It is now widely known that the Republican-dominated government of Michigan created, through deliberate decisions as well as malign neglect, a public health emergency in the City of Flint. Even though Flint’s one hundred thousand citizens have been living for months now with lead-poisoned water, only in the last few weeks has anyone with real power taken the situation seriously.
This is a tragedy of still-unknown dimensions, and the utter contempt with which Michigan’s Republican leaders long dismissed the matter is shocking. That this is an example of “environmental racism” seems beyond doubt, notwithstanding Governor Rick Snyder’s weak and pro forma claims otherwise.
In the months and years ahead, there will surely be inquiries, lawsuits, and most likely criminal prosecutions. Public health experts will carefully follow the damage to Flint’s children and adults, trying to mitigate what can be mitigated while attempting at least to document the irreversible human consequences and their associated costs to society. As those inquiries develop, I expect that I will return to discuss various issues related to this crisis in future Verdict columns.
In today’s column, however, I want to discuss a set of important issues that are raised by a heartfelt op-ed essay written by one of President George W. Bush’s former speechwriters. That op-ed, penned by a lifelong conservative, captures important political dimensions of the Flint crisis, although it does so in ways that the author most likely did not intend.
In any event, the writer’s plea to his fellow Republicans not to continue to abandon urban America is destined to be ignored. It will be ignored not only because too many Republicans have shown again and again that they really do not care what happens to poor and minority Americans, but for an even more fundamental reason: The Flint crisis shows, with searing clarity, that the modern Republican Party must ignore real-world problems, because their conservative ideology leaves them with nothing to say or do in response to those problems. Ignoring and belittling the challenges faced by people in places like Flint allows conservatives to continue to deny that unpleasant reality.
The Conscientious Conservative and the Flint Crisis
The former Bush speechwriter’s op-ed is especially interesting because he grew up in Flint, experiencing the city’s long-term problems from the unique perspective of someone who, for example, was “stopped by the police at 16 because they couldn’t believe a white person lived in my neighborhood.” He became a conservative as a teenager and rose quickly in Republican circles.
To his credit, the author now urgently calls upon his party to stop ignoring the problems of America’s least fortunate citizens. This is refreshing both in its acknowledgment that the Republican Party really does have a long record of being at least blasé (if not outright hostile) to the needs of millions of Americans. It is also, of course, a welcome development when anyone calls upon a major party to improve itself.
The problem, however, is that the Republican Party has never been a comfortable fit with people who wish to address social problems, especially the problems that affect middle- and lower-income people. And the harsh rightward movement of the Republican Party in the last few decades has doomed any effort to refocus Republican priorities even before it begins.
Nonetheless, the op-ed ends with an interesting series of rhetorical questions about Republicans. The author asks, “Why haven’t they been here over the decades . . . ?” and, “Why aren’t they in Flint today, shipping in water bottles and holding fund-raisers for kids now condemned to lowered expectations because their brains were poisoned by lead?”
Answering his own question, the author writes: “It cannot be, as the left would tell us, because Flint has a large African-American population. Or that the city has always been a Democratic stronghold. That’s exactly a place Republicans should target.” That statement, however, has two possible meanings, both of which are important to understand.
In one sense, the author’s claim is simply, preposterously false. Of course “the left” is correct to say that Republicans ignore places like Flint because of racial and partisan animosity. Although he offers a nice euphemism to cover up the ugliness, the author quickly admits that Republicans “are used to staying away” because it is “not easy to go to a place where nobody knows you or likes you.” Quite so. Republicans are used to staying away, and they are not liked in places like Flint, for very good reasons.
It is the second sense in which one might read the author’s answer to his own question, however, that is most important. When he wrote that Republicans’ neglect and hostility toward places like Flint “cannot be” because of those ugly political realities, it seems that he is not really denying that those reasons have long been true. Instead, he is saying that Republicans cannot continue to act as they have acted for far too long. This is a call for change.
There is a very good set of reasons—moral as well as strategic—that Republicans should listen to one of their own, and to stop being a party that practices dog-whistle racist politics and indulges in the worst kind of victim-blaming. The depressing popularity of people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (and the equally elitist policies of the other presidential candidates) are no accident. Republicans who now worry that the party will suffer catastrophic losses in this year’s elections are only beginning to understand that they have been holding the proverbial tiger by the tail.
Bush’s former speechwriter thus calls on the Republican Party, and conservative ideologues who back the party, “to show up” in places like Flint. But, as I noted above, the problem is that they would really have nothing to say, even if they were to follow that good advice.
The Emptiness of the Anti-Government Mantra
The core commitment of the modern Republican Party is in its members’ deep belief in Ronald Reagan’s famous locution: “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” That quotation has actually been taken out of context, but certainly the worshipers of the Reagan myth take that statement to be axiomatic, expressing a core idea that ultimately led to government shutdowns, a willingness to risk defaulting on government debt, and on and on.
The simple fact, however, is that the problems in places like Flint cannot be resolved without assistance from the government. Worse, at least from the standpoint of American conservatives, is the equally obvious fact that such problems must be addressed by the federal government, rather than the states. Even Governor Snyder has asked “the Obama administration to declare that Flint has suffered a ‘major disaster’ so that he can tap into federal funds to meet needs that he says ‘greatly exceed the collective funding resources of local and state government.’” Similarly, that op-ed by Bush’s former speechwriter argues that Republicans should have been “supporting federal aid for the city” all these years. Federal aid.
Why must these issues be solved by federal action? It is not merely because Michigan Republicans’ fateful decision to run a disastrous real-world experiment in penny-wise-pound-foolish cuts in state spending directly led to this very avoidable crisis. One could imagine, after all, that an ideologically driven Republican state government could instead have privatized a city’s water system, only to have private companies save money by similarly endangering the public.
The public or private status of the perpetrator is thus not what matters. In fact, there need not even be a perpetrator at all, as Hurricane Katrina taught us more than a decade ago. What matters is that a problem like this requires society to share burdens through national action, which only the federal government can finance and coordinate. Before he hit the campaign trail and returned to vilifying the federal government, New Jersey governor Chris Christie understood this truth, when he literally and figuratively embraced President Obama’s direction of a federal response to Hurricane Sandy.
Who, other than the federal government, can—or would be willing—to deal with the long-term costs of brain-damaged children in Flint, children whose opportunities to live full lives were already compromised by all of the disadvantages of being unlucky enough to be born in that neglected city, and who now will be a literal burden on society for the rest of their lives? There is no “market solution” to that situation. State governments cannot take the lead, and even Republican governors are smart enough not even to try.
The Long Run and the Republicans’ Answer to Social Problems
Conservatives’ disdain for government action is wrong not just in the context of disaster relief. Governments can and should try to make disasters less likely, and to guarantee opportunities for everyone to live happy and productive lives. Governments can do this especially by investing in the programs that will provide safe drinking water to our cities and towns, in rebuilding unglamorous things like sewage systems (which we take for granted at our peril), in adequately funding schools and universities, and in guaranteeing that people have access to adequate health care.
All of these are projects that can be undertaken only by governments, because government-run projects are not driven by profit motives or the necessities of satisfying short-term earnings targets, and governments—again, especially the federal government—can borrow to finance projects that have payoffs decades in the future. We have learned over the years how to arrange public-private partnerships to harness the true power of markets, but without the public element of those partnerships, such projects quickly become little more than slush funds that divert public money into private coffers. Without government coordination, the most vulnerable members of society lose the most.
The Lack of a Viable Conservative Agenda to Fight Poverty
Even before problems metastasize as they have in Flint, what would “a conservative approach to urban areas” entail? If it is simply a matter of arguing that some Democratic state and local governments have not been successful in using public resources to reduce poverty and other urban problems, that is hardly an argument for conservatism or against liberalism. Any liberal would concede—indeed, we would insist—that government action must be well designed, carefully monitored, and adapted to changing situations.
In other words, saying that there are a variety of ways to solve society’s problems through government action is not an argument for conservative values, at least as the Republican Party has expressed those values for the last few decades. But even if we look at the supposedly reformist conservative ideas for solving the problems of the poor and the disenfranchised, what would a supposedly enlightened conservative offer to the people of Flint?
Some prominent Republicans loudly claim that the dastardly liberals have trapped poor people in a cycle of poverty. That theory is, as Republicans like to say in other contexts, “junk science” in the extreme. Decades of research have led to a broad consensus among social scientists that this “dependency theory” simply does not stand up to the facts. Rather, the reason that we have not seen poverty fall as much as we would have liked is that conservative politicians continue to underfund (and often all but sabotage) what could be a concerted and effective government response to poverty.
But even if a well-meaning Republican were to go into an urban area and try to sell their anti-government solutions, how would that conversation go? “Democrats have made you weak, so we’re going to eliminate food stamps and other anti-poverty programs, so that you’ll get stronger. You’re welcome.”
Where, in other words, are the ideas that would lead to better lives today and in the immediate future, aimed at people who are already living day to day? In the context of urban problems, John Maynard Keynes’s famous admonition that “in the long run, we are all dead” is not merely a rhetorical flourish. Solutions can only be funded by governments, and coordinated by and among governments (in cooperation with charitable organizations and the private sector). The job of government is to improve our responses and to expand and contract those responses as needed.
The Flint crisis reminds us of an important fact of modern life. The disasters that can be caused by foolishly cutting government spending—merely because it is government spending—are not hypothetical. Real people are harmed when we pretend that the government’s role can simply be eliminated. We should learn the lesson that Michigan’s Republican leaders inadvertently taught us. The federal government must take the lead in investing in good outcomes, preventing bad outcomes, and responding to disasters when they happen. Otherwise, more innocent victims will soon join the unlucky residents of Flint.