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The War Metaphor In Public Policy
America is at war. As the longtime "world's policeman," engaged now for nearly two decades in a global war on terror, it is not surprising that we are fighting wars literally all over the world. Global politics in the late twentieth century were characterized as a "cold war." Even economic policies such as the imposition of tariffs on imported goods are understood as having launched a "trade war" among nations.
More surprising, however, is that we are also in a state of war at home. Presidents, most obviously beginning with Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, have declared wars that continue to this day on a host of domestic problems: poverty, crime, drugs, and terror, to name a few. War's close cousin, the national emergency, has also become a way of doing policy business in the United States. Few Americans realize that they currently live under twenty-eight states of national emergency, many declared decades ago.
Living in a constant state of domestic war and national emergency has dramatically changed the way public policy is made and conducted in America. In our view, this is neither accidental nor good. Presidents have discovered that declaring wars and emergencies is a way of grasping greater executive power at the expense of Congress. Rather than engaging in long-term policy development and debate, presidents can take over a field of domestic policy essentially through speeches and declarations of domestic war. Such wars seemingly never end, since all the domestic wars, beginning with Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in 1963, are still in effect.
The war metaphor itself is a powerful rhetorical tool that has shaped domestic policy. There are troops to muster, enemies to fight, and battles to win. There is little time and opportunity for policy deliberation because, after all, we are at war. In war, the president becomes commander in chief and domestic policies shift from the leadership of Congress to the White House. Few domestic problems are ever finally solved, so a war on this or that challenge becomes, in effect, a permanent frame for how to deal with issues such as poverty, crime, or drugs. It is not too much to say that our leaders in Washington, DC, have fully embraced the war metaphor, so much so that deliberation — which the Founders saw as the key to policy formation — has largely given way to action, emergency, and war.
The effect of constant war in the policy world was described well by fictional president Jonathan Duncan in Bill Clinton and James Patterson's 2018 novel The President Is Missing: "There is no trust anymore. In the current environment there's no gain in it. All the incentives push people in the opposite directions." Duncan then described "the real cost of this," namely "more frustration, polarization, paralysis, bad decisions and missed opportunities." President Duncan lamented that "everybody knows it's wrong" yet we continue, "assuming that our Constitution, our public institutions, and the rule of law can endure each new assault doing permanent damage to our freedoms and way of life." Unfortunately, the war metaphor is not limited to the world of fiction; the damage it causes is real.
The War Metaphor
Metaphors not only communicate ideas but also help shape them. To say that something is like another thing is to conjure up known images to understand something new or different. We use these figures of speech all the time to give fuller and more colorful expression to ideas we seek to convey: we say that certain words are "music to our ears," that a danger is "a train wreck waiting to happen," but after the problem is over there will be "clear skies." Metaphors are everywhere.
In particular, metaphors have become important in the realm of policy and politics. In a more objective sense, metaphors are useful to help people who may not engage regularly in policy debates and discussions to understand the nuances of public policy. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. In immigration policy, for example, we used to think about America as a "melting pot," with people from many cultures blending, but more recently, it has been described as a "salad bowl," with groups maintaining their own identity inside the larger society. Politicians sometimes run for office by promoting "wedge issues" such as abortion to energize a base of voters on one side or the other of the wedge. Our government is prone to "pork barrel politics" and "mudslinging" while we wait for Donald Trump to "drain the swamp" or some new "dark horse" candidate to rise up and rescue us.
Less well understood is that policy metaphors not only help citizens understand nuances of policy, but they are also used to persuade audiences in one direction or another, and they may ultimately result in setting limits and making choices about policy itself. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their foundational book Metaphors We Live By, note that, as a starting point, metaphors "play a central role in the construction of social and political reality." Policy metaphors are more than descriptive — they are building blocks toward a certain kind of policy. In their article on metaphors in health policy, Mark Schlesinger and Richard R. Lau rightly point out that reasoning based upon policy metaphors takes place in two distinct stages: "the first descriptive and the second prescriptive." Policy metaphors start out describing and amplifying, but they soon end up defining, limiting, and proposing solutions.
Of several lenses — economic, political, sociological — through which we could look at public policy since the Great Depression, the war metaphor has become pervasive and describes much of what has been going on. When we declare war on a domestic policy problem, as presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson and beyond have been inclined to do, all kinds of things — from the descriptive to the persuasive and ultimately the prescriptive — take place. The war metaphor is the strongest possible figure of speech because of its ability to marshal a following and focus a policy agenda. Yet, as Professor Jeremy Elkins has noted, "[T]he war model ... deserves more attention than it has received."
