On the New Republic website Noam Scheiber says, "New Orleans could end up representing the magnitude of political crisis for conservatism that the Great Depression did." "Maybe I'm being a little hyperbolic," Scheiber admits, but David Brooks entertains a similar conclusion: "Katrina means that the political culture, already sour and bloody-minded in many quarters, will shift. There will be a reaction. There will be more impatience for something new." One possibility he sees is "a progressive resurgence."
Scheiber and Brooks were both responding to a blog entry by Ross Douthat, who argued that "even had the governmental response been perfect, Katrina would have still been a disaster of epic proportions." (Douthat was a Claremont Publius Fellow in 2002, and has contributed to the Claremont Review of Books.) "The only lessons of Katrina," he wrote, "are that life is dark and death is everywhere, that nature isn't our friend and that Americans, too, can behave like savages under duress, and that all the blessings of liberalism and democracy and capitalism can't protect us from the worst." Scheiber rejects this fatalism, which he treats as a central to conservatism, contrasting it with the can-do spirit of liberalism. The "more obvious conclusion to draw from Katrina," he says, is "that a robust, efficient government can mitigate, if not completely eliminate, much of the chaos and nastiness in the world."
Scheiber implicitly rejects Douthat's idea that Katrina would have been a catastrophe even if the government had responded perfectly: "The reason the city has become such a hell-hole [is] that the government wasn't very competent either beforehand or afterward at mitigating the effects of a natural disaster which were clearly possible to mitigate. . . . Having prepositioned buses, helicopters, cots, etc. would have made it possible to evacuate New Orleans more quickly, potentially saving thousands of people unnecessary pain and suffering."
Scheiber believes, in effect, that Douthat's claim about the limited impact of a perfect governmental response is false by definition: if a disaster of epic proportions does take place it can only mean that the government's actions were very imperfect. It's the philosophy of Mitchell Stevens, the ambulance-chasing attorney in The Sweet Hereafter, a novel by Russell Banks. Arriving in a small town to find clients and file lawsuits after a school bus skids into a river and kills some children, Stevens says, "I knew at once that it wasn't an 'accident' at all. There are no accidents. I don't even know what the word means, and I never trust anyone who says he does. I knew that somebody somewhere had made a decision to cut a corner . . ."
Scheiber would agree with Douthat's proposition that "nature isn't our friend," but goes on to take the thoroughly modern position that humans have a vast capacity and, hence, duty to render nature friendlier to prevent "unnecessary pain and suffering." Storms can be forecast, floodwaters diverted, illnesses cured -- problems, in short, can be solved. Archibald MacLeish voiced this optimism in 1943: "We have the tools and the skill and the intelligence to take our cities apart and put them together, to lead our roads and rivers where we please to lead them, to build our houses where we want our houses, to brighten the air, clean the wind, to live as men in this Republic, free men, should be living." In The Right Nation we learn that after LBJ's election in 1964, "One group of scientists, their expenses paid by the National Science Foundation, even began a research project aimed at controlling the weather."
It's not clear whether Scheiber believes there is such a thing as necessary pain and suffering, as opposed to suffering to be ameliorated as we make the government ever more robust and efficient. He hedges on whether government's obligations and capabilities are finite or infinite. If it "can mitigate, if not completely eliminate, much of the chaos and nastiness in the world," how much chaos and nastiness would remain? Furthermore, would past governmental successes lead to demands to tackle still more problems, until the mitigation of much chaos and nastiness becomes asymptotically indistinguishable from the elimination of all of it?
This position resembles the just-war theories holding that a necessary condition of such a war is that it be undertaken as a last resort. As Michael Walzer pointed out in 1991, it's very hard to make this "last-ness" operational. There will always be another telegram that could be sent or one more Security Council resolution to debate.
For Scheiber, by the same token, there will always be one more bus or helicopter that could have been prepositioned. His hopes for taming Mother Nature are matched by his demands for elevating human nature. Human decisiveness and prescience on the ground before or during a calamity should be as unerring as the judgment of the editorialist, sitting in his air-conditioned den, writing with the benefit of hindsight. All the practical questions can be solved -- how many assets to preposition, where exactly that position is which will make them close enough to be readily available but distant enough to be out of harm's way. All the human limitations can also be overcome -- confusion, fragmentary and contradictory information, pettiness, stubbornness, fear and exhaustion.
Pessimism may be well-founded, but it is rarely well-received. The Democrats were ascendant for decades after FDR told the nation that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 marked the beginning of a new Republican era, and his sunny conservatism assured people, over and over, that America's best days were ahead, not in the past. Reagan gave many speeches in a long political career, none of them on the theme that "life is dark and death is everywhere."
Reagan never tired of pointing out that he had voted for FDR four times. Those elections were held while Reagan was establishing his Hollywood career, and the fusion of the two experiences -- watching Roosevelt and acting -- was decisive in preparing Reagan for what Lou Cannon called "the role of a lifetime." But Reagan often insisted that his debt to FDR concerned statecraft, not just stagecraft. He didn't leave the Democratic party, he said, the party left him. He claimed his argument was with LBJ's Great Society, not the New Deal.
The jumble of programs, arguments and philosophies that was the New Deal provides ample evidence for both proving and disproving most propositions about it. Suffice to say that Reagan was in the minority in discerning a limiting principle in the New Deal, which the Great Society jettisoned by asking the government to do too many things. Most commentators on the Left believe that Lyndon Johnson was extending the road FDR had been building, not taking a detour from it, and that liberalism should indeed keep going still further beyond the Great Society. And most on the Right see the failures of the Great Society as elaborations rather than violations of the New Deal. If in 1943 you have a presidential commission advising the government to recognize the right to "rest, recreation and adventure," don't be surprised if, 21 years later, you find the Democratic presidential candidate telling a campaign audience that under his policies every slum "would be gone from every city in America. Every child would have a first-rate education. Poverty would end; life would have meaning, purpose and pleasure."
The crisis of liberalism that made the age of Reagan possible was an odd mix, combining the grandiosity of Johnson's Great Society with the strident denunciation of America's crimes, which James Piereson has called "punitive liberalism." Big government was not supposed to extend America's blessings but to do penance for its sins. Scheiber hopes that liberalism's wilderness years will finally end due to a crisis of conservatism brought on by Hurricane Katrina.
The initial returns do not encourage Scheiber's wish that lots of Americans will generalize as sweepingly from last week's disaster as he did. A Gallup poll taken September 5th and 6th found, "When asked to identify who was most responsible for the problems in New Orleans after the hurricane, 38% of Americans said no one was really to blame, while 13% cited Bush, 18% the federal agencies, and 25% state and local officials." The demand for robust and efficient government is permanent, but the debate over how much nastiness it can mitigate is ongoing. It would be very surprising if the government's inadequate response, over a period of days, to a natural disaster affecting one region of this continental nation would affect this debate in a way that compares to the impact of a nationwide economic calamity that got worse and worse over a period of years.