It may well be that next Tuesday, Republicans will take control of the entire Federal government, winning the White House and the US Senate.
This is a political party that has moved into full and direct opposition to many (if not most) of the services that Americans take for granted that government will provide, from the social safety net to the kind of emergency FEMA response that we saw during tropical storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy.
The one exception to the GOP’s ideological distaste for government is the US military.
Where most other aspects of the Federal government’s role enter into the debate, the party’s distaste — though sometimes veiled or muddled — shines through. Government is a force that shackles creativity, limits freedom, and stifles entrepreneurship.
North Country congressional candidate Matt Doheny — though supportive of some government infrastructure projects — regularly describes Federal social welfare programs as “a hammock,” the implication being that services of this kind create a disincentive to hard work and independence.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave full-throated endorsement during the GOP primary to eliminating FEMA, dispersing emergency response functions to the states, or even to private companies.
“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” Romney said, in answer to a question about natural disasters and FEMA funding. “And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
The problem with this approach is that Republicans still haven’t explained how this new system — which, remember, involves life and death matters — is supposed to work.
If we downsize the social safety net, how do we as a moral people prevent more poor and vulnerable Americans from dying for lack of food, medicine, and safe housing?
What do we do when an entire region of the US is crippled by a storm, or an earthquake or a series of tornadoes?
In the past, Republicans have offered answers to these questions that sound wholesome and satisfying, arguing that 19th century values like generosity, independence, faith and community spirit can fill the gap.
But as we’ve seen this week in New York City and New Jersey, America doesn’t look or work like that anymore. Lower Manhattan isn’t a village where the local deacon and the mayor can help out those people who are struggling with a potluck dinner and a barn-raising.
This is a massively complex social structure involving more than ten million people, all of them bound together by incredibly intricate layers of infrastructure and technology. Just the mechanisms for delivering safe food and water — let alone electricity — to that region beggars the imagination of the layman.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a former Republican and now an independent, spoke to this ideological question after the storm this week.
“New York City taxes itself and spends the money to protect us and to have the services that will keep us going,” he argued. “Which always annoys me when they say ‘You’re a high taxed place.’ Yeah, and we get something for it.”
Indeed, we saw this week what happens when competent, well-funded government works well. Government forecasters warned us of the storm. Government first-responders led by elected officials prepared and offered support and guidance to civilians.
In the end, roughly 75 people died in the US because of this disaster. Without the intervention and courage of taxpayer funded government workers, institutions and programs, that number would certainly have been much, much higher.
If Republicans do take control in January, they owe it to their constituents to study the response to Hurricane Sandy, by Bloomberg, by New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, Republican Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey and Democratic President Barack Obama.
The storm is a metaphor for much larger questions about the role of government and governmental agencies when Americans are vulnerable.
It’s one thing to argue that the Federal government should play a limited (or no) role in saving big companies or industries, or to argue that bureaucrats shouldn’t pick “winners and losers” in the private sector economy, or to debate the need for stimulus spending during a recession.
Those are important economic matters, and they’re fair game for dispute, because they are not literally life and death. But there are also moments when people’s safety and welfare hangs in the balance.
Consider this: 74 people died, so far, from Sandy.
But independent studies from groups like Harvard Medical School, the Cambridge Health Alliance, Families USA and the Institute of Medicine have found that between 18,000 and 50,000 Americans die every year because they lack health insurance and access to basic medical care.
That’s an invisible hurricane of much greater magnitude. Buried in those statistics are shockingly high rates of death from preventable and curable disease, and a dismal record of infant mortality.
So it’s time for the modern conservative movement to fill in some blanks.
Out on the campaign trail, it may suffice to say that “government is the problem” and that the private sector will answer all our needs with the lowest cost and the greatest efficiency. It’s enough to say we’ll overturn Obamacare without explaining what new reforms to the healthcare system will replace it.
But as Sandy has shown, sometimes problems arrive on our doorstep uninvited. Sometimes it’s a storm hitting a vulnerable community. Sometimes it’s cancer or heart disease hitting a poor person who lacks insurance.
When challenges are that big and lethal, I have no doubt but that Americans will continue to look to Washington for a competent, compassionate response. If Republicans are in power, they should be ready.