The Astonishing Rise of Existential Threats

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his study in Paris in 1948
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his Paris study in 1948Associated Press

Political discourse has taken on a certain shade of Camus. The term existential threat is fertile of late, especially among Democratic presidential hopefuls. It has become a set term in reference to climate change, as used by Governor Jay Inslee and by Senator Elizabeth Warren, both on Twitter and in speeches, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg has used the variation existential security challenge. Former Vice President Joe Biden refers to President Donald Trump as an existential threat to the nation, and Senator Cory Booker widens the lens, applying the term to the opiate crisis, suicide rates, and even our general lack of civic unity. It isn’t only people left of center who are newly fond of the term: According to a National Rifle Association spokesman, Senator Kamala Harris is an “existential threat” to the Second Amendment.

Of course, it is perfectly logical to see climate change, the current president, and possibly other matters as existential threats. However, the nation has surely encountered quite a few dire circumstances in the past, and yet it is only lately that the specific term existential threat has been on the tip of so many tongues.

Winston Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons in 1940, best known for its “We shall fight them on the beaches” passage, referred to the “menace of tyranny,” but not an existential threat, despite the very real one Britain then faced in Hitler. The term existential became well entrenched in Anglophone discourse after World War II, when Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, and especially Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Albert Camus’ works such as The Stranger, were widely read.

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Crucially, though, existential threat was not regularly used in American public speeches in the late 20th century, despite how widely discussed existentialism itself was among the educated. In his speech on the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy referred to what we recognize as an existential threat, but did not call it one. Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as a threat, but not an “existential” one.

The “existential” add-on has jumped in this century specifically, first embraced in reference to terrorism after 9/11, and then again after the election of you-know-who in 2016. Google yielded about a million hits for existential threat in 2015, and 1,700,000 the year afterward, and 2,300,000 in 2017.

Existentialism is now one of the key shibboleths of being, or sounding, educated, summoning memories of how challengingly chilly and odd—yet clearly fundamental to human nature—The Stranger seemed when we were assigned it in college or an Advanced Placement class. Related to this is the sheer drama in the term, with its flavor of darkness. But precisely because threats of the past were not too often described as “existential,” the term existential threat feels not only highbrow and portentous, but novel.

In this way, the popularity of the term tracks a general trend in how any language changes over time. We seek to move, stimulate, and hold the attention of those we talk (or write) to, and this requires the constant renewal of words designed to grab the lapels and register our sincerity and passion. A modern example is the business-world habit of turning verbs into nouns, as in “a big ask” and “finding a solve.” The words request and solution have been around for a while and feel flat, a little vanilla. An “ask” sounds more lively than a “request” or a “bid,” even if it refers to the same thing, which is much of why this kind of usage has jumped the rails to more general parlance.

New developments like this often start in a subgroup and then spread, and today’s Democratic candidates can be analyzed as such a community, sharing not only a political aspiration, but even a certain wonkishness that would encourage the embrace of a term like existential.

But overall there is a chance element in these things, in which social history, powerful personalities, and sheer serendipity endlessly intertwine. It seems like it was just 10 minutes ago that one spoke of “tips,” “pointers,” and that which is “handy”—as opposed to the now viral usage of hack, as in life hack, cooking hack, and so on. Why are we now using that word so much? Because of the technology journalist Danny O’Brien’s coinage of it in 2005—but then, there are countless other terms that people in his profession use that most of us will never hear. One can no more know just why most new terms emerge than one can know why bell-bottoms became fashionable when they did or why men are now wearing their pants hemmed a bit higher above the ankle than they were a few years ago. Novelty is the constant; its direction and form are up for grabs.

After all, in 1988, many of the “Seven Dwarfs” Democratic candidates were quite comfortable with their noses in books, such as Michael Dukakis, Paul Simon, and especially Al Gore, who was memorably belittled later by George W. Bush for his fondness of none other than the existentialist tome Phenomenology of Perception. And yet no trend for using existential threat emerged among them.

Some might object that existential threat is redundant and that Reagan had it right with his preference for simply saying “threat.” Threat embodies the possibility of harm, which could be seen as potentially embodying outright negation—i.e., of existence. One might well sense damage or disempowerment as, in essence, elimination. Isn’t existential threat really just a fancy way of saying threat?

To an extent, yes, and that reflects, again, a quest to juice the word up a bit, keep it fresh. English is full of examples of our having done just that in the past, yielding what today are set phrases entailing the same kind of lily-gilding. We often call something a “damned shame,” which is not really all that “damned”—besides, isn’t something that is a shame already “damned,” technically? Rather, we say “a damned shame” as a way of saying that something was a shame with a certain air of dedication, commitment. What, precisely, is “stark” naked, as if when just naked we wear a bow tie or socks? If overwhelm means what it does, then what did whelm ever mean? The answer: It meant “to overwhelm.”

People added the over for the same reason it now feels so right to add existential to threat—it adds a sense of urgency and color to a message that otherwise might go by less noticed. To wit, speaking is never a mere recitation of things and actions and qualities decorated by some greeting conventions and a sprinkling of slang. Language is about keeping people’s attention, making it worth their while to give you their sustained attention. A language where terms like existential threat did not regularly catch on to replace earlier ways of saying the same thing would be under its own kind of existential threat, as it would no longer suit the actual needs of human exchange.