The Politics of Crisis Terminology
The Politics of Crisis Terminology
- Allan McConnellAllan McConnellDepartment of Political Science, The University of Sydney
The politics of crisis terminology is rarely examined directly. Crisis is an “umbrella,” under which resides a multitude of terms such as accidents, emergencies, fiascos, disasters, and catastrophes, as well as variations such as natural disasters, transboundary crises, and mega-crises. Yet the sheer diversity and frequent ambiguity among terms reflects the “politics” of how societies and political actors seek to cope with and address extreme events, which often pose a mixture of threat and opportunity. Central to an understanding is how (a) different terms are means of framing issues such as the scale and causes of the crisis, (b) crisis terms are part of governing strategies, and (c) nongovernmental actors (opposition parties, media, lobby groups, social movements, and citizens) can seek to influence government. A pivotal point in developing an understanding of crisis terminology is that rather bemoaning the lack of singular meanings for crisis and associated terms, or criticizing actors for “abuse” of the terms, one should recognize and accept that complex and contested crisis language and definitions are in themselves manifestations of politics in political societies.
- Contentious Politics and Political Violence
- Governance/Political Change
- Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy
- Political Communication
- Political Institutions
- Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies
The phenomenon of “crisis” is surrounded by an almost bewildering array of crisis definitions and crises types (Kuipers & Welsh, 2017). They include crises, disasters, accidents, emergencies, fiascos, and catastrophes, as well as variations such as creeping crises, long shadow crises, manufactured crises, natural disasters, blunders, normal accidents, transboundary crises, and mega-crises. The sheer range of events and episodes captured under the “umbrella” of crisis include volcanic ash clouds, terrorist attacks, water contamination episodes, school shootings, plane crashes, diplomatic relations, economic recessions, policy fiascos, budget deficits, and cyber-attacks. Such extraordinary phenomena are also the subject of multidisciplinary perspectives, from geography and sociology (McEntire, 2007; Rodríguez, Quaranetlli, & Dynes, 2006), to politics and policy (Boin, ‘t Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 2017; Handmer & Dovers, 2013), as well as international relations and foreign policy analysis (for an overview, see Stern, 2003).
As Coombs (2012) notes, “there is no one, universally accepted definition of crisis” (p. 18). Indeed, there are no universally agreed definitions of any subtypes such as disasters (Handmer & Dovers, 2013; Quarantelli & Perry, 2005; Tierney, 2014). Social media and popular opinion tend to see a crisis as self-evident, epitomizing the scandals and failings of leaders and policies, as well as the seeming (in)ability to successfully manage extreme events. Academic analysis is generally more reflective, although characterized by different social science methodological inclinations, from crisis as “fact” at one end of the spectrum to crisis as purely a matter of “perception” at the other (see Drennan, McConnell, & Stark, 2015). If there is anything close to a scholarly “rule of thumb,” it is of a “crisis” exhibiting three characteristics: high level of threat, high level of uncertainty, and urgency in terms of time for decisions to be taken (Boin et al., 2017). There is, however, a general recognition among crisis scholars that even these are analytical starting points—beyond which there are shades of grey and exceptions.
Regardless of academic debates, it is still commonplace for analysts to criticize the “political” use of crisis language, for example to sell newspapers, attack political opponents, or lobby for major policy reform. The general implication of such perspectives is that the word “crisis” should be reserved for an appropriate set of circumstances and that any other usage is unhelpful and unnecessarily politicized. In the context of housing policy in the United Kingdom, for example, King (2010) argues that every new initiative and its impact is overdramatized by labeling it a crisis, and that “overuse of the word ‘crisis’ cheapens the concept” (p. x).
