A Perfect Storm?

Is Hurricane Katrina a transformative political moment? Is this finally the time when Americans appraise the failure of the Bush administration -- that is, the failure of modern conservatism -- and say, “Enough”? Can liberals seize the opportunity those failures represent to make a case for a different society, in which repeated warnings about the dangers facing a great city are mocked with budget cuts, in which citizens don't go days without water and food -- a society in which mutual and shared obligations are taken seriously? With the initial shock having faded, these are the important questions. Now comes a new moment, a time to take the administration's Katrina failures and merge them into a broader case both against conservatism's vision of society and for ours.

There was talk in Katrina's immediate aftermath that yes, this is such a transformative moment. John Barry, author of Rising Tide, the story of the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 (the one Randy Newman memorialized in his lush, poignant song “Louisiana 1927”), appeared on various programs to discuss his book. Barry didn't make the argument explicitly, but the hidden point of hauling him onto the shows was to suggest: The 1927 flood helped lead to the New Deal, because the lack of a unified response made the people back then realize that they needed the government to step in where the private sector would not. (A good sign: The 1997 book has jumped back on the best-seller lists.) Blogs of both the left and the right have overflowed with speculation about the politics of Katrina, and where the nation will go from here.

The Bush administration and its congressional henchpersons have been spinning like tops, working to ensure that the transformation goes in the direction they prefer: of less government, of responsibility thrown onto the states, of more penance owed by the poor and by workers, of more reliance on church-based charity, of consolidation of their movement's power. It didn't take George W. Bush long to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act, which protects wage rates on federal construction projects. The need to relocate schoolchildren led to renewed calls for school vouchers. In coming weeks, Republicans in Congress will surely be “revisiting” federal flood insurance and a host of other questions. At the same time, they'll continue to try to brush away criticism by saying that now is not the time for criticism, and they'll rig the terms of the investigation into their own failures. Like the bank robber who blames the bank for having the money, the Republicans lost little time in using their own massive failure to assert that government can't work. The posturing has been at times surreal, giving the post-Katrina period an eerily banana-republic sort of gloss -- the constitutional democratic version of, say, Anastasio Somoza's response to the Nicaraguan earthquake of 1972, when he appointed a commission to look into the government's failures that was chaired by ... Anastasio Somoza.

Atypically, in the first two weeks after the disaster, the White House's spinning was recognized as such by a newly emboldened news media. But we have seen in Iraq and with regard to September 11 how the administration's resolve can wear the opposition down, take it by surprise; more than once have its lies, repeated over and over, defeated fact. It won't be easy, fighting all that and building the more important positive case for a government that takes its obligations to its citizens seriously. There is great goodness and generosity in the American people, one by one. But can we, after 25 years of ideological hypnotism, call upon a shared sense of a common good in which we all have a stake?

If we want a democratic and egalitarian transformation to come out of Katrina, we have to fight for it. And we have to fight what for the past two decades has been, for liberals -- or at least for Democrats -- an uncomfortable fight. To be sure, we should perform forensics on the cronyism, incompetence, callousness, and catastrophically tone-deaf management that set the stage for this scandal. But we should do more than criticize and call for investigations -- more, even, than suggest counterproposals to address the crisis. We must, finally, make the big-picture case based on core principles, and show how the very tenets of modern conservatism made Katrina's consequences far worse than they might have been. For the president to come in now and throw billions at the problem his administration helped to create is less than meaningless. Far from signaling some new conservative commitment to the idea of government, it signals panic at poll numbers; the failure still happened, and the reasons for the failure still stand. The opportunity to draw a clear, connecting line between ideological belief and practical failure has never been greater.

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Of the several central precepts of modern movement conservatism, three played crucial roles here: first, its sanctification of the individual and concomitant rejection of the community as the foundational unit of social organization (except for religious communities, which are to substitute for political action and social investment); second, its glorification of the corporation -- indeed its attempt to model the government on the corporation (although on a very inefficient, corrupted idea of the corporation); and third, its utter anti-empiricism -- its ability to deny any fact that is not either presented in a “study” paid for by the oil industry or insisted upon by those greatest of all deniers of fact, the Christian right.

Modern conservatism's veneration of the individual goes back at least to the economist Ludwig von Mises, but, for present purposes, let's trace the line of argument back to a man named Marvin Olasky. In books like The Tragedy of American Compassion, Olasky made the case throughout the 1980s and '90s that the welfare state had failed the poor -- and that the poor had failed the poor. The honey that made it possible to peddle this medicine in respectable quarters was the idea that a program of spiritual nourishment should come first for the less fortunate. This thinking got the attention of George W. Bush's advisers in the late '90s and made Olasky the godfather, as it were, of “compassionate conservatism” (funny, we haven't heard that phrase invoked since Katrina, have we?).

The unvarnished message of Olasky's work was that poverty is a moral issue, and hence that the poor are by definition of weak moral character. This belief is almost never stated publicly, but it courses through conservatism's veins. So, a situation like the one that developed in New Orleans, with Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown both unaware that people were trapped in the Superdome and convention center, is in one part a matter of their incompetence (there was certainly incompetence on the part of state and local officials; Louisiana Democrats will never be confused with Platonic philosopher-kings). But in a greater part, such an insouciant posture by high government officials is inevitable after 25 years of such thinking. If you're poor or black, don't own a car, live in the low part of town because that's what you can afford, or perhaps couldn't get away because you worked the late shift and your boss wouldn't let you go that night -- tough. You were there in the first place because of your own moral deficiency. The ignorance of Chertoff and Brown does not indicate that they are evil men. They undoubtedly are not. Rather, their words indicate that they are in thrall to an ideology that tells them that the whole of society -- the black and the poor and the lame; in other words, the inconvenient -- is just not their responsibility.

