Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Saturday, September 25, 2021
Will Democrat Complacency Bring Disaster to Virginia?
Richard Stuart, a longtime Republican state senator in Virginia, . . . . “I am seeing more enthusiasm than I’ve seen for a statewide Republican candidate since I can remember,” said Stuart, who’s represented his district since 2008.
That type of strong showing, combined with some new polling, is fueling optimism among Republicans, who have been largely shut out of state government in recent years, as one of this year’s most competitive and expensive political matchups enters its final six-week stretch. And while Democrats are confident that they will still come out on top, some of McAuliffe’s supporters are nervous.
“This election appears to be closer than we would prefer,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, an influential group that spends heavily to support Democrats almost exclusively and has endorsed McAuliffe. “Republicans have a motivation advantage, an enthusiasm advantage.”
McAuliffe, who was in office from 2014 to 2018 and who ran away with the Democratic primary in June, has generally led in public polling, but recent surveys suggest the race may have tightened. A poll conducted this month by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University showed McAuliffe with 50% support among likely voters to Youngkin’s 47%, within the margin of error.
In order to prevail, Youngkin will have to overcome several vulnerabilities in this increasingly moderate state. As the U.S. Supreme Court considers the future of abortion rights, Democrats say Youngkin is too extreme on the issue. And Democrats are doing everything they can to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, who is unpopular in large swaths of northern Virginia where the race may be decided.
Trump may have done Youngkin few favors on Friday by pushing him to back his agenda.
“The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement,” Trump said on the John Fredericks Radio Show when discussing Youngkin’s candidacy.
But Republicans in Virginia are feeling good about Youngkin in part because they think he is the type of candidate who can prevail. Tall and polished, the former investment executive has cast himself as a down-to-earth family man.
The election could hinge on whether voters approve of the way Democrats have managed Virginia.
Democrats took full control of state government in the 2019 elections, following huge gains in 2017. Since then, they’ve passed reams of progressive legislation unthinkable just a handful of years ago, ending the death penalty, mandating utilities shift to renewable energy, legalizing marijuana, expanding LGBTQ protections and loosening abortion restrictions.
The challenge now is ensuring Democrats get as excited to vote to protect those gains as they were to send a message to Trump.
“The significant progress that we’ve made — from my standpoint on climate change, climate action — could all be lost in a heartbeat on Nov. 2,” Town said.
The election will almost certainly be viewed as an early referendum on the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency. A McAuliffe loss would send a major signal to Democrats that their control of Congress is at serious risk in next year’s midterm elections.
Democrats were cheered by the results this month in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom handily defeated an effort to kick him out of office early. Like Newsom, McAuliffe has sought to highlight his opponent’s ties to Trump and opposition to pandemic precautions. In recent days, he’s slammed Youngkin for his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates.
“The Virginia governor’s race is a tight race — and it was always going to be. Terry has run a campaign laser focused on the issues Virginians care most about: the economy, education and ending this pandemic by getting Virginians vaccinated,” said Christina Freundlich, a McAuliffe campaign spokeswoman.
McAuliffe’s campaign says their path to victory involves hanging on to northern Virginia and other suburban areas and mobilizing communities of color. Republicans will need to cut into their edge outside of Washington and in other urban areas, including the capital city, Richmond, plus keep up their turnout in rural strongholds.
“Republicans definitely have more enthusiasm but they have less numbers,” said Albert Pollard, a former Democratic House delegate.
Several structural factors are seen as helping Republicans this year, including a long-running pattern of Virginia voters turning against the party in control of the White House during their unusual off-year governor’s races. (Notably, McAuliffe bucked that trend with his win in 2013.) . . . . And Youngkin could be helped by a candidate not being on the ballot: Trump.
“Glenn Youngkin has the best atmosphere that you could really ask for as a Republican,” said Democratic strategist Ben Tribbett, who added that he sees reason for Democrats to be concerned at this point, but not panicked.
Friday, September 24, 2021
Adam Kinzinger: Republicans Are ‘Frigging Crazy’
Political courage is a fascinating phenomenon, particularly at moments when it is largely absent. Which is why I’m so interested in the imperiled career of Representative Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican who has described Donald Trump’s demagogy for what it is—a danger to the republic—and who possesses spine enough to excoriate members of his own party for succumbing to Trump’s imbecilic authoritarianism.