It may indeed be tempting, therefore, to regret the fact that we cannot reach a consensus on definitions or criticize the “political” use of crisis terminology. This article, by contrast, takes a different approach—echoing discussions of contested concepts that settle on the view that we should recognize and celebrate diversity of use(s), rather than seeking single definitions with a view to attaining unassailable common agreement (Connolly, 1993; Gallie, 1955–1956). Crisis definitions and terminology are necessarily political. Crises can produce winners and losers, heroes and villains. Furthermore, they can shatter our feelings of safety and security, as well as destroy our faith in established institutions, policies, procedures, underlying values, and the coalitions of interests (from governments to lobby groups) that support them. Crises can also provide windows for change that otherwise would not have opened. Crisis definitions and terminology both reflect the complexity of societies and also involve attempts to influence it. Crisis terminology by actors, institutions, and groups is both “sensemaking” (an inward trying to understand aspects of the crisis such as what went wrong and what should be done) and “meaning making” (an outward articulation of such aspects) (Boin et al., 2017; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2015). When we try to understand the complexity of crises language, therefore, we need to understand the role that such language can play (for example) in seeking to shape discourse around the past, present, and future repercussions of the crisis. The purpose of this article is to shine a light on the inevitably political nature of the term “crisis” and associated terminology such as disasters, accidents, and fiascos.
Definitions of Crisis as Political Statements
The word “crisis” stems from the Greek word krisis, referring to the turning point in a disease. Other terms such as accidents, emergencies, disasters, fiascos, and catastrophes fall under the general umbrella of “crisis,” although they are often debated and discussed in different ways and from different disciplinary angles (see, e.g., McEntire, 2007).
Crisis terms—as part of the fabric of political language and without single, once-and-for all meanings—are powerful semantic tools (Edelman, 1988). They have multiple meanings and can be used in many different ways, depending on the contexts and the individuals or groups using them. They can be used to indicate or infer the scale of the damage, the causes of the crisis, speed of arrival, degree of preparedness, degree of complexity, epicenter of the crisis, capacity of authorities to cope, and length of crisis. Each has tendencies or “rules of thumb,” although deviations and exceptions are common.
Scale of the Damage
Some terms are inclined to provide an indication of “how big and bad” the event or episode is. The word “accident” tends to be the lowest, referring to localized, industrial episodes with relatively limited impact, such as a chemical spill or an explosion at a fireworks factory. “Catastrophe” tends to be at used at the other end of the spectrum, to indicate a level of damage that is almost beyond imagining (Amendola, Ermolieva, Linnerouth-Bayer, & Mechler, 2013). Bostrom and Ćirković (2008) include here plagues, epidemics, mass genocide, species extinction, and existential threats to humanity such as climate change. Rodríguez, Trainor, and Quarantelli (2006) separate catastrophes from disasters by emphasizing in the former how routine planning and expected coping patterns no longer apply. Such is the scale of the damage and interruption that officials cannot undertake the “disaster” response expected of them, and therefore help often comes from distant rather than surrounding areas.
There are exceptions to such tendencies. Accidents can have much broader and damaging societal repercussions. For example, the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 led to significant long-term environmental degradation and significant loss of life/long-term health risks, while the 2011 failures at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan produced a major reversal in the country’s reliance on nuclear energy. The word “catastrophe” can also be used to refer to more localized and even personalized events, albeit very bad in particularly limited contexts. Politicians can, for example, be caught up in scandal that is “catastrophic” for their career ambitions.
Between these extremes (and their exceptions) of accidents and catastrophes are the oft-used and malleable words “disaster” and “crisis.” The word “disaster” is highly disputed (see Handmer & Dovers, 2013; Quarantelli & Perry, 2005; Tierney, 2014). A disaster tends to be associated with significant loss of life, such as the Sunda Strait tsunami that hit Indonesia in late 2018 and claimed almost 500 lives. Yet there are some disasters where no lives were lost (e.g., the 1979 Three-Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania), as well as policy disasters (such as the U.K. poll tax that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and the 2004 resignation of Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Laila Freivalds over the poor response to the plight of some 40,000 Swedes affected by the tsunami in Southeast Asia) where the only casualties were the careers of politicians.
Such variability in terms of scale of impact can also be found in the word “crisis.” Many scholars would concur, for example, with Boin et al. (2017) who argue that crises can produce high levels of damage and shatter our norms and ways of working but that such crises can reside at different levels (e.g., personal, organizational, ecological, societal). The common denominator is that the level of damage wreaked by crisis threats is higher than the level of damage that would be produced by “normal” conditions.
