On the morning Katrina hit, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, told C-SPAN viewers that his anti-government "leave us alone" coalition was on a roll. It appeals to ever larger numbers of Americans, he assured us, from home-schoolers to gun owners to the religious.
They all want lower taxes to help starve government down to a size, Norquist told NPR in 2001, where "I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
Drowned in the bathtub?
Those Americans who have cheered Norquist's "leave us alone" message I'm sure never imagined it might be they who are drowning.
From our earliest tribal days onward, human awareness has been growing that the only way to protect ourselves from nature's inevitable blows is by assuming we're all in the same boat -- afloat, or not, together. Strange, then, that as the 21st century opens it may take horrific human and environmental losses to alert us to the fallacy and the irresponsibility of the far Right's "leave us alone" campaign.
Alone we cannot recover, much less protect ourselves, from future (predicted) Katrinas. That's painfully clear. But neither can we alone protect our well being against less tangible assaults: the consequences of an ill-schooled America, now ranking 18th among 24 industrial countries in educational achievement, for example; or the ramifications of a health care system so broken that it leaves 46 million uninsured and causes roughly half the nation's unprecedented and family-devastating personal bankruptcies.
Now is the moment for courage in high office: We need political leaders, Democrats and Republicans – and those holding the highest office of all, citizen -- to say (aloud!) that government per se is not bad. It is as good as we citizens make it. Government is the only tool we have capable of protecting us from such catastrophic disasters, both "natural" and social.
We need similarly courageous religious leaders of all faiths asking how a no-new-taxes pledge, which Norquist claims appeals especially to religious Americans, aligns with scriptural teachings about our responsibilities as our brothers' keepers. Certainly they do not believe that charity alone can rebuild New Orleans' levees.
We need leadership calling us to the real challenge, not to shrink government – which has grown much faster under Bush than during the Clinton years -- but to make it genuinely democratic in order to better protect our common futures.
It starts with real dialogue, not cute sound-bites -- about what government can and cannot do and what is real security versus blind adherence to formulae. For starters, the near half of both houses of Congress who Norquist so proudly claims have signed his no-new-tax pledge would disavow any such anti-democratic, self-gag rule. (No new taxes -- even as their constituents float away? I don't think so.).
Leaders moving us to a genuine democracy would take bold action to get money's corrupting influence out of politics. In Louisiana, for instance, developers' free reign meant wetlands that might have helped protect the city had been destroyed.
Impossible, you say, with Washington lobbyists outnumbering members of Congress 56 to one?
Consider that in publicly financed-election states like Arizona and Maine born-again citizens are starting to run for office and to vote at higher rates. They know that once the grip of private interest over the public purse is removed tax investments can serve them. Imagine if that word got out.
Courageous leadership would remind us that being "left alone" is hardly victory – certainly not in today's world. In fact, with decaying infrastructure, extreme social inequality, worsening environmental mayhem, and civil-defense forces bogged down in foreign lands, being left alone looks more terrifying with each passing day...and storm.
The Small Planet Institute Cambridge, Massachusetts