let’s panic thoughtfully
Since we’re both here, my social media bubble probably looks a lot like your social media bubble. And in my social media bubble, people are freaking out about the Trump presidency. There are false voter fraud claims, ugly attacks on the media, chilling of speech at government agencies, and a whole host of policy actions many find disastrous. I am also disturbed and fear that the U.S. is making an irreversible turn toward authoritarianism.
At the same time, I’m disheartened by how quickly academics and others who should know better unreflectively buy into the latest outrage on social media. This has negative consequences independent of Trump’s actions. Catastrophizing the bits that aren’t catastrophic undermines our authority to speak up about the things that actually are. And further politicization of the media and, now, the federal bureaucracy will continue to erode the very things that protect us from Trump’s worst.
I do not mean to create a false equivalence here. What Trump has the power to do vastly outweighs the chattering of academics or journalists on Twitter or Facebook. But I have no direct influence over Trump’s administration. I can, however, exhort my academic colleagues to do better.
In that spirit, here’s two things to consider before you decide to share the latest outrage.
1) Is this an important bill? Or just another bill?
In the 114th Congress, more than 12,000 bills were introduced. You know how many became law? 329. 86% never even make it out of committee. There are a bunch of extremists in Congress. Some of them introduce the same bills over and over that are never going to see the light of day. This has been going on for decades.
A few days ago, an Alabama Republican introduced a bill that would pull the U.S. out of the United Nations. Twitter went nuts, quoting the bill with captions like “WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. HELL.” It spread like crazy.
Problem is, this is nothing new. This representative has been introducing this bill into each Congress for the last two decades. It has nothing to do with Trump, nor are there any indications it was treated differently this time. There are lots of things to get worked up about. This bill is not one.
2) Is this politics as usual? Or something truly new and dangerous?
There has also been a lot of freaking out in the last couple of days about the silencing of federal agencies. EPA, NIH, and USDA have all had reports about communications restrictions, including cancellation of a planned climate change conference and a halt on all “public-facing documents” at USDA.
A lot of Trump’s political agenda will play out—or not—through the executive agencies. It is very likely that his appointees will attempt to undercut what many see as their basic missions. By all means, oppose this with great intensity.
But when administrations change, they are going to point agencies in new political directions. I don’t have firsthand experience working in federal agencies. But I have spent a lot of time reading documents from just these types of agencies in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Putting a pause on public communication during a transition doesn’t seem that radical to me.
I keep looking for a quote from an actual agency employee that says, “This is wildly different from what happened when George W. Bush took office.” The closest I can find is ProPublica saying an EPA employee “had never seen anything like it in nearly a decade with the agency.” But that only covers the Obama transition, which aligned with the mission of the EPA. It’s not clear that this is not politics-as-usual. Could it transition into something new and dangerous? Absolutely. But that ship has not yet sailed.
Why commitment to critical thinking matters in the face of a Trump administration
I can already hear people yelling that I’m not taking Trump seriously enough. “This isn’t ordinary times! This is an emergency. Real lives are at stake!”
But it’s precisely because I don’t think this is ordinary times—because I think we’re in a uniquely dangerous moment—that it is especially important that we retain the ability to think clearly, for two big reasons.
First, treating every single action of the administration as dangerous and disastrous, without any larger context, further politicizes our fragile institutions. It may be too late for the media. But it is not good for democracy if our bureaucracies go rogue.
People are delighted that the Badlands National Park gave the administration a big old middle finger yesterday with its climate change tweets. But to the extent that federal government functions at all, it functions because of all the unelected, unappointed people who do their jobs, regardless of administration. If ordinary government employees become seen as actively in the bag for the left, we are one step closer to having our government stop functioning entirely.
Is there a time to say “no”, and openly rebel or quit? Absolutely. And if you haven’t already, you should probably write down your own personal lines in the sand, before our sense of “normal” further erodes. If you’re at the EPA, maybe it’s active suppression of climate change evidence. If you’re at NSF, maybe it’s meddling with individual grants. Maybe your lines have already been crossed.
But if they haven’t, as a civil servant you serve democracy better by doing your job—even if that’s carrying out decisions made by someone you hate—than by throwing shade from a government Twitter account.
Second, assuming everything is catastrophic limits our ability to focus on the real catastrophes. The single most dangerous thing Trump has done in the last few days (and I know, it’s been a busy few days) is double down on his claims about massive voter fraud. Because if people don’t believe that our elections are basically honest and agree to respect the results of those elections, our democracy is truly toast.
The good news is that, according to the Washington Post, “Trump has virtually no elected allies in this assault on the election system.” Not even Sean Spicer will say Trump’s claims are actually true.
If we cry wolf about every change that is not in fact catastrophe—if we suddenly scream “fascism” about changes that are part of the normal workings of democracy, we undermine our ability to fight the things that matter most.
And if we don’t have a democratic government, all this other stuff we care so much about—healthcare, immigration policy, racial justice, science, foreign policy, whatever your personal biggest concerns are—will be irrelevant. A fully authoritarian government can do what ever it wants, and we’ll have no say. Defending democracy has to be priority #1. And defending democracy means commitment to reason.
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