Importantly, however, the scale of damage in any extreme situation is not always self-evident. Political actors may seek to minimize or elevate our impressions of how big/bad a crisis is. Brändström and Kuipers (2003), in their analysis of policy failures, demonstrate how an event can be framed in many different ways, from being a crisis-level challenge to core societal values and symptomatic of higher level strategic political/policy failures to a lower-level incident that is the product of operational failure and mishap. The 2009 members of parliament (MPs) expenses crisis in the United Kingdom produced multiple interpretations and views of the damage, often tied to assumptions about what caused the failings. Views range from the main damage being to MPs who had breached and liberally interpreted expenses procedures (framed as a scandal), to the entire Westminster system being shaken to its core because of a lack of public trust (framed as a crisis) (Van Heerde-Hudson, 2014).
Causes of the Crisis
Describing a crisis as a particular type of crisis can be an attempt to bring meaning and shape discourse around the causes of the crisis. As Dekker (2007) notes, for example, the term “accident” is a creature of the scientific revolution from the 16th century onward prior to which religion and superstition (via the language of fate, God’s will, and witchcraft) provided the main explanations for societal misfortunes. The term “accident” then emerged from Latin (a happening or event) to bring an understanding that an “accident” introduces a human role. Dekker (2017) goes further and suggests that, in the modern world, using the term “accident” suggests a management failure to manage risks.
Perrow (1999) in his ground-breaking work on “normal accidents,” examined production systems in terms of interactions between different element of production. He contrasted two sets of interactions. The first was expected linear sequences (such as drug manufacturing processes) versus complex and not immediately comprehensible (such as universities). The first was tightly coupled with little or no slack (such as nuclear power plants), compared with loosely coupled where there is slack to accommodate delays and unforeseen variations (such as post offices). All things being equal, a combination of tight coupling and high complexity (such as nuclear power plants) are more prone to producing failures because of the systemic repercussion of small errors, glitches, and malfunctions. In essence, by prefacing the word “accident” with the adjective “normal,” Perrow is alerting us to the fact that rather routine variations in organizational configurations and processes are the incubators of failure.
By contrast, describing an event as a natural disaster—a commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s but even in the early 21st century (see, e.g., Alexander, 2001)—harks back to an earlier pre-enlightenment time. The term “natural disaster” tends to imply, even erroneously, that disasters are caused by geographical and climatic forces (as is the case in hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis, landslides and heatwaves) rather than being caused by human action or intervention (Steinberg, 2006; Tierney, 2014). Responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, U.S. President George W Bush stated that “It was not a normal hurricane—and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it” (quoted in Liu, 2007, p. 44).
Other terms imply human causality. King and Crewe (2013) in their book on policy failures in the United Kingdom describe them in the title of the book as “blunders,” implying causality in human failings such as political disconnectedness from ordinary groups and citizens, group-think faith in risky policies, and routine oversimplifications. Human causality is also assumed in terms such as “mismanaged crises” and “manufactured crises.” The latter implies a form of crisis exploitation (Boin, McConnell, & ‘t Hart, 2009), assumed to be the deliberate creation of crisis conditions for strategic policy and/or political advantage. Long (2014) examines border closures in Kenya/Somalia, Turkey/Northern Iraq, and Macedonia/Kosovo and describes them as “imagined crises” and “manufactured crises” (for the purposes of elite-driven political advantage to securitize those seeking asylum). Ironically, as Long argues, such episodes can escalate to “real” crises through the mass suffering that follows.
Phrases such as “avoidable disaster” and “foreseeable crisis,” often accompanied by the language of “warning signs ignored,” imply that (at least) one aspect of a range of causal factors is the inability, lack of capacity, or unwillingness to prevent it. Hence, there is the implication that lack of appropriate human/institutional intervention at the precrisis stage is a factor in precipitating the crisis. According to this type of analysis, for example, the 2013–2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa was an “avoidable disaster” (Wilkinson & Leach, 2015, pp. 139–140) because of a slow initial response in detecting and responding to the scale of episode, particularly from the World Health Organization.
