by Matthew Casper
Any thinking person who doesn't fully grasp the state of politics in America needs no other example than the Congressional hearings on the Flint, Michigan water crisis in order to be enlightened. They would need to watch no more than thirty minutes of these hearings to understand where things stand in America, and to come to the inevitable conclusion.
The political system is broken.
The story of how this crisis unfolded, the state's actions to assure Flint that the water was safe while dismissing reports showing otherwise, and the Governor's inaction has been told effectively and in-depth elsewhere. (Hat tip to Rachel Maddow and Steve Benen for really bringing this issue to the attention of the national audience and media.) But what has been missing from the national conversation is the fact that more than any one person or any one department or any one failure of government, the Flint crisis happened because of a political force.
Movement conservatism caused this.
After decades of indoctrination, the activist American right has been inculcated with a set of beliefs that threaten our very constitutional system of government. More directly, those beliefs threaten our well-being.
The issue of lead in the water is not really an issue of infrastructure or the environment -- it is a failure of American politics, a crisis that should never have existed. This crisis born of a perversion of a political philosophy resulted in illness, permanent impairment and even death. The movement conservative belief that democratic -- or perhaps more correctly, "big-D" Democratic -- government is ineffective overrode the people of Michigan's belief that government could and should serve the people. Rick Snyder, Michigan Republicans and their plan to remove power from the people via their so-called emergency manager law overrode the people's will after they rejected the idea that they couldn't govern themselves. The importance of saving a few dollars overrode the very well-being of the people of Flint.
From the opening of Thursday's hearing, the dysfunction was apparent. Republicans made it clear that the target of their wrath was not Snyder or his administration. It was, instead, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and its Administrator, Gina McCarthy. And along with their attacks on McCarthy was a defense of their own world view. Snyder himself, while professing his contrition, instead dodged and deflected blame. Instead of acknowledging his culpability, the Governor and his congressional GOP protectors cast blame on the EPA for not stepping in and fixing the issue -- the issue that Snyder's own appointees and administration caused -- more quickly. When confronted by Democrats on the committee, Snyder repeatedly referenced the responsibility that he took "in front of the entire state of Michigan". However, even his description betrayed his efforts to shift blame.
"I've been very clear about accepting responsibility for the people who worked for me and for these so-called experts that created this crisis..."
Snyder, and the Republican congressmen who gave him aid during the hearing, repeatedly displayed a breathtaking and infuriating refusal or inability to accept facts and reality. But I truly don't think that this is because of any malevolent motivations or conscious thought. Instead, it is because to accept reality would mean accepting that the political beliefs that drive their every action -- and that they've taken on like religious dogma -- have been demonstrated to be wrong.
In this political state, American conservatives have been fed a constant stream of propaganda that repeat a handful of beliefs: that "big" (any) government is ineffective and the private market/business is the preferred standard; that low tax rates for the wealthy result in massive economic growth; that the poor are largely poor because of their own choices, and their situation is of their own doing; and that liberals are purposely working against the best interests of the country. These beliefs have become like religious dogma, with any deviation or compromise seen as betrayal. Those beliefs were put into action in Michigan by Snyder and his administration. But this crisis demonstrates just how wrong all of those beliefs are.
Like we have seen for years, conservative leaders cannot take on board that which conflicts with this dogma, such as the fact that trickle-down economics does not work. They instead repeatedly tout larger and more outrageously budget-busting tax cuts as plans to 'unlock prosperity.' Triumphs of government, such as reducing the number of uninsured Americans and offering health care to those who had previously gone without, are dismissed or ignored altogether. Government is seen as an evil bogeyman instead of a body representing the people and their will. Climate change is a myth created by a cabal of scientists and elites who are seeking to impose their fascistic big government on the little people.
So for the true believer conservatives on that congressional panel, the (mis)placement of blame is an exercise in self-preservation, a crusade to protect their religion and its adherents. Their attacks on those who encroach on the conservative bubble with reality are a crusade to protect their god.
So while Democrats like Illinois' Tammy Duckworth took McCarthy to task for the systemic failure for which she was responsible, Republicans like Wisconsin's Glenn Grothman placed the blame on career civil servants rather than on the leaders and decision-makers who guided their actions. (Grothman actually said, "I know it's very difficult for a governor to come in there and clean house of civil servants, and I'm sorry it had to come to such a tragedy to bring their incompetence to light.") The difference between the parties' approaches was stark... and depressing. While Democrats (mainly) stuck to finding out what happened and looking for accountability for the actions, Republicans attacked those who are attempting to fix the problem.
The truth is our system cannot survive if one party acts as if others are an enemy to be conquered. Our system cannot survive if compromise with the other party is believed to be an act of betrayal. Our system cannot survive if there is no accountability to the (actual) results of a party's beliefs and actions. A clear and present danger exists if the majority of this nation does not stand up for that which is true.
Perhaps the entirety of the Chaffetz-led hearing could be summed up by an interaction between McCarthy and freshman Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA). As she repeatedly testified throughout the hearing, states' rights conservatives ensured through legislation that the EPA could not act on an issue like Flint until they could prove that the state was not already acting. As the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was slow-walking and misleading the EPA, action was slower than would otherwise been. Carter tried to trap McCarthy into saying that she and her department did not protect the environment.
McCarthy: "Sir, the law did give the state primary authority."
Carter: "The law?! The law?! I don't think anyone here cares about the law!"
After all, the law is always secondary to religious beliefs.