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Conservatives Wanted to Kill the Federal Government. They Succeeded.

April 4, 2020
map with portraits

You’re welcome, America!


If nothing else, the Covid-19 crisis has made glaringly plain just how hollow America’s claims to being the “best country in the world” have become. We now have a federal government that has gone from outright denial and misinformation to floundering incompetence, directed by a president who still won’t declare a national stay-at-home order to slow a pandemic that by best-case estimates will kill more Americans that died in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. If the “best case” doesn’t happen, it could well kill more Americans than World War II.

So we get a daily spectacle on TV of desperate hospital personnel wearing garbage bags for protection and pleading for masks so they don’t have to keep reusing the few they have and risking their own lives. Of refrigerator trucks lined up at hospital to load bodies of the dead because morgues and mortuaries are full. Of New York Governor Cuomo telling us frankly that his state’s hospitals will be overwhelmed in a week or so. And of Trump and Pence giving us lies and happy talk that there are plenty of medical supplies and equipment and testing kits out there, even though the evidence is plain as day that if they do exist, they’re not getting to where they’re needed.

US inability to respond to this crisis effectively didn’t just happen by accident. It is the logical result of decades of conservative efforts to shrink the federal government until it “can be drowned in a bathtub” and denigrate government in general while promoting privatization and assumption of government functions by for-profit enterprises. And here we are with an federal government that sees its role as a “back-up” for overwhelmed state and local authorities and is reduced to begging companies like Ford and GM to retool to make medical equipment that isn’t being produced in the US anymore. And delivering such material obtained in China at government expense to private companies who then sell it at inflated prices to the top bidder, because they “don’t want to disrupt the supply chain.”

We have been left with a federal government leadership that ignored warnings about possible pandemics and failed to prepare mobilization plans or to stockpile adequate emergency equipment or hospital capacity to deal with such a crisis because spending on that wouldn’t be cost-effective, and believed the private capitalist market would immediately spring in to action to handle a crisis far better than government. Turns out it doesn’t quite work that way.

It is obvious that a consolidated procurement agency for now-scarce medical equipment is needed in order to avoid the price-gouging and competitive bidding for these items by all the states individually (and indeed by governments around the world), but that is anathema to the ideology of this regime so it doesn’t happen. Instead we have the government spending public money to fly critical medical supplies from China and delivering it to private for-profit brokers who then control where it goes according to who is willing to pay the most. The opportunities for corruption are truly mindblowing.

Current business practices are based on just-in-time supply chains, which collapse when entire economies are shut down and transportation is disrupted. In such emergencies, government intervention is critical to mobilize what is still functional and distribute supplies rationally where needed, but if you don’t believe government should to that, then chaos ensues, as we now see.

Conservative ideology also is the reason why the US, unlike every other advanced country in the world, lacks a universal healthcare system. As we all know, there remain large gaps in our patchwork coverage which leave millions of Americans without health coverage in the best of times. This administration and the entire Republican party has labored ceaselessly to peel back Obamacare and right now is pursuing a case to the Supreme Court that, if successful, will destroy the ACA completely, depriving the millions of people now covered by its protection. That would be bad enough in normal times, but when people are being laid off suddenly in unprecedented numbers during a deadly pandemic, this is a recipe for an even greater disaster. Because, for most people, health insurance is contingent on their employment, when there are massive layoffs, as is happening now, the number of people who find themselves suddenly without coverage is skyrocketing, meaning that many will face a deadly disease without any assurance of medical care. But universal health care would be socialism!

But perhaps most insidious is the decades-long propaganda campaign by conservatives to convince Americans that government itself is, at best, incompetent and, at worst, intent on destroying their freedom. From Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to the Tea Party to Donald Trump, that is the message they have ceaselessly hammered into the national consciousness, and it has stuck to the point that even progressive Democrats have had to tack rightward to adjust. The strategy of Republicans in or out of power has always been to starve federal agencies they didn’t like (which was virtually all of them that didn’t involve the military or law enforcement) of funds, thereby making it harder and harder to fulfill their functions successfully. Then along came Trump who took this to its logical extreme by appointing as heads of federal agencies people whose agenda was to subvert the very mission of the agencies they led. The purpose was to undermine confidence in government itself by insuring that it could not do the job people expected it to do. And now we see the result.

The question is what lessons the American public will draw from this growing disaster. Will 100,000 or 200,000 or 500,000 deaths convince Americans that Trump bears major responsibility for the needless magnitude of the carnage and vote him out of office? Or will they buy his message and allow him to consolidate power and become the tyrant he aspires to be? History suggests that it could go either way. In 1932 America chose Franklin Roosevelt, while Germany went for Adolf Hitler. Which country are we in 2020?



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