ISSUE-ATTENTION CYCLES

Anthony Downs' An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957) is among the most widely read and influential works in both economics and political science (a feat made more impressive by the fact that it contains no data, but I digress). For me, however, Downs' finest moment came later in his career when he defined the "Issue-Attention Cycle" in Western democracies. It remains the single best model for describing social and political reactions in the United States to a sudden, overwhelming crisis – famines, riots, disasters, outbreaks of disease, and so on. The Haitian earthquake and the Gulf oil spill were great examples. The 1980s Ethiopian famine was another.** And on this 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I can't get Downs' theory out of my head.

The cycle has five stages.

1. The pre-crisis stage: All of the conditions exist for a crisis, but no one is interested. No attention is paid to the underlying, obvious, and persistent problems that will eventually become the crisis. In New Orleans, everything that led to the disaster was apparent to anyone who cared to look, although no one did. Staggeringly inept and corrupt local political leadership. Crumbling, inadequate infrastructure. High susceptibility to natural disasters. Stark racial divides and nearly city-wide grinding poverty. Poor to nonexistent Federal emergency preparedness.

2. Alarmed discovery: "Holy balls," says America, "New Orleans is an impoverished hellhole bitterly divided by race and drowning behind broken levees known to be inadequate for the past several decades! And the Federal government doesn't give a shit! No one is able to compensate for the appalling shortcomings of the local government!"

2a. Euphoric enthusiasm: "We can fix this! We're America! Honey, get my wallet. Let's send $25 to the Red Cross. Everyone get on board! Pull! Pull!" The problem, however, is understood as exogenous to society, thus the problem can be solved without any fundamental reordering (or even reappraisal) of society itself. No one asks sticky questions about entrenched racism or decrepit, disintegrating cities. That would be hard. The problem can – nay, must – be solved the same way Americans solve everything: throw some money at it and never think/speak of it again. As the saying goes, they will call you a hero if you feed the poor but a Communist if you ask why there are poor people who need someone to feed them.

3. Realizing the true costs: "What, you mean my $25 donation didn't fix everything in Haiti? It didn't feed sub-Saharan Africa? It didn't drain, dry, and repair New Orleans? WTF." At this point the public realizes that the problem runs much deeper and would require substantial resources and sacrifices to fix. When everyone realizes that $100 million in charitable donations and a few billion in international aid were barely enough to make a dent in the problems in Haiti or New Orleans or Banda Aceh or Bam, we are taken aback. The problem, we realize, stems from something that benefits vast portions of the population. Americans benefit from squalor in other countries. Suburbanites save money by abandoning cities and letting them rot. White people benefit from a black underclass. All Americans take advantage of desperate, exploitable Mexican labor. We like cheap oil made possible by unspeakable things done in oil-rich regions. So the real problem is…us.

4. Declining interest: People have one of three reactions to the realizations that accompany Step 3. They grow discouraged from the enormity and seemingly insolvable nature of the problem, they get bored, or they suppress it because thinking about the social changes that would be necessary to address the problem is frightening. So the number of news stories peters out, and 24 hour coverage becomes twice hourly coverage becomes twice daily coverage becomes something that isn't covered at all outside of specialty niche media.

5. The post-crisis stage: The name is misleading because nothing about the crisis has been resolved, but in the public mind it is history. We all did our part by pledging $25 to the Red Cross, and since the stories are disappearing from the TV and newspapers we can only assume that the problem has gone away (like that whole genocide thing in Darfur!) It will occasionally pop up again – the odd news report here or there, often on anniversaries – but for the most part we are through with it. More importantly, some other "new" issue is entering Stage 2…

As many of the Five Year Reflections will tell you about Katrina, a lot has changed. There is rebuilding. Some people have come back. The city carries on with its social events as usual. But in a more important way, nothing has changed. Many of the problems that caused the crisis, not to mention many lingering problems caused by the last crisis, persist. New Orleans is still poor and divided. Large portions of it still look like disaster areas five years after the fact. The local political leadership is corrupt and incompetent. The infrastructure remains poor in New Orleans, not to mention every other city in the country (Didn't a highway collapse in Minnesota or something? I don't remember.) However, lacking a public, media, or political class willing to do anything except slap bandages on gaping wounds before moving on to the next one it should come as no surprise to see retrospectives about New Orleans as the Brave Little Toaster, trying to get back on its feet while ultimately failing.

