The cause was political through and through – a matter of values and principles. The progressive-liberal values are America’s values, and we need to go back to them. The heart of progressive-liberal values is simple: empathy (caring about and for people) and responsibility (acting responsibly on that empathy). These values translate into a simple principle: Use the common wealth for the common good to better all our lives. In short, promoting the common good is the central role of government.
The right-wing conservatives now in power have the opposite values and principles. Their main value is Rely on individual discipline and initiative. The central principle: Government has no useful role. The only common good is the sum of individual goods. It’s the difference between We’re all in this together and You’re on your own, buddy. It’s the difference between Every citizen is entitled to protection and You’re only entitled to what you can afford. It’s the difference between connection and separation. It is this difference in moral and political philosophy that lies behind the tragedy of Katrina.
A lack of empathy and responsibility accounts for Bush’s indifference and the government’s delay in response, as well as the failure to plan for the security of the most vulnerable: the poor, the infirm, the aged, the children.
Eliminating as much as possible of the role of government accounts for the demotion of FEMA from cabinet rank, for Michael Brown’s view that FEMA was a federal entitlement program to be cut, for the budget cuts in levee repair, for placing more responsibility on state and local government than they could handle, for the failure to fully employ the military, and for the lax regulation of toxic waste dumps contributing to a “toxic stew.”
This was not just incompetence (though there was plenty of it), not just a natural disaster (though nature played its part), not just Bush (though he is accountable). This is a failure of moral and political philosophy – a deadly failure. That is the deep truth behind this human tragedy, humanly caused.
It is a truth that needs to be told, starting now – over and over. There can be no delay. The Bush administration is busy framing it in its own way: bad things just happen, it’s no one’s fault; the federal government did the best it could – the problem was at the state and local level; we’ll rebuild and everything will be okay; the people being shipped out will have better lives elsewhere, and jobs in WalMart!
Unless the real truth is told starting now, the American people will accept it for lack of an alternative. The Democratic response so far is playing right into Bush’s framing. By delaying a response for fear it will be called “partisan,” the Democratic leadership is allowing Bush to frame the tragedy. And once it is framed, it is hard to reframe! It is time to start now.