Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
No one expects the United States to control the weather and it can’t prevent animal viruses in other countries from jumping into humans. But the way it has “handled” recent disasters, from the pandemic to the current weather crisis in Texas, shows that it can offer a master class in how to make a mighty nation look a lot like a failing state.
Let’s be clear: the US is not a failed state. But we have seen too many catastrophic, avoidable failures to call them flukes. The current winter calamity in Texas and the grotesque mishandling of the pandemic, to name just the most recent partly-self-inflicted debacles, are filled with critical lessons.
If the human suffering were not incentive enough to demand a course correction, the fact that the entire world is watching ought to be. America’s reputation is suffering along with the millions of Texans braving the extreme cold without electricity or running water.
A nation starts losing ground when its leaders, instead of focusing on what’s best for their country, become more concerned with their personal interests. Disasters become catastrophes when partisanship overtakes patriotism; when ideological obedience turns policy into fanaticism; when political loyalty outranks competence in government staffing and when extracting political advantage becomes the overpowering goal of people who took office claiming they wanted to work for the people.
Why are Texans freezing? There are many reasons, but this would not be happening if the state — dominated by Republicans committed to a small government ideology – had not severed its links to the national electrical grid for the sake of avoiding regulation. That regulation, among other things, would have required utilities to be better prepared. But Texas, the country’s top energy producer, was not only caught unprepared for a harsh cold snap, but by choice, is the only state in the contiguous US essentially unable to borrow energy from other states.
If you want to see the meaning of fanaticism, there’s Rick Perry, the former governor who also served as energy secretary under Trump, quoted as saying (“partly rhetorically”) that the suffering is worth it, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”
As the drama unfolded, the current governor, Greg Abbott, jumped into action to bolster his right-wing credentials, absurdly claiming that, “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” because wind turbines froze. But wind power is a small part of Texas’ energy supply, which is mostly natural gas. And turbines, in fact, work just fine in Minnesota and Siberia, when properly winterized.
Texas wasn’t prepared, but preparedness alone is often not enough.
Consider the coronavirus. A year ago, then-President Donald Trump boastfully quoted from a study showing the US was the world’s best-prepared country to deal with a pandemic. But preparation crashed into political calculation – of course, there were other stumbles along the way – and it was Trump who stood in the way of taking the actions needed to avert the worst disaster to strike the United States in a century, with a death toll approaching half a million people and still climbing.
The best-made plans couldn’t withstand a venal president who thought that fully acknowledging the magnitude of the challenge would hurt his chances for reelection; a gamble that reportedly included the belief that Democratic-led states would do worse if the federal government stood aside.
There are some challenges so enormous that only government has the capacity to tackle them. We saw it with the pandemic, already showing great improvement under a responsible administration, and we have seen it many other times.
That’s why so often the country’s worst preventable crises have exploded under Republican administrations, who still live by the discredited Reaganesque creed that government can never be small enough, and that it’s always bad news when the government shows up.
That idea leads to excessive deregulation, a major factor in the devastation of the 2008 Great Recession. It also leads to hiring unqualified people, as we saw most dramatically in the parade of official incompetence in Trump administration, and in the events that contributed to the catastrophe that nearly destroyed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
If you think Ivanka Trump or Jared Kushner were unqualified for their White House positions, you may have forgotten Michael Brown, appointed as FEMA director by George W. Bush. He’s the Brown in “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” the immortal praise from the president as the hurricane disaster was unfolding. Brown’s biggest job before taking over the nation’s disaster response was supervising judges at Arabian horse shows. He was utterly unqualified for a government job that affects people’s lives at their worst moments. But he was a well-connected Republican.
Incompetence, corruption, cronyism, ideological inflexibility, self-serving partisanship: Reversing course doesn’t require controlling the weather, only focusing sharply on what’s best for the country. For many officials in the US, as in failed states, that seems to be too much to ask.