As Anne Applebaum described so well in her Atlantic cover story last year, “We all feel the urge to conform; it is the most normal of human desires.” Her essay, “History Will Judge the Complicit,” made the argument that collaboration, and not dissent, is the default posture of frightened humans, including and especially careerist politicians. Dissent can often lead to social and political death (and sometimes, physical death), and, as we’ve learned in the months following the insurrection of January 6, most Republicans would sooner cast people like Kinzinger into the wilderness than risk ostracism.
“I don’t have a tribe,” Kinzinger told me when we spoke earlier this month. “The good thing is, I don’t really care. The only reason this hurts me is that it reminds me of how frigging crazy the Republican Party has become. It’s not my tribe anymore.”
I first met Kinzinger in early 2014, when he was still very much part of his tribe; he was a protégé of Senator John McCain in that long-ago period when McCain himself was the country’s leading Republican. . . . . Kinzinger was in complete alignment with Graham and Pompeo back then—“I just assumed that we would be the core of people holding the torch for American leadership”—and I asked him why he thought they subsequently turned Trumpist.
“Power,” he said. “I think it’s just power. Pompeo convinced himself that he would help temper some of the more isolationist tendencies of Trump, and then he bought into the idea that he could one day be president. And Lindsey—well, Lindsey just needs somebody to tell him where to go, a strongman. McCain was that guy. Now it’s Trump. It’s sad.”
I asked Kinzinger if he thought he had been naive about the people who now lead the party. “You know, you always think that everyone has a red line. No matter how much politics a person can play, there’s a red line that people can’t cross. I was naive. There are some people who only care about access to power. I’m still coming to terms with this.”
Kinzinger, along with another apostate, Liz Cheney, serves on the House committee investigating the events of January 6. His decision to join this Democratic-led committee caused some of his Republican colleagues to worry (or to publicly perform worry) that he had become a spy in their midst.
“Madison Cawthorn can invoke coming bloodshed, and Paul Gosar can flirt with white nationalism,” he said, naming two of his more extremist colleagues, “and they’re signing a letter asking to have me kicked out of the caucus. This is how far the Republican Party has fallen. They call me a RINO”—a Republican in Name Only—“but I haven’t changed. The Republican Party has changed into an authoritarian Trump organization. They’re the RINOs. Trump is a RINO.”
Kinzinger says he’s at peace with the idea that he may be voted out of Congress by his fellow Republicans. “I believe in God. He knows what’s good or bad for me. If I lose my seat by doing the right thing, I’ll be fine.”
The piece then continues to describle the Atlantic's agenda in covering the decline of the GOP:
The story of the Republican Party’s descent into Trumpist authoritarianism is one The Atlantic is compelled to tell, and our writers have been telling it well, with moral urgency and a commitment to the notion that reality is describable and provable, for more than five years. This is a delicate assignment for The Atlantic. We were founded with the promise that we would be of “no party or clique,” and we try to make good on that promise. It is difficult, though, when one of the country’s two major parties is violating the norms of democratic behavior. We will continue to hold the Democratic Party accountable as well, when accountability is needed, and we will continue to publish writers—conservatives, Republicans, ex-Republicans—who are thinking in interesting ways about the future of their party and country.
One other piece to recommend: James Mattis’s “The Enemy Within,” in which the former secretary of defense writes, “Our politics are paralyzing the country. We practice suspicion or contempt where trust is needed, imposing a sentence of anger and loneliness on others and ourselves. We scorch our opponents with language that precludes compromise. We brush aside the possibility that a person with whom we disagree might be right. We talk about what divides us and seldom acknowledge what unites us. Meanwhile, the docket of urgent national issues continues to grow—unaddressed and, under present circumstances, impossible to address.”
More on this point in a coming post.
Thursday, September 23, 2021
Democrats Hammer Support for Vaccine Mandates in Virginia
Terry McAuliffe is leaning in on vaccines as the potential key to opening up a tight race for Virginia governor.
McAuliffe, a Democrat who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, has launched an extensive paid advertising campaign going after Republican Glenn Youngkin for not supporting pandemic-related government mandates, and it was one of the Democrat’s primary talking points during the first gubernatorial debate last week.