The current news items struggle mightily to remind us that problems still abound and the crisis isn't over; the problem is that for most Americans, no matter what evidence is placed before them, it is. We have not only moved on to new issues but also to our favorite way of obliterating social obligations to think or care about problems – blaming the victims and washing our hands of the issue.

**See Bosso, C. (1989). Setting the agenda: Mass media and the discovery of famine in Ethiopia. In Manipulating public opinion: Essays on public opinion as a dependent variable

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19 Responses to “ISSUE-ATTENTION CYCLES”

  1. NOLA Resident Says:

    If you think that spotlight on political corruption has been fun, just wait for the glory of the BP trial in New Orleans federal court. Maybe we can get Edwards out of jail in time to get some quality racketeering?

  2. Therese Says:

    God, Edwards commentary alone would make the BP trial worth it.

    Fellow NOLA Resident: Were you also told constantly as a child (in public schools!) that the city is was the best place ever for a flood to happen due to its bowl shape? Our yearly reminders of natural disasters left me scared as a kid, though I was always thankful that I lived in Algiers on a street that was a whole foot above sea level at its highest point.

  3. B Says:

    "So the real problem is…us"

    Or them for letting us continually exploit them. I mean, at some point you would think that some of these countries would catch on and make us pay more.

    I'm not saying what we do is good (for them), but how many times do you have to be conned before you bare at least some of the responsibility?

    These people aren't less intelligent than the average American – people are people, no matter where they are from.

    As a famous American once said, "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice – well, you ain't gonna fool me again."

  4. ladiesbane Says:

    Do you think Thomas S. Kuhn read this, prior to writing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions chapter on paradigm shift in 1962? Or that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross read either prior to her model of the stages of grief in 1969? Each might have been formulated each separately, but all seem to touch on the same stages of "Doobie-doobie-doo…what?-No!-Damn.-I guess so.–Doobie-doobie-doo…."

  5. comrade x Says:

    B- a lot of people in the developing world have caught on. They are the insurgents, political prisoners, or folks running the governments that our government demonizes as " dictatorships".

  6. Andy Brown Says:

    So, we have two obvious choices, join the mealy-minded masses in (to paraphrase ladiesbane), the cycles of doobie-doobie doo interruptus, or sit in our theater chairs like Alex de Large with his eyelids pried open, witnessing, but ultimately helpless to change the spectacle no matter what we do. And Beethoven gets ruined. Where's our third choice?

  7. jazzbumpa Says:

    As ladiesbane rather obliquely points out, this is just human nature.

    We are fallible creatures, ruled more by emotion than logic, with short attention spans and no coherent understanding about what is actually good or bad for us over any time span longer than what's-for-dinner.

    I'm not at all sure coming down from the trees was a good idea.

    JzB

  8. Andy Brown Says:

    JzB,

    "I'm not at all sure coming down from the trees was a good idea."

    It wasn't our idea. The trees died out and left us ground-bound on the savannah, blinking in the sun. So at least we're consistent.

  9. HoosierPoli Says:

    Here's where I get to say "I told you so". I was only a teenager at the time but there was a National Geographic cover issue dedicated to the fact that, if a hurricane ever hit, New Orleans was FUCKED. And it came out, I'm fairly sure, in 2002. So a teenage know-nothing who had read one issue of National Geographic was better informed about the potential dangers of Katrina than the entire emergency-response apparatus.

  10. Elder Futhark Says:

    I have a plan. It's crazy, which means its great.

    We put a big giant dome over New Orleans. A huge dome. Then we make all energy sources clean and green, so people don't suffocate in the dome. Then we build a little teeny tiny model dome of New Orleans in the middle of the Superdome for football players and marching bans to trip over. Then we wait.

    Eventually, New Orleans continues to sink and is eventually beneath the sea. The most interesting tourist destination in America. (Because, let's face it., the USA ain't gonna stay on top forever, so now is the time to start developing our roadside attractions for when we become quaint and toothless like England, Italy, and Greece).

  11. JohnR Says:

    Hey, anybody want to start a pool on when the next highway bridge collapse is going to happen, say, in the New England area? Put me down for October 15, 2010.

