It's time we own up to lack of leaders

September 04, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

A FRIEND writes: "Poor, mostly black lives are not valued in America. The Katrina victims' plight is being played out for the world to see on CNN. The neglect, the incompetence, the slow motion to help are all an outrage. Our government looks very, very bad. I'm angry. You?"

I guess that's what I feel. I hope that's what I feel. I don't think I've become part of the ambivalent, eye-glazed, TV-doped masses yet.

But it's not just "our government" that deserves ire.

Who do you suppose is responsible for "our government"?

In 2004, the American people -- or a little more than half of those who took time to vote -- re-elected a president who got us into a costly war on an apparent lie, ran up huge budget deficits, gave tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, dismissed the science that informs environmental policy and, relevant to the current matter of the New Orleans devastation, cut the Army Corps of Engineers' budget for flood control there.

And the Democrats have pretty much taken a nap through all of this. They don't appear to have the stomach for a fight any more.

In this age of expanding population, wealth and consumerism, neither Democrats nor Republicans will speak with truth and honesty about where we are and where we're headed as a nation. We're vigilant about terrorism, but not much else.

Conservation, shared sacrifice, saving money and borrowing less, living and working smarter? There is no clear, pronounced leadership on any of those fronts.

Smart men and women, once called to public service because they believed in working for the common good, have found other things to do in an age of diminishing government regulation, shrinking social services, extreme ideology and cynical politics.

Young people don't consider a career in public service because it's not held up, as it once was --by, for example, the Roosevelts (the Republican, and his Democratic fifth cousin) -- as something that can actually move mountains and improve lives.

So, with no real leadership, we cruise along in our SUVs at top speed, through the state of denial, as the national debt gets larger ($7.9 trillion, as of Sept. 1), the public infrastructure and social safety net weaken, the military is stretched to its limits, and the cost of energy goes through the roof.

In July, ExxonMobil announced a 32 percent increase in second-quarter profits, the third-largest jump in company history, while Americans were paying record-high prices at the gas pumps. There was no discernible outrage from elected leaders of either party.

And not even allegedly liberal Democrats will force automakers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles, or make public transportation, conservation measures and smart-growth land management matters of national urgency.

So, I look around at all this -- this monsoon of events we've been experiencing since 9/11/2001, along with everything else on or below the surface -- and I guess I'm angry.

But, as George Bernard Shaw put it, "Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."

It's time to wake up and to stop arguing on partisan grounds. Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House have all failed us in some way during this critical time in American history. The Republican president promised a war to end terrorism and nothing close to that has happened; in fact, the war in Iraq appears to have made the United States and its allies even more appealing targets for terrorists. The Democrats have been there, right along, barely uttering a peep of challenge to the president's war.

The war is costing the nation billions, so much so that money previously designated for domestic needs (such as the Army Corps of Engineers' plan for holding back Lake Pontchartrain) has had to be diverted to Iraq. And as the Congress and president abide the starving of the government's resources and its ability to serve human needs, where is the leadership to challenge them?

The Green Party? Howard Dean? Ralph Nader? Al Sharpton?

They all get dismissed as marginal, or fringe, or nutty.

But, at times like these, almost anything looks better than what we have in place. Relief for the Katrina victims -- and the next election -- can't come soon enough.

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