Youngkin is vaccinated and has been encouraging others to get shots, but he does not support mandates. McAuliffe does support a wide array of mandates — on Wednesday, his campaign put out a new call for child care providers to require staff to be fully vaccinated — and he’s talking about the contrast stridently: “He’s not requiring vaccinations. That’s the difference between the two of us,” McAuliffe said in last week’s debate.
The Democratic push on vaccine policy isn’t new in the last few weeks, but it has escalated in Virginia at the same time that the party celebrated victory in California’s recall election, in which Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom focused on vaccine mandates as he brushed back the effort to remove him. Newsom cast his victory as a message to national Democrats “that we need to stiffen our spines and lean in to keeping people safe and healthy” . . .
More than 60 percent of McAuliffe’s TV ads over the past week-and-a-half have attacked Youngkin on pandemic policy, according to data from the ad tracking firm AdImpact. The most frequently aired spots featured a doctor lambasting Youngkin over vaccine mandates for health care workers and mask mandates in schools. Two other mandate-focused spots — one an attack ad tying former President Donald Trump to Youngkin on the pandemic, another featuring a parent contrasting McAuliffe and Youngkin on mask and vaccine mandates in schools — are also running, though in lower circulation.
(There is a subtle but notable difference between McAuliffe’s two doctor ads: The ad airing in Northern Virginia has the doctor comparing Youngkin to Trump, saying both “won’t listen to doctors and scientists.” The ad airing in the state’s southern media markets omits the Trump comparison.)
Youngkin has also been on air with ads about vaccines. “It’s your right to make your own choice, and I respect that,” he said
While Youngkin is responding to McAuliffe’s attacks, there’s a big disparity in the emphasis the campaigns are putting on vaccine messaging. While most of McAuliffe’s recent ads focused on vaccine and other mandates, Youngkin’s two ads accounted for only 11 percent of his total TV advertising in the same time period, according to AdImpact.
Instead, he’s focused on a law enforcement message from sheriffs endorsing his campaign and an economic one, on eliminating the state’s grocery tax. Those two ads accounted for 75 percent of his total TV spots in the last week, per AdImpact.
Republicans have suggested that McAuliffe’s attention on mandates in advertising, combined with other messaging on abortion, show that he’s primarily focused on awakening an unengaged Democratic base as early voting begins. Most polling in the state has shown a fairly consistent enthusiasm gap between Democratic voters and more fired-up Republicans, and the surveys have shown Democratic-leaning voters more keyed into the pandemic.
In a recent Washington Post/Schar School poll showing McAuliffe ahead by a 3-point margin among likely voters, voters said that the economy was the most important issue in the governor’s race. But among Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters in the poll, the coronavirus was the top issue.
“I think there's a general feeling, at least among voters that we talked to, that vaccines are part of a common sense measure to keep communities safe from Covid.”
Meanwhile, a late-August poll from Monmouth University, which had McAuliffe up 5 points over Youngkin, found broad approval for school mask mandates, while a majority supported vaccine mandates for students to attend school. National polling has broadly found support for different types of mandates.
McAuliffe has supported a wide array of pandemic-related mandates in the state, calling for mask mandates in schools and backing former President Joe Biden’s requirement that all federal employees — a large constituency in Virginia — be vaccinated. The Democrat said he supported adding the coronavirus vaccine to the state’s required vaccine list for eligible schoolchildren during the debate. It’s a stronger stance than McAuliffe took in May, before the proliferation of the Delta variant, when he encouraged vaccinations but told a local TV station that school districts should make the choice on mandates.
McAuliffe has also called for businesses to implement their own mandates for employees, and his campaign told POLITICO that he supports the regulations being developed by OSHA that would require employers with at least 100 employees to ensure their workers are either fully vaccinated or tested weekly.
Youngkin says people should get vaccinated, but without the pressure of government policies leaning on them, and that it is ultimately their choice to do so.
Smith, the California Democrat, said the specific issue of vaccine mandates for health care workers was one of the issues that turned the California recall in Newsom’s favor after some tight mid-summer polling.