A president's declaration of war on a domestic issue — be it poverty, crime, or drugs — is initially an exercise of the president's bully pulpit. President Theodore Roosevelt coined that term to describe the powerful platform available to a president to focus energy and attention on issues. In his day, the term "bully" was less about force or leverage, as it might be understood today, and simply implied a wonderful or fabulous opportunity for a president to draw attention to issues of importance. With modern tools of communication — from fireside radio chats in FDR's day to the cool medium of television for the telegenic John F. Kennedy, to the great communicator and speech maker Ronald Reagan, and now to Donald Trump's tweets — the rhetorical power of the president to influence events has become increasingly important, and this is the launching point for presidential declarations of domestic war.
One wonders whether a president would find constitutional authority for the declaration of a war on poverty or crime. When the Constitution was drafted, a war meant quite literally a war against foreign enemies, and the power to make that formal declaration was granted to Congress under Article I, Section 8. The president, as commander in chief, was empowered to carry out the wars that Congress declared. One might debate whether, by analogy, the power to declare war on a domestic enemy should also be reserved to Congress, but presidents have simply asserted the power and, since initially it is largely a rhetorical device, such declarations have not been challenged. Ultimately, as we shall see, far more than rhetoric is committed to such wars, so the question of the role of Congress is one that needs more careful consideration.
First and foremost, a declaration of war on a domestic enemy has the effect of rallying the troops — both those inside and outside the Beltway — into a focused attack on a policy problem. Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address that the American people wanted "action, and action now" to tackle the Great Depression, and through his powerful rhetoric, energized leadership, and far-reaching New Deal policies, he gave them just that. In his 1964 State of the Union message, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "an unconditional war on poverty" that would seek to "cure it" and "above all to prevent it." This declaration of war kicked off the extensive legislative agenda of "the Great Society," as Johnson called it, changing American economic and domestic policy to this day. Presidents from Richard Nixon on have sought to rally the American people and the Congress into wars on crime and drugs. President Jimmy Carter sought a similar outcome when he declared "the moral equivalent of war" on energy consumption, but with less effect.
It is important to note that even at this initial rhetorical level, a declaration of war begins to change the making of domestic policy. First, the president seizes the initiative: this is his program, his initiative in which he hopes to engage the efforts and support of Congress and the American people. And as we shall see in greater detail, the president engages the topic not at the nuanced level of concrete policy proposals, but at the broader "all hands on deck" level, with the greater emotional commitment of a war. The declaration of a war on drugs or crime is thus more of a political strategy than it is a set of policy prescriptions. The American people ought to get behind the war effort, and Congress needs to allocate funds for it. As the columnist Prospero rightly put it in The Economist, "War ... focuses attention: there is no greater national emergency. War calls for urgency, unity and sacrifice. Leaders in wartime can expect a singleness of purpose from their followers that no other situation can command."
As the war rhetoric becomes more elaborate, its effect moves from the motivational to the descriptive and even the prescriptive. At its most basic level, a declaration of war changes the conversation. No longer are lawmakers examining the policy nuances and choices presented by complex problems such as poverty or drugs; instead we are moving into immediate action and war. The question becomes not so much what we should do about it and more about how to amass the money and energy to do something. As will be seen in the following chapters, Franklin Roosevelt was not committed to this or that policy on many issues, but instead was focused on "bold, persistent experimentation" leading to "action, and action now." Lyndon Johnson gathered his staff a month or so before his famous war on poverty address and told them he would carve out money for the effort and that they should figure out how to spend it. With antipoverty policy little understood or developed, his advisers came back with a proposed series of small experiments. Having little patience for small policies, Johnson instead declared an open-ended war with very little policy to implement it. This is typical of how these domestic wars begin: long on rhetoric and short on policy.
The specifics of the war rhetoric, then, begin to shape the policy, not vice versa. Wars need enemies and weapons. Generals and czars must be commissioned to lead them. Battlefields are identified, tactics developed, and victory defined. All of this is in marked contrast with the kind of analytical and deliberative work that should attend the development of public policy. Indeed, there is a sense that there is little time or space for working up and debating policy alternatives because, after all, we are at war! When Jimmy Carter declared "the moral equivalent of war" on energy consumption, he transformed this domestic challenge into a matter of national security as he called for sacrifices and spoke of imposing sanctions. The war on drugs quickly transformed our nation's schools into literal battlegrounds over drugs. The war on crime brought military equipment into our nation's cities and police forces. Without question, declaring war on a domestic problem dramatically transforms both the way policy is made and how it is carried out.
