First came the storm. Then came the flood. And then–and still–the catastrophe. New Orleanians had long feared the “big one,” the kind of hurricane that could make mincemeat of the levees and wreck huge swaths of their city. They never imagined that the big wallop would come not from nature but from the federal government. “This is the United States of America!” Katrina victims hollered into TV cameras, with voices mingling despair and disbelief, in the days following the floods. Even those who had grown up in the dankest, most forlorn parts of the city could not believe they were being abandoned in such a dramatic way, with such a roundhouse punch, by the world’s great “beacon of democracy.” One year later, they know better: This is the United States, a country that has by and large abandoned the Gulf Coast to the social Darwinism of the corporate banditi. It isn’t because we’ve lost the ability to care. It’s because we’ve left behind something larger than New Orleans: our notion of collective social responsibility. We have forgotten, somewhere along the way, the basic fact that America is and was, before anything else, a society.
“What happened in New Orleans is the culmination of twenty-five years of disparagement of any idea of public responsibility,” Adolph Reed Jr. writes in Unnatural Disaster, a collection of Nation reports and essays from the first year of the still-unfolding Gulf Coast disaster (see excerpt). For nearly three decades, American voters have endorsed the neoliberal gospel first preached during the Reagan years–voting for the ideas that the best responses to public problems come from the private domain, that tax collection amounts to thievery and that a fully functioning government is an unnecessary and prohibitively expensive frill meant to impoverish working people. Many of the social protections gradually assembled during the twentieth century have been systematically dismantled, defunded and discredited, with results every bit as predictable, and every bit as tragic, as the collapse of the levees. As both Reed and Gary Younge reveal in this issue, what the Gulf Coast disaster has laid bare is not just the shame of racial and economic inequities in the world’s richest nation but a wider breach of the social contract that once bound us to one another, however loosely and imperfectly.
It is all too convenient for progressive-minded Americans and Democratic politicians to Bush-ify this historic national failure–to see Katrina, in Younge’s words, mainly as “a signifier for an Administration that was heartless and clueless.” But the storm also exposed the continuing failure of progressives and Democrats to fight for an alternative vision in which government responds to the needs and hopes of people, not the demands of monied interests. The voices of those few national leaders who have tried to articulate such a vision, including John Edwards and Jesse Jackson Jr., have largely been lost in a cacophony of shortsighted political one-upmanship. So have the accomplishments of grassroots activists, especially the hardy strain that sprang up out of the New Orleans disaster (see Chris Kromm on page 22 and Michael Tisserand on page 24).
The one strong hope found in the ruins those twelve long months ago was that the jolting images of distraught, abandoned and needlessly dead Americans would serve as a national wake-up call. In some ways, that has happened. There is clearly a stirring of mass awareness that something is seriously wrong with America, something symbolized by our foreign and domestic catastrophes. It may well be that Democrats can capitalize on this vague sense of national sickness by running a “we’re not them” campaign and winning back a majority in at least one chamber of Congress this November. But if that is all that happens, the best we can hope for is a palliation of the symptoms, not a cure. While campaigning Democrats are right to point out the atrocious waste–in terms of money, international relations and human lives–caused by the misbegotten war in Iraq, the senseless daily waste of human lives and potential here at home must also be a central issue in this campaign, and in 2008.
Great tragedies call for visionary leadership. This is the moment for progressive leaders (along with activists and voters) to summon up the guts and foresight to forge a compelling message not just about what’s come apart in America, but how to pull us back together.