Katrina: No Political Watershed

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Is the proposed Gulf Opportunity Zone another New Deal? No, says Steven M. Gillon, author of The American Paradox: A History of the United States Since 1945. Gillon tells Debbie Elliott Americans still oppose central power.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the government on all levels to cope with it have made us think about what we expect of the federal government. Should we expect the cavalry to ride in from Washington when we need it? Historian Steve Gillon focuses on just this question in his book, "The American Paradox: A History of the United States Since 1945." When I spoke with Gillon this past week, I asked him about President Bush's plan for a Gulf Opportunity Zone. Gillon doesn't see it as another New Deal.

Mr. STEVE GILLON (Author, "The American Paradox"): You know, what's fascinating to me in watching President Bush respond to both 9/11 and now to Katrina is that he's, in many ways, the presidential offspring of Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson. And in many ways, it highlights this--what I think is this fundamental contradiction that Americans have that--between their expectations of government and their fear of government. So that you have a president who, on the one hand, uses all the language of limited government, of states' right and who is very critical of the role that the federal government should play in so many aspects of American life, but when there's a crisis, people automatically look toward the federal government to provide a solution. So it just--in my mind, it highlights the contradiction because the president announced the new program, but he in no way suggested that he was rethinking his belief in what the--role the federal government should play in American society.

ELLIOTT: You know, dating back even before Ronald Reagan, there was this sentiment that somehow the government was the problem, not the solution. Why do we as citizens still expect that the federal government would leap in into the breech of a crisis like this?

Mr. GILLON: Well, I think there's two realities that have coexisted in the 20th century. If you take the 100-year period--you know, William McKinley died on September 13th, 1901. One hundred years later, September 11th, the United States was attacked by terrorists at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. So you take that 100-year period, there's one overwhelming reality, and the reality is that the size and scope and power of the federal government increased. We essentially had a revolution in the role the federal government plays in our lives. By 2001, almost half of all American families received some direct subsidy from the federal government. If you go back to 1901, the federal government was not involved in any direct way at all in people's lives. So that's the one reality.

But I would argue that the other reality is that America's attitudes toward government have not changed at all. We are still just as skeptical of the federal government now as we were over a hundred years ago. What has changed, and what started with the New Deal, is our expectations of government have changed even though our attitudes toward government have changed very little. So we're at a point where we have come to expect all the benefits of a modern, expansive welfare state without acknowledging or accepting the legitimacy of that very government. Every penny that we as individuals get from the federal government is a right; every penny anyone else gets is waste.

ELLIOTT: I'm curious--the Depression caused major political and social changes in this country. Do you think that Hurricane Katrina has the potential to have a similar effect?

Mr. GILLON: I think it's unlikely. There is inevitably in the wake of a catastrophe like this a lot of emphasis and focus on the many issues that are raised by the hurricane, and especially in relation to New Orleans, the questions of race and the poverty that have been a part of the discussion. But I don't see this discussion and this debate building on any firm foundation that supports reform.

If you look at, for example, you know, the hurricane that hit Galveston around the turn of the century. Many people see this as something that ignited the progressive period and led to greater government activism, and that's certainly true, but it built on the backs of so many other reform movements that were taking place in the state and local level. I don't see the foundation of reform that Katrina could build on.

ELLIOTT: Given the New Deal and the Great Society and other federal programs in the 20th century, are Americans truly leery of centralized power?

Mr. GILLON: That's a great question. And I think if you look at the period of federal activism, you can essentially boil it down to three periods; there's the progressive period, the New Deal and the Great Society. Well, when you take the periods of federal activism, it represents 10 or 12 years of an entire century. For the most part, these periods of reform have been very discrete, they have resulted from the confluence of a number of unique circumstances that have allowed Americans to overcome this innate fear of federal power and have led to this dramatic increase in federal growth in very unique periods. I think that--I would turn that argument on its end, and I would suggest to that the fact that we've only had three periods of dramatic reform that represents about one-tenth of an entire century sort of reveals the resiliency of these conservative attitudes toward government and not the opposite.

ELLIOTT: Where does this fear of government come from?

Mr. GILLON: It goes back to our Revolutionary roots. I mean, we're a nation that was born in rebellion against imperial power. And I think one of the problems with the political debate today is, you know, people want to be put in categories as either being liberal or being conservative; there's either being in favor of the expanded federal government or being in favor of states' rights and small government. And I think the reality is that Americans are both.

ELLIOTT: Steven Gillon's books include "The American Paradox: A History of the United States Since 1945."

Thank you for being with us.

Mr. GILLON: My pleasure.

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