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