Hurricanes and Other Political Matters

(Bloomberg View) -- I find myself more or less directly in the path of a hurricane here in San Antonio. As I write this, my neighborhood is expected to stay out of the hurricane proper, but our city and of course the region overall is in quite a bit of danger. So perhaps folks won't mind if I make a few comments about politics and disasters as we here in Texas and our neighbors in Louisiana prepare and wait.

Here's the thing: The costs of this storm will very much be the result of short-term and long-term public policy decisions. That's always true of major weather. It's true of mass shootings. It's true of all sorts of things, many of which seem "natural" at first glance. So don't criticize people for politicizing these things; they are, like it or not, inherently political.

To deny the policy aspects of their effects is to deny ourselves collective agency. One of the whole points of politics is we collectively do have the ability to make decisions that affect ... well, almost everything. We can affect whether house fires are devastating or merely damaging. Whether small earthquakes knock pictures off the wall, or knock down walls. Whether preventable diseases kill children or don't.

One of the whole points of democracy is that since it's a given that human decisions will have a collective effect on all of us, it stands to reason that we should all be able to contribute in some way to those choices. Politicizing things is what democracies should do.

That said, we should also keep a number of caveats in mind during emergencies, whether "natural" or not.

For one thing, it's generally good manners to wait until an event is over before shifting conversation to partisan politics or to specific recriminations. When exactly is a judgment call, depending on the event, but usually there's no harm in waiting until lives are no longer at immediate risk before you start talking about long-term policy. Etiquette must be balanced against political efficacy; once the news is off the front pages, too many people may move on to something else to make it easy for them to focus on whatever point activists want to make. But both etiquette and political efficacy are good values.

Oh, and that applies even if one's political opponents, or even the president of the U.S., have terrible manners.

For another thing, remember that breaking news is very difficult to report and that trained and experienced reporters often get things wrong at first -- let alone whatever shows up on social media sites from well-meaning (or not) citizens. No one is doing their political goals any good if they rush to judgment based on initial reports that prove to be false. That's particularly true for storm reactions, where government chains of responsibility (and how to even evaluate government actions) can be extremely complex. Again, that doesn't mean people should wait months or years for careful studies that can more adequately assign credit or blame. It just means, again, that a bit of hesitation and caution are in order. 

One more word of caution: There are always trade-offs, and just because we may take collective action to reduce risks doesn't mean that action would be cost-free -- which means that there are almost always potential courses of action that would reduce some particular risk but also would be unwise. Individuals will disagree on where those lines should be drawn, and that's perfectly fine. Just as we should reject the argument that politics is an inappropriate part of the reaction to tragedies and calamities, we should also resist the temptation to think the worst of those who disagree about how to assess policy trade-offs.

It turns out that voters are quite irrational in how we react to natural disasters, but I don't see that as a problem -- as long as politicians are terrified, mistaken or not, of being punished by voters if they botch things. As far as I can tell, most politicians are in fact extremely motivated to get these things right. So with that, I'll hope for the best for all of us, and hope that after the storm passes we'll be able to mainly argue about credit for a government job well done.


1. Molly Reynolds on where the budget resolution might be going. Crucial to what happens with taxes.

2. John Sides at the Monkey Cage on Sanders-Trump voters; it turns out probably most of them were Trump voters who happened to vote in the Democratic primary rather than strong Sanders supporters who then defected in the general election. 

3. Kyle Kondik at the Crystal Ball looks at how 2018 Senate contests are developing.

4. Very good Nate Silver tour of Trump's approval numbers

5. My View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru on protectionism.

6. Kevin Drum on how the Trump administration is ducking its responsibilities on taxes.

7. And Dahlia Lithwick on what it's like when one's synagogue is targeted

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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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