responses before, during, and after a crisis can make or break a career. Citizens expect their leaders to take necessary preventative action and to take steps to mitigate the damage. Proper communication and involvement are vital. In addition, politicians must handle these situations in an ethical fashion. Crises are much more complicated than the crisis itself. The stakes involved for citizens and communities make them inherently political, and they must be handled as such.
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