Years from now, historians will likely see the Bush administration’s initially callous and indifferent response to hurricane Katrina as a parable for the type of conservatism this president and his party currently represent.
Bush conservatism is built on a fundamental cultural narrative that has reemerged since the Reagan Eighties – that success is a sign of virtue, and anything less, particularly poverty, can be explained only through a character flaw.
From the Roosevelt years through the Seventies, we defined the American Dream as a good job, a piece of the rock, and the ability to take care of one’s family. Those who lived paycheck to paycheck earned our respect, because hard work and determination were deemed virtuous. These were the people who built America.
We even understood poverty as a condition brought about by circumstance, often historical circumstance far beyond the control of the poor, and we granted those who struggled to overcome it a semblance of nobility. Sure, there were some who chose to fail, and they never gained our sympathy, but most aspired for something better and as a society we acknowledged it.
Today, however, the conservative movement has redefined success and worth in America. Because some of us succeed, conservatives say, there must be something flawed in those who don’t. The American Dream has been redefined as striking it rich, and falling short just isn’t good enough.
It’s a worldview coded into the Bush and Reagan tax cuts, which showered money on the super wealthy under the assumption that these are the real people who know how to build America. Those with money, in other words, contribute more to our nation’s health than those who merely work. They have wisdom and virtue.
And because those who aren’t successful must be responsible for their lack of success, it’s no business of government to be there for them. Thus the president seeks to privatize Social Security and cut other benefits – he calls it an “ownership society,” but in real life that translates to an “on your own society.” If you don’t properly prepare for your future, you have only yourself to blame – this is America, after all, where anyone can succeed.
In the America defined by Bush conservatism, there is no social contract that recognizes our common humanity and the link between success and the society that makes it possible – a social contract that understands hard knocks not as a character flaw but simply as part of life.
Indeed it’s no surprise that the president would prefer to transfer society’s obligations to the faith-based community, because these are institutions built on the notion of forgiving those who are weak and those who sin. If those who fail do so because of a character flaw, then we should send them to those best equipped to redeem them. The government, according to Bush conservatism, should have no part of it.
It’s sad yet fascinating how conservative pundits seized on the small number of looters during Katrina’s aftermath, turning it into the main storyline of the hurricane, as if it provided confirmation for a worldview that asks “What’s wrong with these people” and “Why didn’t they save themselves” and “Why didn’t they evacuate?”
Unstated but understood among these conservatives is the view that Katrina’s victims, many of them at least, are responsible for their misery. Others got out, so why didn’t they? Doesn’t it reveal the same character flaw that makes them poor?
Thus it’s not government’s duty to help them, and thus the initial impassiveness and unresponsiveness of this conservative administration. Only when politics intervened did the president realize the perils of his indifference.
Perhaps the president has an excuse. After all, his own life story follows this conservative narrative. He was a drinker, an irresponsible husband, and he turned his own life around through faith and redemption. If he could overcome his character flaw, why not everyone else?
What he forgets is that he had a safety net of wealth to protect him. Most of us don’t. And what he assumes is that the poor and near poor suffer from character flaws. Most of them don’t, and in fact most of them work hard for what they have.
Whether Katrina will serve as a cultural turning point is yet to be seen. But the hurricane that hit America is only partly due to nature. It’s also a storm created by a conservative ideology that, consciously or not, leads to contempt and indifference toward those not seen as society’s winners.By Leonard Steinhorn who teaches politics and media at American University, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, to be published by St. Martin's Press in January 2006.