copyright Jayson Harsin 2005
Poignant images of poor New Orleans residents retreating from the deluge have touched a nation and a world, raising troublesome questions about security and the cyclical issue of poverty in the United States. For some older Americans, these images evoke an earlier security panic—the Great Depression. We are hearing talk about New Deals: both the rediscovery of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and the promise of George W. Bush’s. Beneath the surface of apparent similarity, however, the two deals and the insecurity they promise to relieve are fundamentally different. Bush’s affinity for the New Deal does not run deep, and this is not the first time that he and his predecessors have used its keywords to support policies that undermine its spirit of securing freedom for all Americans.
Roosevelt’s deal was new by comparison to the security and freedom doctrine that came before him. His predecessor Herbert Hoover responded to a condition of national insecurity with ineffective solutions of rugged individualism and minimalist government. Roosevelt argued for a more activist federal government, not to expand government-for-government’s-sake, but because the Depression had shown that individuals could no longer be held completely responsible for their own security. In a time when small shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and farmers were fast disappearing, Roosevelt identified the primary threat to security as the market free of public interest. He promoted a vision of Abraham Lincoln’s government of, by, and for the people as a citizen’s vehicle for dealing with the inevitable and sometimes catastrophic whims of nature, markets and businesses. He maintained this mature vision of security even in the throes of World War II, emphasizing the equal importance of military and social security. For Roosevelt, the social and economic aspects of security were so critical to American freedom that he went so far as to call for an Economic Bill of Rights to supplement the already existing political Bill of Rights.
At the heart of Roosevelt’s New Deal was his argument that freedom could not be viewed as a natural state individually embraced through work or willingly denied through sloth when 1/3 of the American nation was ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed. In fact, Roosevelt viewed such poverty as a threat to the nation’s political, social and military security.
The poverty laid bare by Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that obtrusive conditions confronted during the Depression do in fact persist today. Bush’s response to this is far from “new.” Like Hoover, Reagan, and his own father before him, Bush continues to promote self-discipline and private cures, including voluntarism, as solutions to large-scale security problems. In this decades-old argument, the federal government should cut all but verbal support for those living in insecure economic conditions, leaving the relief work to good Samaritans who represent the best of the American spirit. But the private sphere of charities could not deal with the magnitude of the security fallout in New Orleans.
The media unwittingly promoted this voluntarist line, telling the New Orleans story almost exclusively through the melodramatic frames of individual heroism and natural disaster. Largely absent from this coverage was an analysis of how Bush and his predecessors’ attempts to repeal the (old) New Deal directly contributed to the un-natural disaster that was Katrina. Katrina was a necessary cause for New Orleans, but it was not sufficient. By relentlessly trimming the “fat” of FDR’s legacy from the federal budget—including income supports, transportation, and public works such as levee repair—the Bush administration has left behind a skeleton security state unable to withstand any significant threat.
In the wake of the hurricane, Bush has promised support for minority-owned small businesses but has failed to specify how education, public health, and other key resources will be permanently secured for vulnerable citizens. On the contrary, he and some Republicans have argued that reconstruction can be financed by trimming more fat. Additional cuts would only aggravate the insecurity of poor Americans. Besides, why reconstruct if only to abandon citizens to insecurity again?
George W. Bush staked his reputation on security and has said repeatedly that his number one duty is to protect U.S. citizens. The deep floodwaters of New Orleans revealed just how shallow our understanding of security really is.