In this week’s Newsweek, Jonathan Alter asks how President Bush could have been so inept at handling Katrina recovery:
Not only has the president done much less than he promised on the financing and logistics of Gulf Coast recovery, he has dropped the ball entirely on using the storm and its aftermath as an opportunity to fight poverty. Worker recovery accounts and urban homesteading never got off the ground, and the new enterprise zone is mostly an opportunity for Southern companies owned by GOP campaign contributors to make some money in New Orleans. The mood in Washington continues to be one of not-so-benign neglect of the problems of the poor. …
… If the president was MIA, Congress hasn’t been much better. Consider the estate tax and the minimum wage. The House in June passed a steep reduction of the estate tax (so as to apply only to couples leaving more than $10 million to their heirs) that would cost the Treasury three quarters of a trillion dollars over the next decade. Last time I checked, that was real money. Senate Republicans tried to push it through by linking the bill to an increase in the minimum wage, which has not been raised in nine years. The idea was to get credit for giving crumbs to the working poorâ€”but only if the superrich receive hundreds of billions of dollars. Fortunately, the bill failed. Unfortunately, other tax cuts for the wealthy keep moving through the system, ballooning the deficit and drying up money for everything else. Meanwhile, the GOP wants to make welfare reform (now 10 years old) more punitive, which will increase suffering. …
… After all the heat he took last year, how could Bush have blown the aftermath of Katrina? It’s not as if he lacks confidence in the power of his office. He believes he can fix Iraq and transform the Middle East. He aspires to spread democracy to the far corners of the globe. But the fate of an American city and millions of his impoverished countrymen are apparently beyond his control, or perhaps just his interest.
During the last five years, conservatives discovered that while Americans rail against the federal government in the abstract, they actually like the programs it provides, such as Medicare and Social Security. They want their mail delivered on time and levees maintained to guard them from floods.
In Why Conservatives Can’t Govern political scientist Alan Wolfe observes. “Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain… The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.”
Faced with the reality that Americans secretly like the federal government, conservatives had two invidious responses: privatization and patronage. In Federal agency after agency, conservative Bush political appointees privatized jobs that formally had been done by agency employees. This resulted in deterioration of service and massive cost overruns. This can be seen in the Bush Administration’s handling of FEMA, where many of the essential functions were outsourced to corporations–with disastrous results, as was seen in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Privatization has been one of the major problems with the occupation of Iraq; selling Iraqi assets off to multinational corporations is not a substitute for building a civil society.
For years conservatives have been telling each other a fairy tale about government: that government is the problem, not the solution, and if government could just be shoved aside we would all live happily ever after. Without government, the good Market Forces fairy would be freed, and our wishes would be granted as naturally as the rain falls and the sun shines.
Alan Wolfe observes that since the primary objective of conservatives was thwarted–they couldn’t shrink the size of government–they settled for preventing it “from doing any good.” From the Department of Justice to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bush Administration eased federal regulations and reduced oversight responsibilities; the result was an across-the-board abandonment of the public interest. Conservatives abandoned a vital historic role of the federal government: protection of our rights.
Simultaneously, conservatives used the resources of the federal government as a vehicle for unprecedented political patronage; strengthening the Republican Party by securing huge donations from corporations. Conservative control of government unleashed an unprecedented wave of venality, a hybrid form of plutocracy where the interests of corporations where given primacy over the rights of individuals. This bias had many forms: sole-source contracts given in Iraq, bribery of Administration and Congressional officials, heightened influence of lobbyists, and elimination of bipartisanship — creation of an atmosphere where fairness and cooperation are seen as character flaws.
This is not necessarily new. Fred Siegel wrote (scroll down to subhead “American History” to read the entire essay):
… in rapidly industrializing post-Civil War America, the Whig politics of property, organized to protect wealth from the democratic “mob,” underwent an extraordinary transformation. “What it did,” writes Louis Hartz, “was to smash the ‘mob’ into a million bits, so that the fierce acquisitive passion, instead of being expended against property, would be expended against itself in the quest for property.” From roughly the end of the Civil War to the onset of the New Deal, there was a right wing in American politics but nothing, literary tendencies aside, that could be described as “conservative” as the term is commonly understood. The right wing turned against government in the name of that oxymoron laissez-faire conservatism and feared the state as an instrument of majoritarian reform. This came to be called “the American (as opposed to European) Way.”