One of the trickiest elements of the war metaphor revolves around the question of who is the enemy. Many were puzzled when President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism in a televised speech a few days after 9/11, characterizing it in a subsequent message to Congress as a war on terror. How does one engage in a war on a methodology, not against a nation or a traditional enemy? But a similar dilemma is raised by other domestic policy wars that seem to be wars on abstractions or conditions, not enemies per se. Poverty, drug use, energy consumption, crime — these are all conditions or problems, not enemies in a personalized sense. Can you really declare a war on a condition? If you do, will it inevitably turn into a war against some people — drug dealers, criminals — and is there some danger that even victims of poverty or drug use may come to feel like enemies in the war?
Another important question is why presidents have employed the war metaphor in domestic policy in the first place. Clearly, a large part of a president's agenda is mobilizing support and action. FDR drew on the recent experience of World War I in proposing a warlike campaign on the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson was in search of an issue he could call his own (as opposed to merely finishing John F. Kennedy's legacy) and a cornerstone for the Great Society when he declared war on poverty. Barack Obama used the war metaphor following an oil spill to try to mobilize support for his stalled environmental and energy agendas.
But another reason for declaring war on domestic problems is consolidating greater power in the presidency itself. Under the Constitution, health and welfare (underpinnings of poverty), crime, and the like are all matters of state and local control, not federal. Other than directing the work of administrative agencies, Congress retains jurisdiction over federal domestic policy, especially through its oversight and spending powers. By declaring war on a domestic problem, however, a president seizes not only the initiative but also the power to drive policy from the White House. Even when he needs approval from Congress, the president goes to the Hill with a declared war, not just a set of policy options. There is little doubt that power-savvy presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon understood this very well and that increasing presidential power was not only an outcome of declaring domestic policy wars but was also very much part of their intention. So the incentive for presidents to declare policy wars is high indeed.
Problems with the War Metaphor
At first blush, one might think that declaring war on intransigent problems such as poverty or crime would be a good thing. As these domestic policy wars have evolved, however, five conclusions become relatively clear: (1) they do not generally solve the problem at hand; (2) they create roadblocks to better policy solutions; (3) they increase executive power at the expense of Congress; (4) their imagery is often negative and destructive; and (5) they never end. In a larger sense, these domestic policy wars also contribute to the contentious policy and culture wars that have plagued Washington in recent years.
A declaration of war on a domestic policy issue is flawed from the outset because it oversimplifies the problem, precluding further debate and the discovery of better solutions. To declare war is to state that, in effect, we understand the problem and we are prepared to do what it takes to eradicate or solve it. Such a declaration necessarily oversimplifies the problem in order to focus and attack, which is the methodology of war. When a president takes a very complex problem — such as poverty, crime, drug use, terrorism, energy — and suggests that we understand it and know how to eradicate it by declaring a war, the process of study, deliberation, and consideration of alternatives is essentially over. We are now in the context of war, where the operative approach is action, not deliberation. As Lori Hartmann-Mahmud has written of the war metaphor: "Clearly, the metaphor of war applied to concepts such as poverty, drug abuse, over-population and terrorism simplifies and thus misleads."
If we look at the historical record, however, presidents were not able to say they understood a complex domestic problem and the necessary solutions when they declared war, and more likely were launching a marketing or political campaign that was long on rhetoric and money but short on policy and solutions. Johnson's war on poverty was developed in a month to be featured in his first State of the Union message as president. The wars on crime and drugs were primarily about federalizing battles and spending more money on problems that had overwhelmed state and local governments. Much more policy work was needed in every case, however, that was inhibited by the declaration of war. There was no time to study and identify root causes of the problems or consider alternative solutions. As Lakoff and Johnson point out in their book on metaphors, such devices inherently clarify one aspect of a problem while keeping us "from focusing on other aspects ... that are inconsistent with that metaphor."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How Public Policy Became War"
Copyright © 2019 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.
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Table of Contents
1 The War Metaphor in Public Policy 5
2 How Public Policy Became "Action, and Action Now" 25
The New Deal
3 How Public Policy Became War and Emergency 57
The Modern Presidency
4 What Public Policy Was Supposed to Be 93
Deliberation at the Founding
5 How to Manage the War Metaphor in Public Policy 121
The Way Forward
About the Authors 158