“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”–Jesus of Nazareth, Sermon on the Mount c. 30 AD
This week there has been a great deal of analysis about whether Hurricane Sandy would affect the election. That analysis was interesting enough, but what I’m more concerned about is what the hurricane will reveal about us. The question of electoral impact is subordinate to the question of culture. If the storm moves us closer to a reelect scenario, than this reveals something about the character of (at least) that segment of the nation which is changeable enough to change opinions at this late date; it reveals whom we trust. Our reaction to disaster reveals whom we trust.
According to Intrade, the political futures market, as of this writing, over the past three days the probability of reelecting Obama has gone from 62% to 68%. That is a dramatic increase. Today’s Marist Poll shows Obama slightly ahead in battleground states. The RealClearPolitics averages seem to show a slight tilt towards Obama, depending upon which day one chooses as the baseline. This is tentative evidence that Sandy helped Obama, which more deeply means that this is tentative evidence that when disasters come, our politics tend to shift towards statism.
Notice that I did not say that our politics shift ‘left’, but rather towards statism. When those awful lunatics flew jet planes into the World Trade Center, our political mood shifted towards the security state. For good or for ill, understandably or not, we waged wars on two countries in response to this; we passed a landmark Patriot Act which rebalanced the relationship between surveillance and personal privacy; we nationalized airport security. All of this was, in some sense, a move rightward, and all of it strengthened the state. When Hurricane Katrina came we quickly embraced a massive federal rebuilding program. We engaged in national handwringing about income inequality and institutionalized racism. In other words, we got ourselves just a little more prepared to elect Barack Obama.
When the financial crisis came in 2008 and panic gripped the nation, the national discussion was about what to do, not about what to undo. In conference calls with the White House Brian Wesbury and I fought hard for them to roll back some of the financial regulations which were strangling the system, but the decision was already made. By the end, starting with Bush and ending with Obama, that crisis led us to engage in the most massive financial bailout in U.S. history, which led to the nationalization of some of the largest banks, insurance companies, and automobile manufacturers in the world.
When Sandy came, our political culture engaged in a series of accusations about how the Republicans–Mitt Romney in particular–would eliminate FEMA. My Forbes colleague Rick Ungar simply fabricated a falsehood, quoting a Romney answer about which government should address disasters (state or federal) as though Romney were answering whetherthe government should address them. Ungar got loads of clicks for this, proving the old saying that “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.” On the Internet, it can get a lot further.
That was our nation’s principle political discussion. That and, of course, the usual sales job for more ‘investment’ in ‘infrastructure’, whatever that means. And of course sermonettes against ‘price gouging’ and Keynesian primers about how all the neighborhoods destroyed by disasters are good for growth.
In times past, Americans facing natural disaster would say a prayer, fortify their homes and then check on their neighbors. Now we whine for welfare. Not all of us, of course, but those who lead our national discussion. I saw my neighbors here prepare. When we have hurricane effects here, the next day I hear my neighbors revving up their chain saws, as I do mine, to put those fallen trees to some good use. But then again, I live in the town that Obama had just visited right before he went to San Francisco and complained about those who “bitterly cling” to God and their guns.
I don’t know whether Sandy will prove to have reelected Barack Obama. I don’t even know whether he will be reelected. But I do know that the discussion which our governing class had this week revealed an element of rot in our cultural foundation. When the storm came, she showed us that we are a society in danger of being washed away by statism. Repairing that foundation is even more important than carving up those fallen trees.
Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.