Everyday Emergencies

Tracking Emergency Interventions in the United States, 1998–2008


The world is in crisis. Today, society faces a growing and intensifying array of potential dangers and disruptions, including ecological and climate change disasters, infrastructural and technological failures, fiscal and financial crises, and geopolitical conflict (inter alia). As a result, emergency-based techniques of governance also appear to be on the rise. In times of real or perceived crisis, public and quasi-public agencies may invoke what are often referred to as “emergency powers,” in order to allow for a more expeditious, bold, and nimble governmental response. Indeed, a “state of emergency” is an exceptional period in which democratic rule and constitutional order are suspended on the grounds that necessitas non habet legem (“necessity knows no law”). Thus, while emergency intervention is arguably a vital tool for addressing current and future crises, it is also fundamentally undemocratic and, hence, exceedingly dangerous.

While emergency-based governance in the United States has largely flown under the radar of public and scholarly discourse, two recent events have drawn considerable attention to the issue. First, the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled an untold number of U.S. governmental officials to declare a state of emergency in their respective jurisdictions: from multiple presidents to numerous governors, to an unknown number of local public and quasi-public officials. Notably, while many crises are acute events necessitating only brief emergency intervention, the indefinite nature of the pandemic has led officials (especially at state, county, and local levels) to declare public health emergencies for lengthy or indeterminate periods of time.  

A second factor that has increased the salience of the issue was the immoderate deployment of emergency measures by the presidential administration of Donald Trump. From immigration at the southern border, to the opioid crisis, to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump utilized the national emergency designation in an often bellicose and politically brazen manner. But it would be a mistake to believe that the aggressive deployment of emergency-based techniques was unique to the Trump administration or that future administrations (of either party) will be more circumspect in how they utilize this powerful tool. To the contrary, the new Biden administration seems similarly poised to use emergency measures in an expansive manner, in order to address concerns such as climate change and gun violence. 

And yet, despite the constitutional gravity of emergency measures, and despite the fact that such measures seem to be emerging as the de rigueur response to local, regional, and national problems of all sorts, the practice has largely evaded serious and sustained investigation. A vast array of governmental officials are currently empowered to invoke a wide variety of extra-democratic emergency powers, yet there is no centralized oversight of the practice or even simple repository in which all emergency declarations are recorded. “Everyday Emergencies” begins to fill this critical gap in our knowledge by developing a dataset of all states of emergency declared in the United States, at all scales of governance, over the past two decades. Once this information is collected, we can begin asking basic yet crucial questions, such as: How often are emergency measures invoked? By whom? For what purpose? And to what effects?