I am a native of New Orleans. Like so many
in that city, I grew up in poverty with my family shuttling between
several of the downtown
housing projects (St. Bernard, Lafitte, Desire and Iberville).
In 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans we were living in
the Ninth Ward which, almost singularly, experienced flooding in
the 4 to 8 foot range - a situation that was devastating but a
lot less severe than the floods of Katrina where 80 percent of
the city was affected and where water rose to as high as 20 feet.
In the aftermath of Betsy we went for days without electricity
and we “liberated” sustenance from the neighborhood grocery stores – all,
for the most part, unrecorded by the television cameras. People
suffered staggering losses – their lives, their homes, their possessions,
their jobs. There was no evacuation to speak of and there was no
recovery plan even remotely comparable to what is being contemplated
now. For the most part people licked their wounds and went back
to eking out a living as they had done before. New Orleans dried
out and carried on.
In subsequent decades, political empowerment,
its concomitant cronyism, a limited corporate presence and the
several higher education
establishments provided a middle class option for a few. Other
incumbent and would be members of the black middle class, myself
included, escaped New Orleans, recognizing that opportunities for
African Americans were largely confined to low wage, low benefit,
low security jobs in the hospitality, leisure and gaming industries.
Employment in the tourism sector provided a living at or slightly
above the poverty line. A vast segment of the African America population – the
unemployed, the underemployed, the disposed – suffered grinding
poverty that spawned, variously, hopelessness, resignation and
New Orleans is now in its third generation
of black political power but no serious student of New Orleans
pretends that political
empowerment is coterminous with economic power. The white economic
elite, accompanied by an undercurrent of pervasive and, in some
cases, mob inspired corruption, continued and continues to control
the city’s economic fortunes. Those who were in poverty continued
to fester in poverty. Indeed their numbers grew. The impoverished
became an increasing percentage of the city’s population as whites
and middle class African Americans abandoned the inner city with
its failing schools, escalating crime and diminished opportunity.
It was the city’s poor, for the most part, who were the people
we saw at the Superdome, Convention Center, on and under the bridges
and overpasses, devastated and abandoned. And now that the rescue
and recovery effort is ending, they again face the prospect of
being left out as the redevelopment process unfolds.
In the days since Katrina the Congressional
Black Caucus, traditional civil rights leaders, local black political
political scientists, pundits and Joe citizen have been asking,
even demanding, that African Americans be included in the recovery
process. They want to be at the table when decisions are taken
and they have been insisting that the resulting programs address
the fundamental interests of, not just the middle class, but of
working class and dispossessed African Americans in New Orleans
and the Gulf Coast region. My question is, in the prevailing political
climate, how do we get to the table? Has Katrina brought about
that sort of change? What has happened in national politics that
would lead us to conclude that we have the means to affect this
process any more meaningfully than we have affected public policy
in the past two decades?
My questions point to my concerns. Katrina
has exposed a lot of issues (poverty, underdevelopment in the
Gulf Coast region, the
extent that certain agencies have been gutted and financially starved)
and it has shown the Bush Administration to have feet of clay,
but it should not distort our political perspectives. Once we get
beyond the emotional reaction to Katrina’s devastation, our assessment
of what is possible must take into account where the nation is
politically. To assume that this most unfortunate event has fundamentally
altered the prevailing political dynamic in the United States is
wishful thinking. No one left office as a consequence of Katrina.
The fundamental philosophy directing national policy has not changed.
There has been no shift in the national political power equation.
The zebra has not changed its stripes. The
neo-conservative era is far from over.
Hard line conservatives control all the levers
of government: the Administration, Congress, the Courts, and – as they penetrate
to its middle ranks – the Bureaucracy. Their grip on state houses
and politics is tightening not decreasing. Is it reasonable to
expect that George Bush, Dick Chaney, Carl Rove, Tom DeLay, Bill
Frist, Dennis Hastert, Rick Santorum, Joe Lieberman – the legions
of conservative lobbyists, pressure groups and power brokers – and
their cronies in the Administration and Congress, in governor’s
offices and state assemblies, Republican and Democrat alike, have
abandoned or redirected the steaming neo-conservative agenda because
of Katrina? I think not.