Speed of Arrival
A common crisis stereotype is that a crisis arrives without warning. The language of “sudden crises” exemplifies and has been attributed to cases such school shootings, food contamination episodes, terrorist bombings, and tsunamis. Yet there also exists what can be termed “creeping crises” or “slow-burning crises” (McConnell, 2003). Examples often include climate change, deforestation, and population growth. The assumption in the latter is that creeping/slow-burning crises can be the product of a slow build-up over time (months, years, decades). Indeed, some critics argue that such phenomenon are not crises at all (because there are no dramatic, intense focusing events within a short period of time). Such a view often defaults to a “business as usual” response and no need for extraordinary measures (reflected in arguments over issues such as climate change and immigration).
The boundaries between sudden crises and creeping crisis can be convenient and politically expedient to make a point (e.g., over the extent to which the crisis could have been foreseen). However, in reality the boundaries are less clear than what convenient labels might suggest. A crisis may incubate for a substantial period of time prior, through the presence of vulnerable conditions, events, and chains of events that are at odds with norms and expectations (Turner & Pidgeon, 1997). The extent to which a crisis arrived “out of the blue” can be contested, especially in the case of disasters where hindsight reveals “smoking guns” and early warning signs that were ignored. One analysis of London’s Grenfell tower block fire in 2017 when 72 people died described the tragedy as a product of the slow build-up of austerity measures, marginalizing the urban poor, and disregarding community concern of ineffective housing safety standards (MacLeod, 2018).
Degree of Preparedness
Some terminology brings inferences about the extent to which the crisis could have been prepared for via mitigation strategies and contingency plans. For example, some language such as “unforeseeable crisis” or even “black swan” implies that nothing much could have been done to prevent or prepare. In 2002, U.S. Secretary of State for Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously stated that
There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.(cited in Logan, 2009, p. 712)
Despite being heavily criticized and mocked at the time, there is an useful separation here between events that are within our imagining and range of possibilities (however remote) and events that are simply beyond the scope of our awareness. Preparing for threats we cannot imagine is a contradiction in terms. By contrast, some language around crises contain explicit assumptions that something could have been done prior to the crisis to mitigate and prepare. Common phrases include “accident waiting to happen,” “predictable crisis,” and “foreseeable crisis.” Such language is easier to use because of the bias of hindsight (see, e.g., Boin & Fishbacher-Smith ; Hindmoor & McConnell  on the global financial crisis), but it is nevertheless commonplace to criticize shortcomings in preparedness by prefacing “crisis” with a word (such as “inevitable” or “predictable”), implying a prior trajectory toward crisis.
Degree of Complexity
Every crisis is different, exhibiting its own unique combination of circumstances. The corollary is that some causes, threats, and ways to address them are more interdependent and challenging than others. Yet complexity can come in many forms. Perrow (1999) addressed one form of complexity, but there are other types. Work on transboundary crises (Ansell, Boin, & Keller, 2010) addresses a form of complexity where the causes, consequences, and management of crises spill over jurisdictional boundaries such as regions and nation-states (e.g., diplomatic crisis, nuclear, refugee crises, and pandemics). Complexity is also manifest in language around “mega-crises” and disasters (Diacu, 2010) where the sheer scale and complexity of multiple, interdependent, and cascading threats (such as huge asteroids and global economic meltdown) are almost beyond imagining. Topper and Lagadec (2013) also refers to “fractal crises”—symbolizing the cracks in huge blocks of ice—where the environment, economy, and culture are so intermeshed and volatile that small disruptive episodes have the potential to transform into huge tremors across the planet.
The language surrounding crisis often frames where the epicenter of the crisis is located (see Drennan, McConnell, & Stark, 2015). Framing in this way is political, in the sense that it can attribute where failings lie and even attribute blame. We often read and speak of personal crises, institutional crises, policy crises (fiascos/failures/blunders/disasters), societal crises, technological crises, global crises, and so on. Yet, potentially there are multiple epicenters, and so tagging one particular area of society or individual is a means of attempting to shape discourse in terms of where the core of the problems lie. The language of blame games is, in part, the language of seeking to attribute responsibility elsewhere. Lawrence and Birkland (2004) in their study of the framing of school shootings in the United States addressed the issue of “what is the problem.” Focusing on the Columbine shooting, they found a range from
the individualistic (individual character) to the systemic (pop culture, social breakdown, secularism), with at least one problem definition that fell somewhere in between (mental health). Some focused on public policies (or lack thereof) to address violence (guns, criminal justice, school programs, and security), while others focused on areas of life less amenable to governmental influence (parents, adults and community; teen life). (p. 1199)
Capacity of Authorities to Cope
Some labels tend to infer certain capacities to cope (or not). The terms “accident” and “emergency,” for example, tend to imply high level of readiness and training. Throughout the developed world in particular, there are well-established” “blue light” services such as fire, police, and ambulance, as well as a range of emergency services—designed specifically for events such as road crashes, chemical spills, wildfires/bushfires, and floods, as well as more specialist teams such as those in mountain rescue, marine rescue, and emergency room trauma. Other terms such as “fiasco” tend to imply mismanagement—in effect a dysfunctional crisis response being layered over the initial crisis. Perhaps the most alarming in terms of authorities’ capacities to cope are mega-crises and catastrophes. They imply extraordinary events, stretching public authorities and political/bureaucratic leaders beyond the boundaries of capability (Rodríguez et al., 2006). Ultimately, however, labeling events and episodes as X or Y always contain shades of grey. One cannot draw a straight line between a particular crisis labeling and actual ability to cope.
Length of Crisis
A common assumption is that a crisis arrives, reaches a critical point, is managed, and eventually subsides and terminates. While such a rhythm is not untypical, it can be the case that repercussions of the crisis resonates for months and even years afterwards (e.g., 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Chernobyl). ‘t Hart and Boin (2001) frame such episodes as “long shadow crises.” Furthermore, it is erroneous to think that a crisis affects every actor and institution in the same way within a particular time period (Fleischer, 2013). For many actors, citizens, and institutions, their own “crisis” comes after the spotlight has dimmed on the major episode. After 9/11, for example, the CIA struggled with its own crisis as it came under the spotlight for alleged failures of intelligence gathering and interpretation. A different kind of time-referenced crisis is “chronic crisis” (such as ongoing civil wars) where a concentration of undesirable and threatening crisis conditions seems never ending. Even the language of “creeping crisis” implies an extensive period of crisis conditions, often over decades.
Crisis Terminology as a Means of Governing
At times, the labeling and language around certain events and episodes may be and indeed seem somewhat arbitrary. Regardless, crisis terminology can perform particular roles—one from the perspective of governing. Put simply, crisis language and labeling are means of governing. They are “policy tools,” to use the language of Hood and Margetts (2007), because they are an exercise in power and an attempt to persuade. The following analysis identifies six particularly important ways that crisis language can be used by governments.
Crisis as a Call to Action
Government’s use of the term “crisis” (and associated terms such as “emergency”) can imply that society faces extraordinary threats and that a “business as usual” response is not appropriate. In the face of substantial criticism, in early 2019 U.S. president Donald Trump deployed the term “national emergency” in an attempt to galvanize support for building a wall along the southern border of the United States (arguably to stem a tide of immigrants bringing crime, terror, and disease). More generally, governments propounding a crisis narrative do so in an attempt to instill fear that can only be quelled by extraordinary action. As Neff and Wynter (2018) argue in their study of the politics of shark attacks, fear heightens public emotions and elicits calls for action. In some respects, fear can be a gift for politicians. As Weston (2007) argues in his study of the “political brain,” when voters’ reason and emotion are in conflict, it is the latter that invariably wins out. The framing of threats as actually or potentially of “crisis” proportions is a form of “securitzation,” to use the language of international security scholars, who examine ways in which issues such as food and the environment can be framed as positing existential risks to nation-states (see, e.g., Buzan, Waever, & de Wilde, 1998; Eriksson, 2001). Narby (2014) also makes the point that use of the term “crisis” can bring—or at least attempt to bring—stability in relation to the problems and uncertainties of order and disorder.
Crisis as Opportunity
The portrayal of circumstances as a crisis can be a means of indicating that opportunities and positive change lie ahead—despite seemingly dire circumstances (Ulmer, Seeger, & Sellnow, 2007). One should always remember that when a crisis destabilizes established norms, policies, institutions, and coalitions of interest, then there will always be some actors (including, at times, governments) that are happy to see a new course being charted in the form of institutional restructuring, policy change, new ideas, and new policies. As Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff suggested: “you never want a good crisis to go to waste” (Krauthammer, 2009).
