REALITY CHECK

Bob Somerby over at Daily Howler clearly illustrates a point (read it here) that has been nagging me of late. The Katrina tragedy has brought up a great deal of vitriol from ostensible progressives and liberals, most of it directed either specifically at or in the general direction of the Bush administration.

Clearly, the Bush administration owns a significant slice of the culpability pie when it comes to the abject failure at both preventing the worst effects of the catastrophe and at acting in a timely fashion to ensure the safety of those most vulnerable to those effects. However, Somerby points out that many (perhaps most) of us who call ourselves liberal or progressive have used the Katrina disaster and its aftermath as an excuse to gleefully stoop to the partisan rhetorical depths that we normally attribute to our supposed political nemeses.

The fact is that the poor and vulnerable in New Orleans were poor and vulnerable long before Katrina was even a puff of breeze. Just as FEMA should have known how serious the damage was going to be from such a powerful hurricane, so should have Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco. As recently as 2004, the respective governments of New Orleans and Louisiana had a wake-up call known as Hurricane Ivan, which had the decency to veer away from the city before inflicting any serious damage. (Read a very informative and prescient treatment of this occurrence here.) Where was the comprehensive local disaster plan? Where was the public safety education campaign for the poor and disadvantaged of New Orleans?

Nagin and Blanco, both Democrats, apparently felt comfortable with the status quo that existed at the time of Ivan; in other words, their actions (and inactions) demonstrated that they were satisfied with seeing those with the financial means escape on their own, while leaving those without largely to their own devices. To me, this serves as a reminder that those who consider themselves progressives and liberals should be willing to expend energy demanding better behavior and policy from their ostensible representatives in the Democratic Party. Otherwise, all the screaming and finger-pointing (however well-deserved) they can muster toward the Republicans will be irrelevant. I believe this to be true whether the issue is national disaster response, foreign policy, or domestic economic policy.

Let this not be taken as the gift of a free pass to the Bushies, however. I believe that even Republican voters deserve better leadership, even if they insist on failing to demand it for themselves. Perhaps this is the liberal do-gooder in me, but more likely it is my awareness that the policies and behaviors of Republican leaders (given their control of all three branches of federal government) will inescapably affect me. In any case, the Bushies had the authority, the resources, and the time to step in and take over for the ineffectual leadership at the state and municipal levels. Instead, they chose to do nothing while a city began to drown. In that sense, I think they are deserving of the vitriol that they have inspired. Whether or not the Bushies and their cohorts in Congress will be held accountable for this criminal negligence will, unfortunately, have to depend on the whim of the electorate during the next two election cycles.

Again, I don’t believe that we should fool ourselves into thinking that reflexive, uncritical support for the Democratic Party is a solution. Just as I believe that Republican voters should choose better Republican representatives, so must Democrats choose better representatives from their own party. In the meantime, we should all demand better behavior from the representatives we currently have. Until we as an electorate decide to give ourselves a better set of options than those that accompany the two-party oligarchy, these remain our best options.

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