  12. halten_Sie Says:

    @HoosierPoli, they knew about the potential problems; they just didn't have the political will to do anything about it. I'm sure you could do the same analysis the next time an 8.0 hits lower California.

  13. John Says:

    @B: "Or them for letting us continually exploit them"

    Nothing like a good ol' fashioned round of "blame the victim".

    The problem is, in the rare cases where they do wise up and start demanding more than cents a day… we just pack up and go elsewhere where the people *are* desperate enough to take cents a day. Because it's *still* cheaper than paying people what the labor is actually worth.

    This is happening now in India, in the software development industry. Many jobs that were outsourced to India are now coming back, or being eliminated in other ways, because the people of India have wised up to what a software developer's job is really worth, and are starting to demand pay that is approaching US levels. Faced with the prospect of paying people a fair wage for their labor either way, the companies bring the jobs back here to score some PR points.

  14. aluftmensch Says:

    yep. worked in EMS in nola for the past two years. the city was evacuated two years ago for gustav. no one left xcept for us, police, and nat'l guard. during the storm i happened into a command center and saw monitors showing the live feed from cameras pointing at the levees in several places. the water was right up to the top. so i asked, "will it hold?". no one knew for sure. these guys seemed to be literally holding their breath. of course, no one seems to remember any of this now because gustav turned out to be…meh. does downs' theory allow for a loop-back to number one?

  15. gulfcoast Says:

    Solutions for all 5 stages: Be aware of the weaknesses in your surroundings and living situation & plan the best you can for your own self-sufficiency. Buy insurance if at all possible. Have evacuation plans to the best of your ability and resources. Don't expect government or anybody else to have an efficient plan for helping you out.

    I can speak to this after having my house destroyed and losing most everything I owned in Hurricane Ike. We're coming up on the 2-year anniversary now and I'm just about getting over it, mainly thanks to flood insurance paying for my repairs. Luckily, I also have a compassionate boss who didn't fire me for all the time I had to take off to deal with all of it.

    If I had been dependent on FEMA, I would've been on the street after Ike, despite having a paid-off house. They helped me out with subsidized rent for a few months, and that was it. And I had to jump through all the same hoops as the homeless and destitute and uninsured people – filling out endless forms, going for endless interviews that felt like parole hearings, etc. to even get that minimal help.

    When I hear about New Orleans Katrina victims still in catastrophic situations 5 years later, while still receiving FEMA help, it just doesn't compute, because it so conflicts with my experiences. I have empathy for them, but at what point do people need to be held responsible for their own circumstances?

    Long time reader, but first time commenter here, so feel free to pile on and tell me why I'm wrong.

  16. Elle Says:

    When I hear about New Orleans Katrina victims still in catastrophic situations 5 years later, while still receiving FEMA help, it just doesn't compute, because it so conflicts with my experiences.

    Doesn't it exactly chime with your experience, insofar as your experience was that you would have been homeless if not for your comprehensive insurance / munificent employer / financial security?

    People who are grindingly poor don't have insurance, or money for emergency transport/motels, or money to front up repair costs, or employers who are willing to concede that their staff are human beings.

    Be aware of the weaknesses in your surroundings and living situation & plan the best you can for your own self-sufficiency. Buy insurance if at all possible. Have evacuation plans to the best of your ability and resources. Don't expect government or anybody else to have an efficient plan for helping you out.

    Problem is, that it's rare for anyone but the Government, or one/a combination of its agencies, to be able to put a timebound evacuation plan into place.

    If only those who have the means (money and personal transport) can escape disaster, then that will result in a disproportionate number of poor, ill, disabled, and older people being left behind. The thought of blaming people for their own lonely, scared deaths because of their lack of Boy Scout-ishness, makes my blood run cold.

    In broader terms, there is nothing individuals can do to protect themselves from all of life's eventualities. Even if we are rich, and furnished with a raft of insurance policies, we depend on state interventions to ensure that insurance products are regulated, that money markets tick over, and that hyperinflation is avoided.

    The list of the ways that we place our lives in each other's hands could go on forever.

  17. Juanita Nunes Says:

    Na Bist Du verrückt ich geh doch nicht rein zu zwei Jedis.

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