Crisis as an Appeal to “Rally Around the Flag”
This type of plea by government is for all those involved (parties, citizens, lobby groups, media, and others) to put aside their own individual interests and instead work together for the common or public good. Often this tactic works, at least in the short term. Chowanietz (2011) in a study of 181 events in four liberal democracies (United Kingdom, Spain, France, Germany) over the period 1999 to 2006 found mainstream political elites tended, at least initially, to put aside political differences and align with the government.
Crisis as Exploitation
The lines between calls to action, opportunities, and rally are blurred and may depend on our view of whether government is acting in good faith. Boin et al. (2009) define crisis exploitation as “the purposeful utilization of crisis-type rhetoric to significantly alter levels of political support for public office-holders and public policies” (p. 83). Implicit in the term “exploitation” is the normative assumption that exploitation breaches some kind of moral code. In 2001 during the infamous “Children Overboard” affair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard alleged that asylum seekers were throwing their children into the sea in order to be rescued by Australian authorities. A subsequent Senate inquiry found that no children were put at risk in this way. Nevertheless, the actions of Howard have gone down in Australian history and attracted significant criticism as being a manufactured, preelection immigration crisis, stoking public fears about the character of those who sought asylum in Australia (Marr & Wilkinson, 2004). In essence, the argument is that political party interest and electoral calculation was put before principles of civility, fairness, and responsibility.
Crisis as a Means of Attacking Political Opponents
Governments are usually drawn from the ranks of one or more political parties. Competing political parties is part of the fabric of systems of checks and balances built into liberal democracies. Political norms are such that governing parties routinely attack their opponents and vice versa. The language of crisis can be a weapon used by governments against opposition parties, accusing them of not supporting government at a time of national emergency or being unfit opponents in critical times (Hindmoor & McConnell, 2015). Crisis management by government is in part an attempt to address the shattered expectations and fears left by crisis. Unless government is able to gain the upper hand and secure a dominant narrative, the gap will be filled by opposition parties and critics. The governing party attacking the legitimacy of its political opponents is a relatively routine spectacle during and in the wake of crisis.
Crisis as a Justification for Silencing Dissent
Using the term “crisis” in this way, beyond persuasion and rallying calls, can be an attempt to silence criticism of government, based on the argument that in order to address a crisis effectively, we do not have the luxury of dissent and critical voices. A study by Boykoff (2006) of the suppression of social movements in the United States (such as the Black Panther Movement, Earth First!, and the Global Justice Movement) illustrates how invoking the expectionality of crisis conditions has led to a situation where “U.S. history is full of instances when the U.S. government—trodding the topography of crisis—wrote laws and acted on rules or executive orders that had the effect of suppressing dissent and moving dissidents or potential dissidents toward demobilization and/or nonmobilization” (p. 176). Emergency powers go back (at least) to Roman times as a form of constitutional dictatorship (Gross & Ní Aoláin, 2006). Under post 9/11 antiterror laws many Western democracies have privileged national security over personal privacy, surveillance, and free speech—all in the interest of averting potential terrorist attacks (crisis avoidance) (Deflem & McDonough, 2015).
Overall, governments engage in multiple activities, from addressing policy problems and attempting to find interventions that work, to fighting elections, managing crowded policy agendas, and promoting longer term visions for society at large. As argued by analysts from Wildavsky (1964) and Rose and Davies (1994) to some in the new institutionalist tradition (see Lowndes & Roberts, 2013; Peters, 2012), governments that come to power inherit a series of factors and forces (budgets, policies, alliances, etc.) that can be difficult to budge. Using the language of crisis can be an important tactical tool in governments’ attempt to break log-jams. It can be an attempt to dismantle roadblocks to change, attack/marginalize/silence critics and opponents, help build new alliances, and enable new visions for the future.
