At Gettysburg in 1863, Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to soldiers who gave their lives so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." In a few words he managed to encapsulate what's most remarkable about the American experiment in self-governance.
Electing people who don't believe in government is not without its drawbacks. It's kind of like hiring a butcher to run an animal shelter. Eventually you're going to put yourself out of business.
At that time, the nation was in the middle of a civil war over whether American government was of the people, or the peoples' adversary. By insisting on the right to secede from the Union, the slave-holding southern states let it be known that, as far as they were concerned, letting the government perish from the earth was just fine.
Flash forward to the events along the Gulf Coast during the past couple of weeks. Hurricane Katrina laid waste to communities in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. One of the great American cities, New Orleans, is in ruins. The dead are still being counted.
People across America have watched the disaster play out on television. The first five days after the hurricane hit were almost unbearable. In New Orleans, flooding trapped tens of thousands of people inside the city. Power was lost, communications blacked out, hospitals and emergency services shut down. Looting ensued. Reporters who managed to wade into the wreckage described scenes of suffering, anguish and brutality. The civil society of one of America's oldest cities devolved into Lord of the Flies.
And through it all, people asked, "Where is the government?"
For the last 25 years, since the so-called Reagan Revolution, politicians in this country have made careers for themselves by putting down the very offices they so energetically campaign to win. In 2000, candidate George Bush Jr. wasn't talking about government of the people. No, he was talking about cutting taxes. "It's your money," he said, "not the government's money."
Breaking things down this way wouldn't have made sense to Lincoln. But after hearing politicians claim that the government isn't "us" but "them" for more than a generation, a lot of Americans have begun to believe it. One after another, politicians stand up and say that government can't do anything right, that bureaucrats are bumbling and that the whole thing ought to be taken down. They call this reform.
And people vote for it.
As long as things are okay, it doesn't seem to matter much. Of course, electing people who don't believe in government is not without its drawbacks. It's kind of like hiring a butcher to run an animal shelter. Eventually you're going to put yourself out of business.
We've been watching what happens when government that's been systematically undermined, denigrated and ignored is faced with a real crisis. Although the federal government has taken a lot of well-deserved flak for its incompetence during this disaster, it must be remembered that the state and local governments in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana the heart of the former Confederacy - are among the most decrepit in the United States. On their best days business-as-usual is more than they can handle. Katrina has reduced them to spectators.
Bromides about the virtues of volunteerism and the efficiencies of the private sector have dissolved in the face of what has become not a regional, but a national catastrophe. On top of the physical challenge of cleaning up the Gulf Coast and trying to resurrect a city of over a million people is added the burden of dealing with what is now called the hurricane's diaspora. More people have been displaced in a few days by Katrina than were uprooted during the whole of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. While the efforts of nonprofit aid agencies and private contributions of money and time by citizens have been literally life-saving, they cannot take the place of a well-coordinated and sustained government response. As one of the hurricane survivors said, "I'm not a refugee, I'm a citizen!"
It is instructive to compare our response to Katrina with the way one of our favorite ideological punching bags, Cuba, dealt with a similar hurricane one year ago. Last September Cuba was hit with a Category 5 hurricane carrying 160 mph winds. One and a half million people, a population comparable to that of New Orleans, were evacuated before the storm hit and destroyed 20,000 houses. But thanks to effective planning and the efficiency of the Cuban government there were no, repeat, no deaths.
During a news conference last week, President Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan, was asked about what the administration was doing by way of hurricane relief. McClellan said that Bush Inc. was hard at work trying to get rid of regulations and red tape that prevented the government from getting help to victims. It was the kind of answer one has come to expect from a government official whose agenda is to dismantle the government. Given the circumstances imposed by Hurricane Katrina, it amounted to a breathtaking admission of inadequacy. Just when we need government the most, our government can think of nothing better to do than take itself apart.