“That’s what kind of kicked it off,” Smith said. “Politically, we went out of our way to make sure that all of our Republican challengers essentially had to answer that question.”
Vote Democrat as if your life and the lives of loved ones depends upon it - because it just might. Virginia simply cannot afford to have Youngkin in the governor's mansion.
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Sane Republicans Are Purging Themselves
Anthony Gonzalez leaves no doubt about what he thinks about Donald Trump and his impact on the GOP. The former president, he says, is like a “cancer,” and he has turned his party into a toxic and hostile environment. “I don’t believe he can ever be president again,” he said.
But if Trump is the one supposedly headed for the exit, why is it Gonzalez who announced he would not seek reelection?
Last week, Gonzalez (Ohio), the 37-year-old former rising star, announced that he wouldn’t stay and fight his Trump-backed primary challenger, walking away from what had once been a safe seat in Congress.
The decision was greeted with dismay among anti-Trumpers of both parties who saw Gonzalez’s survival as a test of whether Trump’s grip on the GOP could be shaken. It also came as a surprise. Gonzalez was an attractive candidate, with a strong resume and lots of cash, and he had out-performed Trump by nearly 7 points in November. Why would he hand his nemesis an easy win?
The answer is Gonzalez didn’t quit because he feared he couldn’t win, but because it just wasn’t worth it anymore. Winning, it turns out, is not winning if the prize feels a lot more like a loss.
This was the key to his decision to self-purge: He could spend a year fighting off merde-slinging deplorables, only to win another two years sitting in a caucus next to Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), Paul Gosar (R- Ariz.) and the other avatars of Trumpism.
The Republican Party is already lost. And victory meant two more years trapped in a hellscape of crazified school board meetings, Trump rallies, My Pillow Guy insanity, Newsmax and Fox News hits, and a caucus run by Kevin McCarthy, a man without any principle beyond the acquisition of power.
So Gonzalez decided to become the latest Republican to walk away from it all. . . . . the young congressman’s decision also highlighted once again the transformation of the GOP. The party is okay with members who dabble in white nationalism, peddle conspiracy theories and foment acts of political violence. Neither bigotry nor nihilism is disqualifying.
The one unforgivable sin, however, is telling the truth about the 2020 election.
Trump has already made dozens of endorsements in down-ballot races against Republican officials who refused to back his claims of election fraud, not to mention the 10 members of Congress who actually voted to impeach him for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The result is a Trump-led purge of dissidents, but the bigger story — and the one with longer-term implications — may be the self-deportation of the sane, the decent and the principled, who simply opt to leave on their own.
Their political emigration is profoundly changing the face of the GOP, and it is happening at every level of politics, from local school boards to the United States Senate. Whatever the result of next year’s elections, the GOP that remains will be meaner, dumber, crazier and more beholden than ever to the defeated, twice-impeached former president.
In 2020, Gonzalez had run unopposed in the GOP primary and won reelection in November with more than 63 percent of the vote. (Trump won the northeast Ohio district but by 6.7 percentage points less.) There was talk that the congressman, who has an MBA from Stanford and whose relatives fled Castro’s Cuba, could be a future governor or senator.
But that was before he became one of just 10 GOP representatives to vote to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection. “The President of the United States helped organize and incite a mob,” he said. At the time he explained that he was “compelled” to vote for impeachment because of Trump’s “lack of response as the United States Capitol was under attack.”
Immediately, of course, he became a target of Trump’s wrath, but there were still reasons to think the former college and NFL player might be a survivor.
In addition, Gonzalez had more than $1.5 million in his campaign war chest and even though he faced a tough primary challenge next year, his Trump-backed opponent was a deeply flawed candidate. As POLITICO reported in July, his Trumpist challenger, Max Miller, had a reputation as “a cocky bully with a quick-trigger temper.”
Miller has a long record of speeding, underage drinking and disorderly conduct. According to sources, “a romantic relationship with former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham ended when he pushed her against a wall and slapped her in the face in his Washington apartment after she accused him of cheating on her.”
Gonzalez told reporters last week that he was confident he could have won his primary against Miller. But the father of two young children cited a rising tide of threats he and his family had to deal with after his impeachment vote. He recalled being greeted at the airport by two uniformed police officers, who were detailed to provide security. “That’s one of those moments where you say, ‘Is this really what I want for my family when they travel, to have my wife and kids escorted through the airport?’” he told the New York Times.