Crisis as a Means of Criticizing and Seeking to Influence Governments
The flip side of the language of crisis as a tool of government is that it is also a tool of opposition parties, citizens, lobby groups, media, and social movements seeking to criticize government, bring about policy reform, and perhaps even wreak enough damage to remove it from office. Tactically, the language of crisis has many advantages from the perspective of those outside government but seeking to influence. There is some overlap in these advantages, but there is sufficient distinctiveness to separate them here.
Crisis as a Means of Breaking Through the Policy Agenda
Actors and groups often seek to break through established policy agendas in the hope that the government listens. The world of social and welfare policy, for example, is replete with reports such as the “homelessness crisis,” the “crisis of poverty,” and the “real housing crisis.” For those seeking to disturb the routines and rhythms of government amid the hope that it will act accordingly, framing circumstances as crisis is a signal that the problem is a critical one and extraordinary when compared to the norm in that sector. Even signaling the prospect of crisis can be an indication that we are approaching a critical point or tipping point, beyond which it is exceptionally difficult to recover. The inference is of course that action is require now—before it is too late—although there can be the risk of “crisis fatigue” if the term is used frequently.
Crisis as a Means of Promoting a Better Future
Crisis episodes are often accompanied by devastation, panic, and fear—from terrorist attacks and pandemics to economic recessions. Making sense and attributing meaning to what happened often produces narratives of “never again” and the need to “learn lessons.” Crisis language can be a means of highlighting opportunities for new beginnings and new pathways (Birkland, 2007; Stark, 2018). Indeed, in sectors where failure is manifested in dramatic focusing events (such as plane crashes, shark attacks, bombings in major cities, and mass deaths of spectators at football matches), groups often wait on crisis circumstances, enabling them to become policy entrepreneurs who champion reforms as a way of escaping from a morass of problems (Hogan & Feeney, 2012). Geiger and Klüver (2012) illustrate via the influence of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster on policy change in other countries. They found, for example, that 67% of press releases by Greenpeace that same month dealt exclusively with nuclear energy. Their core findings were that in instances where some states (notably Germany and Switzerland) abandoned their nuclear power programs, a key influence was the entrepreneurial activities of environmental groups.
Crisis as a Means of Neutralizing the Political Instincts of Government
Opposition parties in particular can use crisis language as a means of putting pressure on a government to put aside its partisan interests and instead work for the common good. For example, a government making severe budgetary cuts after discovering a budget “black hole” is liable to lead to opposition parties arguing that government has escalated a problem into a crisis and instead should rethink its measures and approach the issue in a less politicized fashion.
Crisis as a Means of Directly Attacking Government and Its Policies
Political opponents can use the label of crisis to suggest that some policy sectors or policy initiatives are in “crisis.” It is commonplace to find such crisis critique being deployed against government across policy sectors ranging from healthcare and disability services to budgets and overseas aid. Use of crisis rhetoric by opponents of government can also suggest that the government’s handling of the issues has created a crisis in itself. In 2018 and 2019, the ongoing failures of the U.K. government under the prime ministership of Theresa May to successfully negotiate a Brexit deal on withdrawal from the European Union led to relentless accusations by the Labour opposition that the government’s incompetence had led the country into a national crisis. More broadly, governments preside over the status quo and generally want to lead change when it suits. Accusing the government of being in “crisis” can be a means of seeking to escalate government failings and portray them as being of crisis proportions. Such tactics are those of crisis exploitation, seeking to use/cultivate crisis circumstances for political advantage (Boin et al., 2009).
The language of crisis, its multiple subtypes and definitions, is embedded in political discourse. There is no single, authoritative way of framing extreme events. In part this reflects the range and complexity of extreme events. Disrupting the existing order can be “good” or “bad” depending on our values. Crises can be an amalgam of threats and opportunities. Hence, there are no clear and narrow pathways for public authorities to navigate the acute stage of crises and subsequent recovery. But the sheer breadth of crisis terms reflects different ways in which governments, parties, lobby groups, media, social movements, citizens, and victims deliberate and make sense of the threats and potential repercussions. The acute management and aftermath of crises are high contested, over issues such as such what caused the crisis, how severe is it, and what should be done to learn lessons. Crisis definitions and the terminology around crises are, at heart, political issues.
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