Political Floodwaters
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

James M. Jasper edits Contexts magazine. He wrote The Art of Moral Protest, among other books and articles.

Great disasters focus the attention, especially when, to borrow from Samuel Johnson, they involve many deaths. First the news media and later blue-ribbon panels gather extensive information after disasters, but the attention goes deeper, into emotional and moral processes. In asking what went wrong, we frequently question ourselves about the kinds of lives we lead, the policies that governments pursue in our name. The usual though vague term is “soul-searching,” which continues long after the floodwaters recede or the smoke stops. Hurricane Katrina, like the 9/11 attacks four years before it, is a prime occasion for soul-searching.1

Disasters like these have frequently toppled governments, especially in modern cultures where most citizens expect their governments to protect them from a range of hazards that pre-modern peasants fatalistically took for granted.2 But the United States may be an exception, and increasingly so. Although it is too soon to judge for sure, I suspect that the Bush administration will emerge unscathed from Katrina’s aftermath. And from 9/11, it emerged immensely strengthened. How did this happen?

In both cases, President Bush’s immediate reactions were notoriously confused and cowardly. On the morning of 9/11, he missed his aid’s cue to terminate his photo op with the children, instead sitting there in a fog. Then he allowed Airforce One to speed him off to hide on safe military installations (although to be fair, his own instinct was to return to DC, it just wasn’t strong enough). After Katrina, Bush again misunderstood the need for a forceful statement from the chief executive, making a series of lethargic speeches that did not address the depth of the situation on the Gulf Coast or the anguish of viewers worldwide. Despite Bush’s supposed people skills, his gut leadership instincts are pathetic. In both instances, he should have been vulnerable to “character” issues.3

On top of this bumbling, both disasters could be blamed on poor government performance. In the case of 9/11, inattention at the top and poor coordination in the intelligence community could be singled out, for starters. In the second, inadequate funding for protections against just this kind of surge of water, as well as poor evacuation planning, combined with a series of inept responses once the disaster had occurred. Under Bush in particular, the kind of experts who gather intelligence or run the Army Corps of Engineers have been systematically undercut on religious and ideological grounds, or by the sheer cronyism that guides middle-level appointments in a regime that mistrusts the very idea of public service. There was plenty of rhetorical ammunition for those who would portray the federal government and especially the Bush administration as callous and incompetent.

Instead, after 9/11, support for George W. Bush skyrocketed to such levels that he could parlay it into an invasion of Afghanistan and then, on patently false grounds, a much larger and costly occupation of Iraq. The first could plausibly be linked to 9/11, the latter could not. Are chief executives no longer held accountable for disasters that happen under their watch? How did Bush and his team frame 9/11 so that it strengthened rather than destroyed him?

For one thing, his handlers were quick to realize that the 9/11 attacks were an opportunity, and Bush appeared at the World Trade Center site on the afternoon of the 14th. In this case, a local Republican, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, had already written a script of “strength in the face of adversity” that Bush could follow. (The transformation of Giuliani’s own reputation from ill-tempered fruitcake obsessed with closing topless, bars to a strong and steady leader was nothing short of miraculous, a case study in the emotional effects leaders can have on their audiences—or rather, how they can manipulate the emotional effects of dramatic events to refashion their own reputations.) The immediate audience at the World Trade Center site, composed primarily of firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel, were especially receptive to Bush’s macho posturing. By putting his arm on a dusty firefighter, Bush suggested both reassuring strength and one-of-the-boys camaraderie. He too became a hero.

More importantly, from the first morning, Bush could focus on a villain. At its broadest, the threat was Islamic Fundamentalism—which Bush carefully distinguished from Islam more generally (a distinction perhaps not terribly important to the Christian fundamentalists who comprise the most loyal core of Bush’s supporters). Both popular culture and conservative pundits had suggested for years that, after the collapse of communism, terrorists like these would be our great foe. Even more fortunately for Bush, this threatening cultural vision was embodied in an organization, al Qaeda, which sounded like a paranoid’s worst nightmare: a shadowy network of fanatics who had infiltrated Western nations and would stop at nothing to destroy innocent Americans. The term “sleeper cells” reminds us that, like a virus, they could be anywhere among us and strike at any time. Finally, the organization had its personification in Osama bin Laden, as concrete and photogenic as the network was amorphous. The best possible ingredients were available for creating a villain.

Even so, it took considerable work for Bush to create such a monstrous villain that the American population and political community would favor two invasions of stable, if odious regimes. (To me, so many Americans’ eagerness to link Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda suggests that they do not carefully distinguish among Muslims.) Anger, outrage, hatred, and perhaps a little shame have to be reworked into a vision of the world where revenge is worth it, especially for a culture that prefers to see itself as idealistic and moral rather than self-interested.4 Americans like to assume the role of sleeping giant, minding its own business until an evildoer needs to be punished. To the extent that the 9/11 fatalities were innocent victims, and bin Laden a nasty villain, to make the plot complete George Bush became the avenging hero, able to protect American citizens.

