Where the Fault Lies

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 poor—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.

Gordon commented on the last post that what we’re seeing is the natural result of conservative ideology. Bob Burnett wrote about this recently at Huffington Post. Contemporary conservativism is all about shrinking government and “drowning the beast” in the bathtub. However,

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, naïve 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.

9 thoughts on “Where the Fault Lies

  1. So if that estate tax/minimum wage bill had gone through and somebody left me $9 million, I wouldn’t have to pay any taxes on it? Is that because I didn’t earn it?. But if I’m drawing $8 an hour working my tush off, I have to pay taxes on it. Definitely pays to be a welfare recipient. Speaking of that lousy $8, if you tie productivity increases to wages, starting from 1975 today’s average hourly wage should be $32/hour. Definitely doesn’t pay, literally, to be productive.

  2. You should check out the Tulane University historian cited by both Digby and Frank Rich today. His contention, and it makes sense to me, is that the failure to reconstruct NO is as much due to deliberate policy as incompetence and cronyism. The idea is that by refusing to rebuild the minority communities in NO, these groups remain scattered across the South, disempowering NO as a Democratic stronghold in a Republican region. This is a far greater crime than simple incompetence, and it sure sounds plausible coming from Rove et al.

  3. I’m not so sure about the majority of the country feeling all that upset about Bush’s incompetence regarding Katrina. Sure, they don’t like it, but it doesn’t affect most of them personally, is my take – I hope I’m wrong. I’m not sure if it even registers in their minds that This Could Happen to Me.

    Now if a Katrina-magnitude cyclone managed to landfall somewhere a lot more white in color, someplace more threatening to their electorial prospects, say West Palm Beach, you can bet the Bush regime will suddenly become the spare-no-expense epitome of efficiency insofar as delivering relief, and pronto. Katrina was a cool way to make a red state more securly red, permanently, and distribute largesse to GOP contributers.

    You’re right about the conservative demographic – the worst ones were born after the New Deal was taken for granted, after the right managed to turn liberalism into a byword for special interests, ie race. These conservative crybabies have no concept of how they are sucking on the teat of liberalism’s hard won achievements. See A Day in the Life of Joe Middle-Class Republican.

    It’s an interesting contrast between our age vs the Gilded Age. We still have a judiciary somewhat left over from liberalism’s heyday, if under attack, yet an improvement over courts of the Gilded Age, but we are cursed with a sophisticated propaganda machine worthy of Stalin or Goebbels, which didn’t exist in the 19th century. I’d also say that we are cursed with a population that takes all of what liberalism created in America for granted, and thinks the Dream can go on forever, without any personal involvement.

    America in the late 19th century was coming into its own, about to displace the big kid on the block, the UK. Today, we’re heading into the sunset, as Asia is coming online. When they decide they no longer need us, the music is going to stop in the good old USA. The prosperity that occurred at the peak of liberalism’s influence, the 1960s, was an anomaly, an artifact of our country being left intact after World War 2. The true costs of our vaunted lifestyle are becoming apparent by the appearance of Peak Oil. And yes, we have some major enemies and some major foreign entanglements that are slowly bleeding us dry. In short, a lot of external forces are arrayed against us, that didn’t exist during the Gilded Age.

    It’s kind of a perfect storm that’s especially brewing against the little guy is my opinion. The rich can always ride it out, and use the ensuing chaos to rig the system ever more in their favor, gutting this country out, which is what they have been doing especially since W got into office. They did the same thing after the Civil War, taking advantage of the national chaos, to intensify their power grab, which resulted in the excesses of the Gilded Age and subsequently the Great Depression.

    It’s been said that the Great Depression was Great only because Republicans refused to do anything effective about it. The Depression was the event that derailed their power grab for a few generations, but they resumed their quest after liberalism largely succeeded and began to splinter.

    It’s interesting that our country almost went fascist during the 1930s, we fortunately turned socialist instead – good thing that socialism was in vogue elsewhere in the world at that time. In my opinion, it’s taken a few generations for them to learn from this mistake, but the Republicans have finally set things up so they can try this one more time, and get it right.

  4. …the failure to reconstruct NO is as much due to deliberate policy as incompetence and cronyism. The idea is that by refusing to rebuild the minority communities in NO, these groups remain scattered across the South, disempowering NO as a Democratic stronghold in a Republican region.

    I think there’s something to that, although if you look across the entire Gulf there are areas populated mostly by white conservatives that aren’t doing much better than New Orleans.

  5. I’m not so sure about the majority of the country feeling all that upset about Bush’s incompetence regarding Katrina.

    I guess it depends on where you are, and also where you get your news.

  6. Feel free to talk to me Maha. I’m an ex-rightie, with reservations that require pointing out:

    1) The federal government is making war against me. I use cannabis. Legally, according to state law. But there is always a risk, the patient records could get scooped up and we could all get hauled off to jail.

    2) The federal government is making war against people in countries all over the world. Over oil, resources, religion, territory, or just plain desire for global hegemony. Dead and wounded innocent children. Should I want to be supporting that with my taxes or my votes?

    I am an ex-rightie, as I said, and I want good social government. But if you want good government you can’t do it with bad people in charge, or in a large enough number to be able to control it.

    So how do you solve this?

    I’ll try to answer in a blog post on my site tomorrow. I need to sleep first.

  7. Man, am I glad I provoked this (now a whole series!). Great stuff!

    I fear that younger voters — younger than me, anyway, which is most people — will be very hard to win back to progressivism.

    I’m 54 and a progressive from day 1 (lived in a Republican NJ town in ’60, and I HATED Nixon, despite the fact that that got stones thrown at me). I “blame” that on parents and teachers who lived through the depression & WWII (but the Nixon hatred was viceral, not taught – my parents kept their mouths shut). From ’72 to ’04 I pretty much kept my head down – it was too depressing. ’04 was too much, and outrage drew me back into politics (as a spectator, anyway).

    I have 2 sons – one is 26, the other 14. Both are very progressive and have very progressive friends (and my younger is been raised in rural Maine!). They are “realistic” progressives, while I was a “naive” progressive, almost certainly because they’ve grown up during a rightward slide. My younger watches Democracy Now while his stepdad watches FOX news!

    Add to that a lot of Reaganites who are horrified at how things have turned out (AmericaBlog is a good example). Or take Kevin Phillips and John Dean. Or the previous commenter.

    So I do expect an anti-reactionary backlash. The question is whether a progressive coalition can be formed. I personally believe that global warming / clean water / clean air, and energy independence (solar, wind, efficiency etc) are two (related) things that will resonate with a very wide audience.

  8. Pingback: Good government « cannablog

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