Hurricane Reality vs. Right-Wing Ideology
Hurricane Katrina blew away not only roofs, levees and lives, but also some of the right's most cherished -- and well-funded -- beliefs. The depth of the disconnect between the right's narrative of what American society should look like and the facts on the ground was almost unspinnable. Reality was hard to stave off in the aftermath of such a disaster.
Some tried. The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger took the opportunity to argue that "poorly incentivized" public bureaucracies "are going to get us killed" and call for outsourcing emergency response functions.
The National Review's Kate O'Beirne wrote that the contrast between Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mississippi's Haley Barbour should leave Hillary Clinton supporters "dismayed at the latest example of why voters might be leery of women chief executives."
Further on the fringe, blogger Michael Calderon at David Horowitz's Frontpage Magazine saw in Katrina the potential for a civil war following a major terror attack in the U.S. and envisioned a Hobbesian war of all against all, predicting -- with just a bit too much enthusiasm -- this apocalyptic scenario:
Expect heavily armed and infuriated conservatives to launch a cleansing war against the traitors. The armed will mow down the mostly unarmed segments, especially those elements that devoted 40-plus years to anti-American hatred to destroy this country. Should the likes of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Michael Moore, Ward Churchill, Dennis Raimondo [sic], et al. act out their sedition ... expect their bodies to be found shot full of holes ... Leftist professors will be strung up. It will be every man, woman, and child for themselves.And, also predictably, other nutters saw the storm as part of God's wrath for New Orleans' sinful ways (ignoring that some of the staunchest Bible-belt counties in the South were also devastated).
The first ideological victim of the hurricane on the right was the notion of a classless, race-blind society in which we all share the same opportunity to thrive. A media that routinely deletes any reference to race and class was forced to openly confront the desperate and almost purely monochromatic reality of the hurricane's survivors.
The notion -- briefly floated by some conservatives -- that Katrina's victims have some personal responsibility for not leaving when the evacuation orders came down was swiftly deflated. The Washington Post noted that "living paycheck to paycheck made leaving impossible":
To those who wonder why so many stayed behind when push came to water's mighty shove here, those who were trapped have a simple explanation: Their nickels and dimes and dollar bills simply didn't add up to stage a quick evacuation mission.The New York Times' David Brooks -- who seemed especially shaken by the images coming out of the Gulf Coast -- lamented that Katrina represented a confidence-shattering rip in our social fabric as "the rich escaped while the poor were abandoned," a move he called "the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield."
On the question of class, the storm landed at an inopportune moment for conservatives. Katrina hit smack in the middle of a year-long public debate about the United States' growing inequality (in just about every way one can measure it).
The back and forth started in May, when both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal [$$] (followed by others) began a series on the growing wealth gap in America. The right responded with the usual charge that a liberal agenda was cooking the books -- despite Alan Greenspan weighing in that there was, indeed, a potential problem -- and, alternatively, that what matters isn't what class we belong to but what class we believe we belong to, an argument voiced by, among others, Bruce Bartlett in the National Review.
While Katrina didn't have any direct impact on the debate, images are more visceral than statistics. It's hard to sit in a comfortable, dry place watching the abandoned poor fight for their lives, and argue that the growing class divide in this country is a figment of the left's imagination, or that our current socio-economic arrangements are the best we can do.
Directly related to class is the idea of social cohesion. "United we stand" is a central tenet of the American narrative. Whatever your background, your status, your ideology, we pull together when the chips are down. But in New Orleans it became clear just how transparent that fiction is. Our sense of community -- if the ideal ever truly existed -- has now deteriorated to such a degree that only the threat of deadly violence holds the whole show together.
The scenes of a powder keg with its lid blown off rattled many on the right, despite the fact that in many ways it accords with the conservative view of human nature. Peggy Noonan wrote, "a bad turn in human behavior frays and tears all the ties that truly bind human beings -- trust, confidence, mutual regard" and hoped that "the looters are shot."
The Wall Street Journal editorialized that a "battle" was underway in New Orleans, and called the disorder "the most disturbing part" of the tragedy. National Review Editor Rich Lowry urged readers to buy guns, and wondered whether the current crop of Republican leaders had read Thomas Hobbes, or "does he not make the 'compassionate conservative' reading list?"
Compassionate conservatism, and President Bush's image as a strong and engaged leader -- so carefully groomed -- took a major, perhaps unrecoverable, hit. That aspect has been discussed ad nauseum, so I won't dwell on it, except to say that you would be very hard-pressed to script a more damaging set of images than the President ordering his jet to descend to a low altitude so he could "review the damage" from his window, and his subsequent arrival at the White House with a cute little puppy. Many conservatives expressed deep shock at the administration's utter disconnect, even more so than at its inaction.
Katrina will also play an important role in future debates about the roles of the public and private sectors. The storm came ashore during a year in which it was officially announced that FEMA would lose its disaster preparedness function. The Bush administration has taken heat. As a local emergency management director wrote in the Washington Post, "The advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA. The newly appointed leadership of the agency showed little interest in its work ... Soon FEMA was being absorbed into the 'homeland security borg.'"
The Houston Chronicle editorialized that the fact that "our first-world nation has demonstrated a shockingly third-world capability to care for its citizens" essentially "smashed the myth" that obsessively cutting taxes doesn't carry a cost.
There will be more such criticism to come. How much impact it will have remains to be seen, but it's clear that the problem with New Orleans' disaster preparedness was not too much government, but too little, too late. That simple fact, at its heart, was what rattled so many conservatives so deeply.