There is a difference between politics and governance. The Bush administration is very, very good at politics, and the business of making itself look good. The administration is far less able at governance, the business of doing a good job. The distinction has been brought into sharp relief by the apocalyptic events in New Orleans, where failures in governance would not be spun away.
Several patterns are in evidence. As for 9/11, both long- and short-term warnings were not taken seriously. Many studies, even including television specials, described the vulnerability of New Orleans to such a storm. Moreover, the path and force of Hurricane Katrina were predicated. Yet as at 9/11, when the president dallied in an elementary school, here he stayed on vacation at the ranch until days after the storm. As in Iraq where no plans were in place for winning the peace, so in New Orleans there was no evident plan in place for what to do when all hell broke loose. Yes, of course, it was a natural disaster, but heeding warning signs and pre-planning can mitigate the consequences of a natural disaster significantly. That is the work of good governance.
I use the word "apocalyptic" not as rhetorical flourish, but intentionally. The meaning of "apocalypse" in Greek and in the Bible is a dramatic revealing or disclosure of that which has been hidden or covered. In this sense, the tragic events along the Gulf Coast have revealed not only the administration's deficiencies, but also the critical miscalculations and deceptions of the Republican Revolution of the past 25 years.
The central strategy of that revolution has been to starve government through tax cuts, thus enabling elected officials to say that government programs must be reduced or eliminated. What this meant for maintaining the levees on which New Orleans depended has now been amply documented. The Republican argument that government was too big and ineffective was of course accurate in some areas. But as a sweeping generalization it is critically off the mark. The new global era requires a refocusing of government priorities, not its reduction to ineffectiveness. The highly integrated societies and cities of the 21st century are much more vulnerable to disaster than early eras.
A corollary of the tax-cut and starve government strategy of the Republican Revolution has been the denigration of government and the erosion of public institutions. We love to say, "We support our troops." How often have you heard anyone say, "We support our bureaucrats?" Quite the opposite, of course. Government and its workers have been the convenient whipping boy of the Republican Revolution. The problem with this is it has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. You run people (and government) down long enough and it has consequences.
When you put this together with drastic funding cuts, you get what we have gotten in the Federal Emergency Management Administration and its performance in New Orleans. You get an agency headed by political cronies that is no longer equipped to do the job. Likewise, a number of other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Parks Service, the Civil Rights Administration, are but shadows of their former selves.
Finally, a consequence of the Republican Revolution has been to make the rich richer and the poor more vulnerable. The veil was off of that reality in the wake of Katrina. Those with the means to do so got out. Those without the means got left behind. It was not a pretty picture. It was one that left the world gaping in astonishment. "How is this possible in America?" they asked. It has been going on for 25 years, and continues this week as Congress takes up the Republican plan to eliminate the estate tax and transfer more wealth to the already wealthy.
One of the reasons that a hurricane has such devastating effect in New Orleans is that for much of the 20th century, the coastal wetlands that serve a crucial protective function, buffering the cities and towns from these storms, have been drained and depleted. In much the same way, the programs and services that buffer vulnerable people from historical forces and life's chances have been drained and depleted by socially sanctioned greed and indifference.
While conservative Christians read the "Left Behind" series of Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and ponder the coming apocalypse, the apocalypse is right here, plain and visible for all to see. What has been covered up by those who are very, very good at politics has been uncovered and made plain by a hurricane. Let those who have eyes to see, see.
Anthony B. Robinson is a teacher, speaker and author. His next book, "Called To Be Church," co-written with Robert W. Wall, will be published by Eerdmans in January.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer