The Politics of Hurricane Sandy

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In our earlier roundup about Hurricane Sandy, we linked to this piece from The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta which quotes Governor Mitt Romney in 2011 at a Republican debate. He was talking about government spending in the context of a concern that FEMA was running out of money for dealing with national emergencies. He’d already said that he wanted to return responsibility for disasters to the states when possible, if not all the way back to the private sector. Moderator John King has specifically asked “Including disaster relief, though?” to which Romney replied “We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”

I’m starting with this quote because I think it’s useful for drawing out a couple of viewpoints about the role of government overall, but particularly in situations like these. I’m going to go back in time for my first response to this notion, all the way back to Alexander Hamilton before we had a Constitution, when he was arguing vociferously in favor of one. Hamilton was arguing for a stronger national government because the one that put in place by the Articles of Confederation was, to put it mildly a disaster. Too much power remained in the hands of the states, which meant responding to common threats or challenges was nearly impossible. In Federalist #23 he wrote “if we are in earnest about giving the Union energy and duration, we must abandon the vain project of legislating upon the States in their collective capacities; we must extend the laws of the federal government to the individual citizens of America.” He was talking about national defense primarily, but I think the reasoning holds for disasters of this type.

One of the things I have long hated about the conservative argument fomented by Ronald Reagan and his progeny that government is the problem, never the solution, is that it pretends like government is made up of someone other than us. It suggests that citizenship is not related to governance. But that’s nonsense. We get the government we vote for, and the government we demand. If we demand a government that cedes its responsibilities to the states, or worse, puts incompetent people at the helm of agencies like FEMA, then we get results like Michael “Brownie” Brown after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. (More on that guy later.)

Mind you, we have another example of just how a President Romney might respond to a national disaster, even if he says he didn’t quite mean what he said about FEMA last year. He was governor of Massachusetts during a pretty massive flood, and even his few political allies in the state weren’t happy with his response. Maybe he wanted mayors and sheriffs to take more responsibility. It’s not really clear.

In the meantime, what’s the former Governor up to? Well, he’s claiming a campaign event really isn’t a campaign event, while the President is going to the Red Cross and directing the federal response to Sandy, garnering praise from such political allies as Governor Christie of New Jersey. Allies of Governor Romney, that is.

The President is also taking heat from some unexpected and–were the situation not so serious, comically inept–quarters. Former FEMA Chief Michael Brown actually argued the Obama administration reacted to Sandy too quickly. You read that correctly. How do you even respond to that?

The reason humans organize themselves into societies is because we recognize, on some level, that we can do things collectively that we can’t do individually. We cede some of our individual freedom in exchange for the benefits that come from living in groups–things as basic as dependable sources of clean water and electricity are only possible with collective effort. Don’t believe me? Go to any part of the world with an ineffective central government, and you’ll see instability at all levels. Politics is the method we use to argue over and decide how much of that individual freedom we’re willing to cede, and what we demand in return for it.

And the response to this and previous natural disasters shows a pretty clear choice. There’s a group that is willing to let you fend for yourself in the face of the overwhelming power of a storm such as Hurricane Sandy, and there’s a group that feels a duty to try to protect you during the storm and help you recover afterward. This isn’t necessarily a party thing either. Governor Christie of New Jersey is a Republican, a conservative, a spokesman for Governor Romney, but he’s been killing it in his response to this storm. He obviously believes, at some level, that it’s government’s duty to take care of its citizens.

Next week, we’ll finish the latest argument over what sort of government we want, and we’ll start on the next one almost immediately. The response to this storm will extend beyond that, and will no doubt be fodder for the next argument, along with whatever else pops up going forward. And we’ll rehash a lot of these same fights–how much help do we want? how much help do we want to give? who deserves it?–but remember that you’re voting (or not) for something that you are a part of. The government is not the enemy. It is us.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →