The Wonderful World of Oz

By Moravcsik, Andrew; Meyer, Michael Leverson | Newsweek International, September 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Wonderful World of Oz


Moravcsik, Andrew, Meyer, Michael Leverson, Newsweek International


Byline: Andrew Moravcsik and Michael Meyer (MORAVCSIK is a professor of politics at Princeton. MEYER is NEWSWEEK's Europe editor.)

It looks like Rwanda!" the stunned British anchorman couldn't believe he was seeing the United States. "Remember shock and awe?" wrote the columnist for the London Guardian, Polly Toynbee. To her mind, the radiating might of the American colossus had dissipated like the optical illusion in "The Wizard of Oz," wherein said wizard is revealed to be a small man frantically pushing the buttons of public-relations gadgetry--what she calls "the hollow superpower."

Hurricane Katrina was a horrific act of nature. But the real tragedy is what it says about America. The blame game has begun. Global warming is one culprit. George W. Bush is another, along with the mayor of New Orleans, the governor of Mississippi, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and an assorted cast of shady characters from congressmen to incompetent or outright malfeasant state and local officials. At bottom, however, what Katrina exposed is something far more profound, even existential: America's changing attitude toward the proper role of government.

The central cleavage in U.S. political life today divides those who believe that the full power and purse of the federal government should be harnessed to reduce the threats and risks faced by individuals, and those who don't. For much of the last century, beginning in earnest with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, those on the left of the spectrum have pushed for equal and uniform national protections for all Americans against catastrophe. Thus we have Social Security, Medicare and the Great Society welfare programs--not to mention civil rights, enviromental protection and public works. Those on the right, most notably the libertarian conservatives now ascendant in every branch of government, oppose such efforts, except in defense. Such security should instead be provided by individuals who can afford it, or by private business and "faith-based" community groups. Though few say so plainly, they dislike government as a matter of principle. A social contract? The public good? At best "an option, not a duty," as one outraged reader recently wrote to the New York Times.

Katrina throws this political ideology into bold relief. Consider the testimony before Congress of Joe Allbaugh, Bush's 2000 campaign manager, tapped to head FEMA in 2001. …

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