With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Godfrey Hodgson: After Katrina, a Government Adrift

It is not just the levees of New Orleans that are weak. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, George Bush’s predicament reveals serious breaches in the way the American government works – weaknesses that result from the domination of sectarian conservative politics in the country’s administration and culture.

It would be nice to think that the conservative ascendancy is the democratic consequence of mass conversion of a majority of the American electorate to conservative shibboleths in law, economics, religion and foreign policy. It would be truer to say that it is the result of a quarter-century of political manipulation by a surprisingly small coterie of conservative activists.

Conservatives like to say that those pesky Democrats enjoyed a comparable ascendancy once. They didn’t. In the middle third of the 20th century, when Democrats controlled the White House most of the time and the Congress almost all the time, the real flywheel that ran the country was a conservative alliance between mostly conservative Republicans and the bloc of southern conservative Democrats, some twenty senators and a hundred members of the House of Representatives. That structure was swept away by the civil rights revolution. But the counter-intuitive consequence has been to give conservative Republicans an opportunity to dominate every part of a system that was supposed to be checked and balanced.

Those of us who admired the political system the conservatives have been doing their best to dismantle must look beyond the immediate inadequacy of George W Bush to the long-term damage the conservative ascendancy has done to American government and society.

Damage and dereliction

As the feeblest president since the 1920s struggles to delay the disappearance of his political credibility beneath the muddy waters of New Orleans and Baghdad, paradoxically Republican conservatives have achieved a dominance without precedent in the American system which, thanks to the legal traditionalists of the Federalist Society, runs flat contrary to the intentions of the founding fathers.

It is almost irresistibly tempting to heap Mississippi mud on George Bush. His response was pathetic. Though he has not so far appeared in a specially designed “commander-in-chief” jacket to tell us that his mission has been accomplished, his first response was to see Katrina as an opportunity to call on his fellow-citizens to import less oil - that is, to call on Congress to give more perks to the oil and gas business that has contributed so handsomely to the private and political fortunes of his friends and supporters.

But it is unseemly to kick a fellow when he is down, even if you sense he would do it to you. And more importantly, many of the charges thrown at him do not stick. Whatever you think of the war in Iraq, the absence in the middle east of part of the Mississippi national guard was hardly the reason for the administration’s tardy and incompetent response. The explanation of that is simpler: it is to be found in the callous indifference among conservatives towards the poor.

While it is true that the class bias of the Bush administration’s domestic and budget policies has helped weaken the ability of both state and federal agencies to respond to an almost unprecedented domestic disaster, it was nevertheless an absence of sympathy, not a lack of means, which motivated the low priority given to poor, mostly black victims. (The disaster is almost unprecedented – there have been great disasters in the US before, such as the Mississippi flood of 1927, which flooded 26,000 square miles, caused more than a thousand deaths and forced almost a million people from their homes.)

Unfortunately it is not a surprise that, forty years after the Lyndon B Johnson administration’s civil-rights legislation, most African-Americans in the Deep South live in poverty. Journalistic rhetoric along the lines of “how could this happen in the midst of the world’s richest nation/lone superpower/greatest democracy?” is wide of the mark. Louisiana, Mississippi, southern Alabama and Arkansas are and have always been a “third-world” region with a democracy deficit, in spite of the arrival of a few Japanese car plants and a booming gambling industry, protected by Republican insider lobbyists like Jack Abramoff.

Meanwhile, it may or may not be true that Katrina’s ferocity, which wrought such devastation on the coast, owes something to the global warming about which Bush and his political housecarls are still in denial. At present, there seems to be no scientific consensus that hurricanes are more frequent and more severe because of climate change. But, ominously, as the hurricane sped towards the shore, Republican committee chairmen in Congress were harrying leading scientists who dare to suggest global warming might be at least in part man-made.

Dominance over government

Now is the time for those of us who care about what the conservative ascendancy has done to America to estimate the flood damage. Sectarian conservatives – by which I mean not those of a cautious or traditionalist bent, but ambitious politicos who long ago signed up to a self-interested ideological takeover of the American government – control all branches of the polity.

It is not just that the president is a conservative Republican, and that consequently the vice-president, the White House staff, the cabinet officers and all senior members of the administration have passed a rigorous ideological screening.

The entire culture of Washington is now dominated by this same ideological mindset. The most powerful law firms, the K Street lobbying organisations, the best-funded research institutions, all do obeisance to the party line, or face the consequences. Even the Washington media, once respected for its feisty independence, seems almost intimidated, as the Bush administration wields as much pressure as it can — by fair means and not so fair — to exclude critics and neutralise opposition. Public television is just one recent target. Over on mainstream television, so-called pundits engage in reactionary, derogatory disputes.

The founders intended the legislative and judicial branches of government to be equipped with separate, balanced powers, each checking the other. Today not only are both houses of Congress controlled by conservative Republicans, but those conservative Republicans are themselves intimidated by a handful of powerful figures who limit the freedom of committee scrutiny, cut off financial resources from those who do not toe the line, and behave in ways that make the legendary Democratic powerbrokers of the past — Lyndon B Johnson, speaker Sam Rayburn, Judge Smith of the rules committee and Wilbur Mills of ways and means — look positively biddable.

As for the judges, George W Bush has just nominated a candidate to the supreme sourt who, whatever his great qualities, is a safe conservative vote. With the death of chief justice William H Rehnquist and John Roberts’ appointment, he will be able to maintain an unassailable conservative majority on the court, at a time when there is steady pressure from conservative headquarters for the judges to reverse the progressive measures of the Warren court and repeal Roe vs. Wade. Moreover, the Bush administration and the Republicans in the Senate are unashamedly determined to appoint only conservatives to as many federal judgeships as they can.

While the administration claims to be bringing democracy to the benighted populations of the middle east, at home the United States sees the spirit and the practice of genuine democracy more threatened than at any time since the Gilded Age of the 19th century.

At the heart of this “conservative” ideology has been a sustained attack on government, which is habitually derided as bureaucracy. Government budgets have been cut, government servants humiliated and harassed. Is it any wonder that the efficacy of government has suffered, in Baghdad and on the Gulf coast? In both cases, the tooth-clenched “resolve” the president is always talking about has not proved a substitute for efficiency and generosity.

Dare we hope that the truly lasting importance of the hurricane will be to revive the news media’s independence, and to alert the Democratic party to the full spectrum of dangers in giving unchecked power to a shallow president, corporate interests, and a limited political and ideological clique?

This article was originally published on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit openDemocracy.net for more.

Read entire article at Open Democracy