Saturday, September 03, 2005

"Normal" politics and Katrina

What are we to learn from Katrina? The common focus has been on the government failure. From the left this is taken as a sign of the incompetence/malevolence of the Bush Administration and the need for government. From the (libertarian) right, this is taken to show that we shouldn't rely on government, and that government is destined to screw up both it's own actions and the broader incentives that would have prevented such a crisis. And from the actual right its that we can never fully escape the state of nature. Interesting that we all manage to incorporate grand and shocking events into our (vastly disparate) ideological framework. Its Kuhnian "normal science" political commentary: shovel any new observation about the world into your pre-existing ideological framework, never questioning that framework.

Update: Jim Henley notices the same thing:
From what I can tell in the last couple days’ reading, Katrina has chiefly served to confirm people in their previously held views. Liberals proclaim it proof of the need for a robust federal government (shades of Bill Moyers in September 2001), conservatives find themselves confirmed in their belief in the overriding importance of social order vigorously enforced, and libertarians regard the disaster and its aftermath as an exemplary failure of government. (Anarchists see government failing at even its core functions. State-accepting libertarians see government as having ignored its core functions for inappropriate pursuits.) Environmentalists amaze themselves with the realization that Katrina proves we need cars with better gas mileage and religious nuts of all persuasions discern the hand of God smiting their - and, need it be said, his own - enemies.

Hooray! Everyone wins! Again!
Kieran Healy responds to Henley's post:
But maybe Jim is being too cynical. We should be able to separate the question of how to avoid this kind of nightmare in the future from the narrower, more immediate acknowledgment that there was a huge organizational failure. The former might end up being a debate of the sort Jim describes, but many political debates are like that. Agreement on the latter ought to be straightforward. Yet widespread and forthright agreement about it still seems like an achievement given the state of the American public sphere. Sure, FEMA and Chertoff are claiming there was nothing they could have done, and some loyal footsoldiers are saying that, appearances notwithstanding, “New Orleans and its residents owe the President a profound debt of gratitude.” But the dominant reaction across the political spectrum is that this was a gigantic, avoidable clusterfuck, and the reporting from the likes of CNN and Fox (of all places) forthrightly confirms this.

Disagreement about what the Administration could or should have foreseen about the September 11th attacks and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq was politicized from the get-go, and most of it has been played by the media in the “he said/she said” format we all know and loathe. But there’s evidence that this time, the starting point for the debate will be the correct one—namely, that a disaster like this was clearly foreseen and should have been handled much better, full stop. Where you go from there is, inevitably, going to be tinged by the tendency to think “this event confirms my politics,” and so maybe Jim is right to roll his eyes. But even to have this as a starting point still seems better than nothing. I think I really need to believe this. Frankly, if the Administration can successfully sell people on the idea that that the President’s actions were prompt and appropriate, that federal and state government agencies did what they could, and that the fault was not in themselves but in their stars (or maybe a few low-ranking FEMA bad apples) … well, I don’t know what to say.


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