The catastrophe, as many seem to grasp, is one of those big moments that jolt public consciousness and alter the course of national history. I would go further and describe it as an exclamation point that marks a dramatic breakdown for the reigning right-wing orthodoxy, the beginning of its retreat and eventual demise. This by no means insures the restoration of progressive alternatives, but events have at least reopened the argument conservatives thought they had won.
A profound political question is suddenly on the table: Must the country continue to give precedence to private financial gain and market determinism over human lives and broad public values? Or shall we now undertake a radical restoration on behalf of society and people? New Orleans, strange exception though it seems, is actually an extreme microcosm of the nation’s general afflictions and social inequities. It’s the place where reform politics can launch its long-deferred counteroffensive.
The conservative mindset is flummoxed by these tragic new circumstances. Republican ideologues acquired governing power by promising to liberate Americans from the government’s intrusive powers, but they succeeded all too well. If “market forces” are allowed to design the recovery program, much of New Orleans and environs will be plowed up (think no-bid contracts for Halliburton and Bechtel) and reduced to a theme park for hot jazz, good restaurants and grubby jobs.
Newt Gingrich, always a reliable bellwether for the right-wing zeitgeist, is preaching that the right must change its tune “quickly” or face big losses. The old politics–provoking culture wars about “moral values”–will no longer suffice, he explained in a memo circulated among Republicans and the press. The new politics is about “performance,” in which GOP government has to deliver. But while Gingrich’s rhetoric is different, his ideas are the same old, same old. He urges George W. Bush to create a huge tax-free zone along the Gulf Coast where business enterprise will be subsidized and the oil industry relieved of meddlesome environmental regulation. The President’s first noble gesture after the flood was to cut wages for construction workers on public projects.
More encouraging evidence of changed politics comes from the left. Some bold Democrats are doing what they haven’t dared to do for many years, even decades: They are invoking their New Deal legacy and applying its liberal operating assumptions to the present crisis. In the totality of the Gulf Coast destruction, the economy and the society have been collapsed. As New Dealers understood, you cannot fix one without fixing the other. And only the federal government has the resources and authority to lead such a complex undertaking.
Senator Edward Kennedy calls for a “Gulf Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority,” modeled after FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority, to lead the rebuilding. Former Senator John Edwards proposes a vast new jobs program, patterned after the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in which the displaced and the poor are hired at living wages to clean up and rebuild their devastated communities. In the week after Katrina, Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Stephanie Tubbs Jones swiftly rounded up eighty-eight House co-sponsors, including some from Mississippi and Louisiana, for a similar initiative.