by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
When John Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans that they were about to enter a “community of peril” in venturing to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, he helped inaugurate an American tradition: the politics of crisis. One of the great paradoxes revealed by American life is that crisis can both invigorate democratic institutions and threaten their foundations.
The shock of crisis can simultaneously inspire feats of grand statesmanship and corrode the norms of a free society. The Constitution—one of the great acts of political engineering and democratic imagination—emerged out of the tumultuous paralysis of the Articles of Confederation. The Civil War secured the Union and extended the promise of liberty, but the wartime federal government cracked down on civil liberties and suppressed some presidential critics. Franklin Roosevelt marshaled a vast “arsenal of democracy” to confront the totalitarian threat, but his administration also pressed the rule of law to its breaking point—with internment camps, invasive state surveillance, and the use of federal agencies to harass political opponents.
Emergencies inevitably tend to concentrate power. To confront crises, a state needs an infrastructure for central authorities to act nimbly. The Articles of Confederation were flawed in part because they did not give the federal government enough vigor and flexibility. Two world wars and the Cold War helped swell the power of the presidency in the twentieth century.
At the same time, however, the urgency that marks a crisis also stands in tension with the institutions and practices of democratic life. When people must evacuate a sinking ship, there’s no time for them to hold a parliamentary debate about the order of retreat. At the core of the habits of democratic life are compromise, charity, and patience. Democratic stability partly depends on various factions accepting political loss and believing that the stakes of a given election are not existential.