The inconvenient, according to Republican ideology, will be taken care of by religious charities -- our new “government.” It's a nice idea, and it gives Bush an opportunity to feint toward piety. And, of course, churches -- right-wing ones included -- do wonderful charitable work. But they will never substitute for the federal government. The government will spend $200 billion on Katrina; churches, all told, a fraction of that at best. In addition, the great religious awakening of the last 20 years has not gone, in this respect, as advertised: Net charitable giving, though it flourishes at times like these, has just about kept pace with the gross domestic product.

As to glorification of the corporation: On September 7, David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote a column analogizing Bush to a CEO (an incompetent CEO). Good start. But the analogy goes much deeper than Ignatius took it, and applies not just to Bush but to the ideology. What it really means is that conservatism sees America not as a nation but as a corporation. This means, in turn, that we are not citizens but shareholders; and that we're not really equal, because shareholders are not (the more power you have, the more you deserve). This worldview -- more than fear or lassitude or anything having to do with his personality -- is what explains Bush's slow personal response: When a corporation faces a crisis, the CEO must protect the price first; he must demonstrate to the shareholders that everything is under control. This is why Bush stayed on vacation, even leaving the Crawford ranch (long after it was clear that Katrina would have enormous consequences) to go to Arizona to speak on Medicare and to California to try, one more listless and dishonest time, to defend the war. His instinct was to act as if everything was fine, everything was normal.

That's not what a real president does. It's not even what a good corporate CEO does. A good corporate CEO with a broader understanding of shareholder interests (and there are many) takes real action. But Bush has, in real life, been a fantastically abysmal corporate leader (see Harken Energy and Arbusto Oil). Back then, when Bush was in private life, shareholders who were capable of bailing him out of trouble were looked upon favorably. Today, certain shareholders -- like those in New Orleans' 9th Ward, say -- get less attention. The corporate model of governance, which the media so limned after 9-11, failed miserably during Katrina.

Finally, the contempt for empirical evidence had its obvious consequences. Fantasy-based conservative government has been with us since Ronald Reagan's time, but in the Bush era, it has beheld its triumph. The warnings about the insufficient levees protecting New Orleans were many, and were issued on multiple occasions over the years. But the administration ignored the warnings, cutting funding by 44 percent since 2001, forcing the New Orleans branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to impose a hiring freeze. Those excised funds, or many of them, were -- speaking of contempt for empirical evidence -- diverted to Iraq. Then, as we learned in the aftermath of the hurricane's devastation, FEMA, the White House, and other federal agencies knew by at least the Friday before the storm hit land (on a Monday) that the need to get systems into place to help people who would end up stuck in New Orleans was dire. This evidence, too, was ignored. Evidence is for liberals.

There were personal failures here, by Bush, Chertoff, Brown, and doubtless many others. But the far greater failures, it's absolutely important to keep in mind, were ideological. The conservative belief system exacerbated Katrina's effects. And that, ultimately, is the field on which the coming battle needs to be fought.

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Democrats in Congress hate to talk about ideology, and in some ways I can't say that I blame them. For most of them, there is absolutely no profit in it. For 25 years, the essential dynamic of Washington politics has been that the Republicans advance an idea and the Democrats develop a rearguard response, a response that says, “Yes, we, too (believe in a strong defense, are troubled by Hollywood values, want to reduce taxes, etc.), we just think the approach has to be tempered with this or that.” We debate the pros and cons of conservative ideology. But only rarely are liberal principles even on the table.

There may never again be a chance quite like this to draw a crystal-clear line from the A of conservative ideology to the B of the administration's Katrina failures to the C of the broader lessons about American society. The right, we can be sure, will fight to ensure that its syllogism -- the A of bloated bureaucracy to the B of government failure to the C of replacing government action with private relief -- is the one that takes hold of the public consciousness. Now is the time to make the kinds of arguments Democrats haven't made for a generation.

Against the three conservative assumptions that worsened the disaster, we liberals must counterpose our beliefs. We cherish individual liberty, but we also believe in a community in which each of us has equal worth. We believe in robust government to do what the corporations refuse to do, or are not constituted to do well. Finally, we believe in reason and evidence, and we believe that it is a core responsibility of government to respond to them.

It's been 25 long years since the leaders of the Democratic Party as a whole stood up and said these things. About 80 million Americans, those under 25 years of age, have never lived in a country in which our values were defended tenaciously -- not just by Paul Wellstone or Ted Kennedy or a handful of safe-seat members of Congress but by the entire Democratic Party leadership. Another 60 million, those between 25 and 40, have no adult memory of a class of political leaders pugnaciously championing liberal values. Bill Clinton governed that way more than he talked that way; and just as one can understand why Democrats don't talk about ideology, one can also sympathize with the way Clinton felt hemmed in by the peculiar insanity of the jihad that he faced every day he was in office, which made him feel that he was unusually short of political capital to spend.

Today's Democrats, it's quite true, have even less political capital than Clinton did. But they also have less to lose. And they make the fatal mistake of confusing the right-wing noise machine with America. But the right is not America. Washington, dominated by propagandists and those who need to be invited to the propagandists' parties, is not America. America is a far better place than Washington, and a far better thing than the right-wing noise machine. Americans -- 60-some percent of whom, after all, disapprove of the job this president is doing -- are open to another argument about how our society should be arranged.

The American Prospect will make this argument, as will others of our bent. But ultimately, the Democrats have to make it, and they have to make it in unison and without being afraid of the bullies across the aisle and the blowhards on radio and television. America may not be Washington, but its fate is shaped by what comes out of Washington. If ever there were a moment that should remind the Democrats why they came to Washington in the first place, this is it.

Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.