State action, said social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner, threatened the natural social processes that produced prosperity through inequality. State action to regulate business or protect workers from injury was said to be the equivalent of European socialism and thus a threat to civilization itself. Or as John D. Rockefeller, Jr., explained it, the rise of big business was merely the working out of a law of nature and law of God. In the Gilded Age “the inequalities of nature would be allowed to run their full course.”
The Right sold this nonsense to voters by appealing to “that part of the American individualist psyche that has found all institutions, let alone the state, a suffocating danger.” That’s still true today, but today the Right has the advantage of control of most news media and highly sophisticated propaganda techniques. Bob Burnett wrote in his Huffington Post piece,
In the face of ideological failure, managerial ineptitude, and widespread corruption, why do any Americans support President Bush and his conservative cronies? The answer lies in the skillful use of propaganda by the Bush Administration. On a daily basis, citizens are fed lie after lie; told that Bush and the GOP mean well, have the best interests of the US at heart.
For the most part, Americans have bought these lies. And, they can’t resist the promise of a free lunch. Thus, while Americans didn’t accept the conservative notion of shrinking the size of the Federal government, they willingly supported the foolish notion of paying less for exactly the same services. In many parts of the nation, naÃ¯ve citizens have been slow to associate deterioration of public services with the conservative Bush ideology, but eventually they will.
Burnett may be optimistic. A big chunk of our citizenry has been so brainwashed with the notion that government doesn’t work that they accept the atrocity of Gulf Coast “reconstruction” as proof.
One difference between then and now is that during the Gilded Age and many years after, the “activist judges” were on the side of the Right.
The post-Civil War Supreme Court led by Justice Stephen Field reshaped the Fourteenth Amendment (designed to ensure due process for the freed slaves) into an instrument of laissez-faire. In the Slaughterhouse cases of 1873, Field suggested that the very idea of economic regulation was un-American. And in the Pollock income tax case of 1895, progressive economic policy was denounced as “socialistic” and “communistic.” The Supreme Court saw itself as fashioning the Constitution into a bulwark “behind which private rights and private property may shelter themselves and be safe” from “the will of the majority.” In short, for conservatives the only good legislature was an adjourned legislature.
Today, the courts mostly have acted as our last shield between individual rights and the totalitarian Right. No wonder the righties hate the judicial branch.
“Laissez-faire conservatism reached its intellectual apogee in the 1920s.,” Siegel writes. The Depression, followed by the New Deal, drove it into disrepute. The Right was also home to rabid isolationists who refused to see the dangers posed by the emergence of Hitler, and many of them remained stubbornly isolationist through World War II. Needless to say, by 1945 the Right was way out of the mainstream. However, during the Cold War righties were able to take credibility on foreign policy away from the Left through a campaign of hysterical charges and brazen lies, as explained in this post.
But how did laissez-faire and free-market ideologies make such a triumphant comeback? I think the chief wedge issue used by the Right to separate voters from progressivism was race. I explained here how the Republicans capitalized on a white backlash against the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs to lure white voters away from the Democrats. Expanding on that a bit — voters enraged by federally mandated desegregation were voters easily persuaded that the federal government was too powerful and needed to be taken down a few pegs. Voters who resented Ronald Reagan’s apocryphal black welfare queen were voters persuaded that Republicans wouldn’t throw money away on foolishness like entitlement programs, the way those tax-and-spend Democrats do.
And although I haven’t taken a demographic survey, it has struck me for a long time that so many of the loudest drum-beaters for the Right were born in the 1960s and 1970s. They don’t remember the New Deal; they don’t remember the post-World War II economic explansion, which peaked about 1972. They’ve been programmed with rightie beliefs all their lives, however, to the point that the rightie world view is all they know. I fear that younger voters — younger than me, anyway, which is most people — will be very hard to win back to progressivism. They’ve never seen true progressivism at work during their lifetimes, and years of rightie programming will make many of them averse to giving progressivism a try.
But then came Katrina, and I sincerely believe most of the nation is disturbed at how slowly the Gulf is being reconstructed. The first Atlantic hurricane of the year, Ernesto, could reach Florida by Thursday. The nation will be watching.