There are no easy, shake-and-bake demons on whom to blame Katrina. The hurricane itself was an act of God, and the blame that can be worked up against natural events is quite different from that available after an event obviously perpetrated by humans. We cannot blame God (or nature) in the same way we blame bin Laden, who made a deliberate choice to attack not only symbolic buildings, but to destroy as many people working in them as possible. The ultimate attribution of basic blame will differ.5

But there are numerous other suggestions of blame. Predictions of the path and severity of the hurricane were accurate, but the main disaster came from the breaching of the levees. Inadequate funding, poor design or maintenance, and corrupt construction practices may all be singled out. For Bush, the potential for blame lies in his nonchalance, which bordered on heartlessness. That he represents a political party that is thought to have written off African Americans as well as poor Americans (categories that overlapped strikingly in New Orleans) should reinforce doubts about his character. Normally, audiences make judgments about someone’s character from their initial, supposedly unguarded and unscripted, reactions to sudden events.6

A forceful opposition, if one existed, might have had another opportunity to demonize Bush. But Democrats are torn between two contrasting characterizations: Bush as dangerous or malevolent, and Bush as craven and inept. They can blame him for either fault, but not both at the same time. To the extent that he and his administration are inept, they are not terribly threatening to al Qaeda and other outsiders. To the extent they are a danger to these others, they are powerful—and many Bush supporters seem to favor power and action for their own sake, in contrast to careful (read “expert”) analysis and caution. Often, the Bush administration has seemed to suggest that dumb decisions are better than no decisions at all. (The same dilemma faces American politicians who want to demonize Islamic “terrorists:” for a generation they have been dismissed as clownish and inept, hardly worth the effort to stop them. After 9/11, they had to be recharacterized as powerful, and thus threatening.)

Of course, a bungling administration can be dangerous to its own citizens, unable to protect them from attacks. Weakness and ineptitude undermine the carefully crafted hero imagery. This is an opening for rhetorical attacks on the Bush administration.

For the moment, Democratic Senators have managed to make Michael Brown’s ineptitude into a symbol of broader problems with White House political appointments. Senator Joseph Lieberman thus challenged 36-year-old Julie Myers’ qualifications to be assistant secretary of homeland security for immigration and customs enforcement. As I write, Republican Senator Susan Collins, chair of the homeland security committee, has agreed to further hearings. Other appointments are being similarly challenged. (The problem with political appointees is not only that they lack necessary prior experience, they also stay on the job for shorter periods, aiming to jump back into private practice made all the more lucrative by their political contacts.) 7

Perhaps sensing the ease with which he could be blamed for Katrina’s disastrous aftermath, President Bush was quick to belittle those who would play “the blame game”—hiding the extent to which his own first-term popularity was due almost entirely to his deft playing of the blame game after 9/11. But Bush’s rhetorical vulnerability depends on further struggle: can Republicans divert attention long enough, or can Democrats work quickly to tar Bush and his administration with incompetence and callousness?

There is no external enemy to blame for Katrina, no bin Laden or Hussein to distract us. Bush could construct a morally clear picture of the world after 9/11—clear to the extent of simpleminded and misleading. Katrina may prove more of a tar baby of blame, catching a number of politicians involved with it, local Democrats as well as national Republicans. On the other hand, the diffuse possibilities for blame may make it harder for Bush’s opponents to direct blame at him.

Both disasters demonstrate that the moments of clarifying insight they bring can be undone by assiduous rhetorical work in the weeks or months afterward. (This is the reason Karl Rove, master of such framing, is indispensable to the Bush administration.) It is hard to say whether the moment of disaster or the drawn-out process of deliberation should provide a more accurate portrait of political characters. Each has its risks. Both can be manipulated. The greater and greater penetration of symbolic media means that struggles over the attribution of blame and the characterization of politicians never end.

The American political system partly explains the lack of ultimate accountability after disasters. Elections are set at particular times, and are not called early due to a loss of faith in the government. That gives an administration time to redirect political floodwaters, reshaping our understandings of what has happened. In some cases, attention simply fades, although the worse, the disaster the longer this takes. Disasters get our attention, but political rhetoric continues to shape what we see.


1 Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester wrote about the revelatory powers of accidents in two influential articles: “Accidental News: The Great Oil Spill as Local Occurrence and National Event,” American Journal of Sociology 81 (1975): 235-260, and “News as Purposive Behavior: On the Strategic Use of Routine Events, Accidents, and Scandals,” American Sociological Review 39 (1974): 101-112.

2 A number of social scientists have analyzed the shifting nature of risk and blame in modern societies, notably Ulrich Beck, The Risk Society (London: Sage, 1992), and Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

3 Since the ancient Greeks, theories of rhetoric have discussed the “epideictic,” aimed at portraying individuals and peoples as having a certain kind of moral character. Contemporary social science has mostly lost sight of this important activity, even in the field of rhetoric. For an exception, see Gary Alan Fine, Difficult Reputations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

4 I argue in a forthcoming book, Getting Your Way (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), that there are many barriers to initiating strategic interaction with others, and it usually requires strong emotions such as revenge to get a nation or other strategic players started. Even revenge is costly.

5 In his grand effort at system building, Frame Analysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), Goffman distinguishes between the social and the natural as “primary frameworks” for understanding and experiencing the world. For a philosophical elaboration of the social, in terms of how we understand – rightly or wrongly – what happens as the result of intention, see Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987). I discuss the politics of blame and its motivating power further in The Art of Moral Protest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997) and Getting Your Way.

6 Psychologists have done enormous research into how people draw conclusions about others, a tradition Daniel Gilbert neatly summarizes in “Ordinary Personology,” in Gilbert, Susan Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, eds., The Handbook of Social Psychology 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

7 Recent research by David Lewis and John Gilmour shows that political appointees do not run federal agencies as competently as bureaucrats who have risen through the ranks: “Political Appointees and the Competence of Federal Program Management,” American Politics Research, forthcoming.