In Georgia, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan went through the same gauntlet after he refused to support Trump’s claims of election fraud. . . . . Like Gonzalez, Duncan — also once a rising star in the GOP — has announced that he is not running for reelection next year.
In the end, they weren’t willing to pay the price to remain in a toxified Republican party. They are far from alone.
In 2018, according to Ballotpedia, 23 House Republicans retired from political life altogether, followed by another 20 who stepped away from political office in 2020. Others also retired, but ran for other offices. Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) continue to hang on, but they are increasingly isolated and outnumbered.
All told, according to FiveThirtyEight, only 161 of the 293 Republican representatives and senators who were in office when Trump was inaugurated are still in office.
Of course, there were many different motives for the Republican departures, but all of them understood that survival in Trump’s GOP required multiple acts of self-humiliation that would, in the end, only win them more years of self-abasement.
For Anthony Gonzalez, though, a chance to sit alongside Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Louie Gohmert (Texas) in a Trumpified GOP caucus for another two years simply was not worth putting the lives of his wife and children at risk.
By leaving office and ceding the field to the Trumpists, they are also ensuring that the identity of the GOP is now frozen in place and will be for a generation.
Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Monday, September 20, 2021
The GOP and the Age of Irrationality
Despite all the scientific and medical advances of the past 103 years, the Covid-19 pandemic has now killed more Americans than the 1918 flu pandemic did.
More than 675,000 people in the United States have died from Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. That surpasses the estimated US death toll from the deadliest pandemic of the 20th century.
"If you would have talked to me in 2019, I would have said I'd be surprised," said epidemiologist Stephen Kissler of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. "But if you talked to me in probably April or May 2020, I would say I would not be surprised we'd hit this point."
Back in 1918, there was no pandemic flu vaccine, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. Now, Covid-19 vaccines are available -- but millions of eligible Americans have not been vaccinated.
36% of Americans ages 12 and older have not yet been fully vaccinated amid this Delta variant surge, according to CDC data. . . . Kissler said he believes the biggest disadvantage now compared to the 1918 pandemic actually involves a major technological advance. . . . . "The internet can be a double-edged sword," he said. "It provides us with the opportunity to receive the CDC and the World Health Organization (updates) and to share information much more quickly. But that also means we can spread misinformation quickly as well."
And thanks to these vaccine refusers and anti-vaxxers the nation now finds itself in a dangerous surge that could have been avoided had the vaccine refusers simply gotten vaccinated. They are harming both their families and friends and the nation's economy. Frighteningly, the batshit craziness extends far beyond Covid as more and more on the right are embracing the untterly insane tenants of Qanon. A piece in The Nation looks at this dangerous batshitery. The Republican Party of my youth and young adult years would have run screaming away from Qanon devotees. Now, these unhinged people are the core of the GOP base. Here are excerpts:
I titled my first book of essays Reasonable Creatures, after Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous remark “I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes but reasonable creatures.” I’d never use that title now. Women are as rational as men, sure, but that’s not saying much. If Wollstonecraft came back to life, she’d have a heart attack. By comparison with her 18th-century day, we live in paradise, yet people seem as willfully ignorant and blinkered as ever.
The lack of progress has become staggeringly apparent since the onset of the pandemic. Is there anything less rational than people refusing vaccines that have been proved time and again to prevent a deadly disease? Well, yes—believing that the disease does not exist. If you’re feeling flu-ish, just follow the advice of noted medical experts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Joe Rogan and dose yourself with ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug you can pick up at the feed store.
[W]here’s the evidence that ivermectin cures Covid, let alone that the vaccines make you sterile, implant microchips in your blood, change your DNA, and magnetize you? What makes it possible to take the position that a virus that has already killed more than 650,000 people here and millions worldwide is a hoax that the government is using to scare you into submission?
It wouldn’t matter so much if these delusions affected only the believers themselves.
According to a PRRI poll last May, 15 percent of Americans believe in QAnon. Yes, one in seven Americans agreed with the statement “The government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child-sex-trafficking operation.” The strongest predictor of QAnon adherence? Reliance on Fox and other far-right news sources. . . . . Perhaps not surprisingly, 73 percent of QAnoners believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, as do 29 percent of all Americans.
