The effects of Hurricane Katrina will be felt for years. The reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will cost unknown billions of dollars and resources. We still don't know how many are dead, but the toll already has topped 1,000. One of America's icon cities may never recover.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may cause some Americans to reevaluate their views of government. It may make some Americans more pessimistic about government. As we watched helplessly on our TV sets as the rising pools of water drowned an entire region and its people, followed by the feeble federal response, unfortunately some Americans' belief in the power of government to help people took a dunking.
But that would be the wrong conclusion to draw from this tragic episode. If the federal government and its agencies had been better prepared for this predictable natural catastrophe, there is little doubt that the damage and death toll would have been much reduced. The better conclusion is that government, done correctly, has an indispensable role to play. An effective government can improve our lives, whether in times of crisis or over the long haul.
"Unfortunately," says Yvonne Lee, former commissioner with the US Commission on Civil Rights, "the far right have for years asserted that the federal government is a problem, not a solution in Americans' lives. Yet Katrina has served as a costly reminder that the federal government can, and must, serve the public good."
Going back to Ronald Reagan's presidency, the right wing has mounted an ideological campaign to malign government and portray it as "part of the problem." Newt Gingrich and George H.W. Bush continued this ideological attack, a calculated conservative strategy 30 years in the making, to enact huge tax cuts by portraying government as an ineffectual bumbler and sugar daddy for welfare queens.
Bill Clinton signed up the Democrats for this detail when, with one eye on reelection, he declared in his 1995 State of the Union Address that the "era of big government is over."
Not surprisingly, given this incessant attack against government, public confidence has waned. With it has waned our belief in democracy itself, because if the people don't have much use for government, then what use is democracy? Thus, this ideological attack on government has formed the philosophical underpinnings for an attack on democracy itself, even as we try to export democracy to the Middle East.
The reputation of government is suffering from a massive public relations crisis. It gets no credit for the good things it does, and all the blame and scorn for the mistakes it makes.
But whether the service is delivering the mail, taking care of seniors via Social Security and Medicare, constructing roads and highways, providing for telecommunications, hospitals, schools, defense, scientific research, national parks, railroads, airways and waterways, environmental protection, the Internet and much, much more, government has been the leading player, oftentimes partnering with America's businesses.
Government has been the driving force behind regulating the economy, interest rates and inflation, as well as creating policies that grow and maintain the middle class such as pro-homeownership, worker protections, the 40-hour workweek and paid vacations and holidays. And yes, the federal government has been there many times in the past to shoulder the burden following disasters.
This is a perfect time for Americans of all stripes to reflect on the proper role of government. Who will deny that, for hundreds of thousands on the Gulf Coast, whether Republican, Democrat or independent, right now they are wishing they had had more government, not less, prior to the storm and in the days afterward?
Steven Hill is an Irvine Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics [www.FixingElections.com].