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A citizen’s guide to panicking

An evidence-based approach to political panic.

Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval College, has written a piece in the Washington Post with a headline urging Americans to “chill” a bit, so as to save our outrage for what is really outrageous.

Nichols provides good information and makes an argument for why remaining calm is strategic, though I wish he’d spent as much text providing evidence for the claim that “this continual panic is short-circuiting any reasonable debate about the president’s policies by indulging Trump’s fiercest opponents in the belief that something could destroy his presidency before it has a chance to govern.” It’s an interesting point, and I’d like to see it fleshed out in more depth. And speaking more broadly, Nichols isn’t wrong that panicking hasn’t led to a lot of productive politics in the past.

But I’m not here to waste my readers’ time arguing with another academic. Really, neither Nichols nor I should be telling anyone to “chill.” We’re both tenured professors who get to research and teach — and write pieces like these. My life is safe and comfortable most of the time, and what right do I have to tell anyone else to “chill” about the direction our government is heading?

It’s true that because I make my living studying this stuff, I’ve got some strong ideas about what is and is not panic-worthy in the political arena. But what makes America great (see what I did there) is that a wealth of information is available to us about our government’s past and present — because of our great tradition of universities and scholars, there are many, many books and blog posts and other digitized old newspapers and other fun things to help us learn more and make our own decisions on what to panic about.

In my capacity as political science blogger, here are some questions to help you draw your own conclusions about whether and how much to panic.

Is this story true?

In the era of fake news, I have to ask. Don’t panic over bullshit. That one is easy.

Is it about process?

One of Nichols’s main points is that too much of the debate is about process rather than substance. And a lot of people don’t understand process, so there’s a bit of “can the president really do that?”

The answer is probably yes. The next question is usually an incredulous, “But why?” because frankly, American presidents have accumulated a whole lot of power. Not everyone wants the real answer. There almost always is one, and it is complicated, nuanced, and probably paints someone you admire in a new and confusing light. I’m pretty sure this kind of thing is why I don’t get invited out more, but the point still stands. If you want to know why the president can do that, find out.

It is okay, I think, to begin this process during the administration of a president with whom one disagrees. But applying newfound standards consistently across party lines is important too. Not for the disinterested neutrality that some people in the “both sides” punditry camp are obsessed with, or for the sake of philosophical consistency on its own. Rather, the game of democracy requires us all to play — to set up the rules — as if we might eventually lose.

How is the process related to the substance?

Process and substance are not totally distinct. There are things we might want Congress (theoretically, at least) to weigh in on instead of letting the president do it on his own. There are things we might be okay with states or cities doing, but more wary of the federal government.

With regard to the new administration, there are lots of things that seem normal — altering staffing, issuing lots of executive orders — that have abnormal components. One of the recurring themes of the Trump candidacy and now presidency, as I’ve argued before, has been not the total upending of everything we’d come to expect from politics, but the blend of norm violation with standard political practice. Nomination of a perfectly qualified Supreme Court justice followed by attacks on the judiciary. Balancing politics and policymaking on the National Security Council … with a generous side of white nationalism.

Policies don’t fit neatly into either a “normal” or “not normal” column. As a result, it makes sense to assess presidential actions on a case-by-case basis, rather than developing a one-size-fits-all principle about executive power.

How powerful are the people I’m freaking out about?

The strongest case for holding back panic in American politics is that some of our most notable panics have tended to be directed not at strong presidential power but at minorities in our midst. These include witch hunts for communists, fear of Asian immigrants, all sorts of fun moral panics about sex: between races, in public bathhouses, and, most recently, something about bathrooms and transgender individuals. These panics have directly caused repressive policies and ruined lives.

A good rule to consider when deciding whether to freak out about something might be: Do the people I’m freaking out about wield real power? Do they control the military or public resources? If the answer is yes, then you have license to proceed with your concern. If the answer starts with, “Well, I read on Facebook,” or you heard a rumor, or you just aren’t sure you understand what those people are up to, then you should probably reconsider your reaction. Learn more.

The impact of moral panics might not seem directly relevant to the kind of intensity Nichols is talking about in his piece. But it illuminates a more critical truth about what public anxiety and confusion can do: These emotions tend to drive us into the falsely safe arms of authority, not empower us to find our own answers.

Even if something is normal or “not an outrage,” there are many questions to be asked of any presidential administration, including the current one. We’re still figuring out what the long-term lessons of this political moment will be. After the 2016 election, though, I doubt “listen to elites when they tell you to stay calm” will be on the list.

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