Public's disenchantment: a perfect storm for reform?
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The fatally slow response to Hurricane Katrina unleashed a wave of anger that could transform people's expectations of government, the qualities they seek in political leaders and their views of America's class and racial divides.
It's a huge opportunity that neither party seems poised to exploit.
"This could be a moment that changes the political dialogue of the country," said Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist whose book "Bowling Alone" argued that Americans are participating less and less in civic life.
Nowhere is the public's apathy more apparent than in government and politics. From the late-1950s, when three-fourths of Americans said they trusted government most of the time, the public's confidence in their political system has collapsed.
Six of 10 Americans said they trusted government during the Vietnam War. It fell to three of 10 after Watergate, and just two of 10 during the early 1990s economic recession. The Sept. 11 strikes led to a spike that lasted six months.
In June 2005, a Gallup poll revealed that just 30 percent of respondents said they trusted government most of the time.
And then came Katrina.
While the bungling of city, state and federal officials upset Americans, it was no surprise.
Sadly, this is what people have come to expect from government.
"The only way it could have been worse is if there had been more politicians and governments involved," said Robert Bernstein, a Republican voter from Maryland.
Voters are blaming all levels of government and President Bush in particular for not doing enough to help Katrina's victims. Half say they are angry; two-thirds said they are depressed.
What will they do about it?
Some Republicans fear the public will demand a high-priced government fix. Or worse, the White House and the GOP-led Congress will throw money at their political problem.
"I hope we don't have a Great Society mind-set because of this disaster," said Republican Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado. "Is this a tidal shift? Is this one of those times when government shifts back to a more interventional, more hands-on approach and away from laissez-faire?"
Democrats hope so. Some are already plotting to shift resources away from Bush's agenda, such as lower taxes, and advance their own priorities.
Neither argument gets to the core of the problem. Americans do not necessarily want bigger or smaller government. They want better government; less bureaucracy, less partisanship and more focus on delivering services that help people thrive in a complex new era.
"When you strip away all the political partisanship, we have to remember that government is all about protecting citizens," said Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, a Democrat. "That didn't happen here."
"It's not the absence of money," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican. "It is a failure of bureaucratic structures."
Next year's elections could be rough on incumbents in both parties. The next presidential race may be ripe for a maverick, mold-breaking candidate, perhaps even a third-party ticket. That's how hungry Americans are for leadership traits that seemed lacking during the Katrina crisis.
Accountability: Nobody in government was willing to take full responsibility for the relief effort. "Public officials are going to have to be more accountable," said Art English, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Authenticity: Nobody in government was honest enough to admit a mistake. "If the president had stood up and said, 'I screwed up and here's how I'll fix it,' I'd feel a heck of a lot better about him," said Mindy Meadows, 47, a Democratic voter from Clermont, Fla.
Empathy: Former President Clinton famously felt voters' pain. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Bush reflected the passions of Americans — staggered at first, tearful at midweek and defiant on the Friday after the attacks, when he climbed atop a firetruck and vowed vengeance. After Katrina, Bush did not seem to grasp the horror or shame felt by many Americans.
Voters may start demanding better from all levels of government.
"We shouldn't accept mediocrity as the best a politician can do," said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat.
Putnam said Katrina reminds him of the 1889 flood of Johnstown, Pa., that killed more than 2,000 people, most of them poor, while sparing the vacation homes of the rich.
The Gilded Age disaster brought to boil long-simmering concerns about the widening gap between economic classes.
At the dawn of the technology era, the gap has been growing again, "but nothing had happened to crystalize in human terms how rich folks like me do well while the poor people in society get left behind," Putnam said.
"Then along came Katrina," he said, "and the dominant image is all the well-to-do white folks driving out of town and the black folks left to suffer."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company