These people and their citizen supporters see the Bush Administration
as nothing less than the culmination of a process that started
with Richard Nixon, benefited from the friendly policy support
of Jimmy Carter, was accelerated by Ronald Reagan, and coddled
by Clinton era policies. The hard line conservatives successfully
implemented a forced march to power that spans three decades. Bush
may fall out of public favor and his administration will end, but
that will not change the character of Congress or the Court System,
with its lifetime appointees, and it will not change the minds
of the people who helped consolidate the conservative juggernaut.
We practice self delusion by not understanding this.
I am not convinced when
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne argues that the Bush Era
has ended (Washington
Post “End of the Bush Era,” September 13, 2005). If we equate
the Bush Era with high numbers in public opinion polls then his
administration may well limp to the finish line. His image and
legacy may suffer. Poll numbers are one thing, but we have yet
to see the failure of his legislative agenda. Beyond that, it
is important to understand that the Bush Era and the era of hard
line conservatism are not one and the same. More interests are
invested in the conservative agenda than just Bush and the immediate
representatives of his Administration. For the hard line
conservatives this is no time
to waver. They fully intend to rule for generations and plan
to leave an indelible stamp on American politics and society.
Even if Bush were inclined to pursue a fair,
honest and transparent recovery, which I know will not be the
case, we should not expect
that he could impose his wishes on Congress – many of whom are
further to the right than his administration – or even on his hard
line cronies in the Executive Office. Dionne’s
call for leaders of both parties to declare their independence
of the Bush Administration may sound forward looking. But what
he fails to acknowledge is that many of those would be independent
Republicans (and Democrats) have a much more conservative policy
agenda than Bush.
We need look no further than the rapid resort
to no bid contracts going to well placed corporations like Fluor,
Brown and Root (Halliburton) – in other words, the usual suspects
who are the prime private sector beneficiaries of the war in Iraq.
Bush moved quickly to waive prevailing wage requirements for contractors
working on hurricane relief projects. That was reassuring to the
conservatives in Congress who had been fighting to strike that
provision altogether. They now have a beachhead. Beyond that, it
is not likely that many in the displaced population will benefit
from construction and other jobs due to limited skills and low
labor force participation rates before Katrina. Even with the lower
wages others likely will get those jobs.
The Education Secretary’s crisis related spending
proposal is being met with mixed emotions because astute observers
see it as
a carefully crafted effort to introduce through the back door,
and in spite of public wariness, a national voucher system by providing
tuition support for students who attend private schools in the
Gulf region. Hard line conservatives
have asked to put off implementing the prescription drug benefit
for one year. Many of them opposed the plan from its inception
and would like to proceed from delayed implementation to derail
the plan altogether. Conservative Republicans are already
preparing to make sure that the next emergency spending request
does not fly through Congress like the earlier $62 billion request.
Some members such as Arizona Representative Jeff Flake (R) have
characterized anticipated Katrina relief spending as an irresponsible
new entitlement program.
His high sounding pronouncements aside, Bush
has made a determined effort to assure conservatives that he
has not abandoned his commitment
to “limited government” and “fiscal prudence.” His call for the
national equivalent of a Gulf Coast “Marshall Plan” is accompanied
by an equally forceful declaration that it will be pursued without
increasing taxes and will be accompanied by offsets from existing
spending programs. In the effort to identify budget offsets for
the new Marshall Plan, Bush has asked Congress to revisit his budget
submission from earlier this year. That budget contained deep cuts
in social programs. Do we need to guess who would have borne the
brunt of those cuts? Congress, concerned more about Pork Barrel
spending than the well being of the citizenry, failed to cut the
budget as deeply as Bush proposed but still managed to include
$35 billion in spending cuts in programs for low- and moderate-income
families, and $70 billion in new tax breaks, mostly for the rich.
Now, in the face of Bush’s Katrina recovery commitment, the programs
that survived are likely to be revisited. It would be a travesty
if, after the initial tragedy, we are confronted with an even more
draconian consequence where Congress robs the poor to give to the
rich while making symbolic overtures to the Katrina’s real victims.
In the face of these likely developments what
leverage do African Americans have? Should we expect that Katrina
has given us an opening
to appeal to the compassion of Bush and Company? To think so is
laughable. For that crowd compassion is little more than a symbol
laden political slogan. It reflects no related programmatic commitments.
Their compassion takes the form of cutting taxes for the rich,
eliminating the Estate Tax, limiting the public’s ability to sue
corporations, killing the bankruptcy option for the average Joe
and loading the Energy and Transportation bills with more pork
than Hormel and the Jimmy Dean sausage factory can handle together.
Can we expect continued media scrutiny such as we saw during the
height of the Katrina Crisis? Maybe some, but not much that will
be of consequence. The corporate media, which has been emboldened
to some extent during this crisis, is still subservient to and
intimidated by the hard line conservatives. The momentary flash
of courage that we witnessed over the past several weeks does not
mean that the cowardly lion has now found a heart.
What about access? This administration has treated the CBC and
the traditional civil rights leadership like red headed step children. They
have no access to speak of. It is true that Bush reached out to
many African Americans in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane
and in the face of a spreading public relations disaster. But we
should not confuse his PR overtures for a genuine effort to be
inclusive. When the Bush Administration does reach out it is likely
to be to their hand picked, and carefully cultivated alternative
African American leadership stratum – their Republican Party operatives,
think tank researchers, media spokespersons and pundits, and mega
church executives wrapped in their faith based, gospel of prosperity.
Even then, much of that effort is likely to take the form of PR
since the real horse trading is taking place in Congress and within
the Executive Office. We should not blind ourselves with delusions
about the amount of leverage we have as a result of this tragedy.
No one of consequence who really wants to advance the interests
of African Americans is likely to be invited to Bush’s Gulf Coast
recovery and reconstruction table.
Paul Krugman (NYT 9/5/05 “Killed By Contempt”) was prescient in
identifying the issue in play as the hard line conservative premise
that government is the problem and that it has no definite and
non-negotiable responsibilities to the citizenry. The hard line
conservatives have been moving full speed ahead in their program
to “starve the beast” through tax cuts and giveaways for corporate
America and the wealthy, by knifing social programs and shredding
the social safety net, through deregulation and privatization,
and by shifting federal spending in the direction of corporate
entitlements, pork barrel earmarks and crass, unapologetic crony
capitalism. For them government has a responsibility to promote
and support the private sector in myriad ways, but essentially
the citizenry is on its own in much the same way that the victims
of Katrina were on their own in those early days after the flood.
Krugman was premature in his expectation that the Katrina Crisis
would produce an epiphany that would lead the public to reject
hard line conservative notions about government: that big government
is bad government and the best government; that the best government
is less government, and their program to make those self-fulfilling
prophecies. The polity has not reached that point.
Instead of hoping for Bush to be born again
to the notion of government of, by and for the people, we should
begin serious discussion of
the daunting political project that awaits people of all classes
and ethnic groups who want to tackle head on the problems, including
poverty, that confront this country. That task is to reassert
the idea that government should serve the people and defeat the
conservative philosophy that even many Democrats – some of them
African Americans – have embraced. An alternative consensus has
to become politically predominant which says that the government
has a responsibility to build and maintain the physical infrastructure
(transportation, sewer and water, energy security and conservation,
flood control; environmental protection); and that every American
citizen has a right to a decent education and job training, quality
health care, income security and impartial justice. It is not
enough to just focus on the presidency. The new project for the
21st Century is no less than the need to change, wholesale,
congressional district by congressional district, political jurisdiction
by jurisdiction, the ruling political class in the country and
the ideology that informs policy making. If Katrina is to produce
anything of consequence it should be to set this process in motion.
We need a new way of thinking about and national consensus on the
responsibilities of government. Let us go to the table to thrash
out the answers to that question.
Earl Picard is a Political Scientist who lives in Atlanta,
Georgia. He can be reached at [email protected].
© September 2005