Are we a nation of lunatics, some of whom found each other on the Internet, mobilized under Trump, and in a few short years took over the Republican Party? America has always had a lot of crazy right-wingers, but it’s one thing to believe that the Soviet Union was out to destroy us and another to believe that the world is run by a ring of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who kill and eat children to get their adrenochrome fix. At least the Soviet Union actually existed.
What does the popularity of QAnon do to comforting bromides about the wisdom of the people? We’re told to trust the voters because ordinary folk know what’s what, but how can you trust the voters if so many of them think their paranoid delusions are reality?
Liberals are castigated for “elitism,” for condescending to Republicans and red-staters and Trumpers and fundamentalists, who should be approached with empathy and respect. But how do you have an unthreatening, warm, friendly conversation with someone who thinks Oprah Winfrey and Pope Francis eat children?
My friend Alan, a Marxist historian, says I need to resist the urge to blame human folly. He compares our present moment to the world described by Johan Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages. As feudalism began to break up in the 1300s and 1400s, people lost their moorings. Pessimism, fear, and a sense of cultural exhaustion prevailed. As in our own day, religious fanaticism coexisted with extreme licentiousness. Maybe, Alan suggested, what’s happening now is a reaction to the decline of the American empire and of white supremacy. Whites and Christians feel their cultural preeminence slipping away, and they just can’t handle it, especially if superpatriotism, racism, and male supremacy were all they had to begin with.
It’s as if the Internet is bringing together all existing forms of credulousness: Covid denialism, Trumpism, health nuttery, hyperlibertarianism, New Age woo-woo, fundamentalist Christianity, and an unhealthy fixation on exaggerated or imaginary dangers to children.
Wollstonecraft’s fellow Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire famously wrote, “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” He was thinking of religion, but the same holds true for our present-day right-wing paranoids, who have already been implicated in numerous violent crimes, like the January 6 insurrection, the attempt to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and the recent gruesome murder of two children by their father, who believed they had serpent DNA.
Maybe Gramsci said it best: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” Covid denialism may be just the beginning.
Be very, very afraid of where the GOP and its insane base are headed.
Sunday, September 19, 2021
Disaster Evacuations Are Admissions of Failure
Because the United States has no real plan to handle climate change, average citizens end up in situations like this: At 6 a.m. the day before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana late last month, my wife and I joined half of New Orleans’s population in evacuating. The drive to our daughter’s home in Houston, usually a six-hour trip, took 18 grueling hours. Stuck in stop-and-go traffic, we inched along at five miles an hour. The most impatient evacuees sped along both shoulders of the interstate, forcing themselves into a traffic lane when a broken-down vehicle or a narrow bridge blocked their way.
Images of Americans hurriedly evacuating from their homes are becoming commonplace as climate-related disasters grow in frequency and intensity. Just this past month, as my wife and I were leaving Louisiana, Californians fled the Caldor Fire as it surged toward Lake Tahoe. Mass evacuation, though, shouldn’t be routine. It is a last resort. When leaders choose it as their primary plan, they are admitting that they cannot protect their citizens from threats of climate change. They are, in effect, ceding responsibility to the individual. Those who stay and those who go are on their own.
Sixteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans while moving northward from the Gulf of Mexico. The storm itself left only moderate damage to the city. But in the hours after the storm, federal levees designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collapsed, flooding the city with saltwater more than 14 feet deep in some neighborhoods. Many people drowned in their own bedroom the first night of the flooding; others, trapped in their sweltering attic awaiting help that never arrived, died of heat and dehydration. . . . The tragedy that shocked television viewers around the world was one of the first glimpses of how climate change would overwhelm unprepared governments. As I wrote at the time, “New Orleans is simply where the future arrived first.”
No one who has lived in a ruined city through the years it takes to rebuild forgets the emotional toll of the experience. Living under the constant threat of yet another evacuation and possible catastrophic damage gradually erodes the will to stay. In the year following Katrina, the population of New Orleans plummeted from 455,000 to 188,000; building back to even the pre-Ida figure of 380,000 has taken 15 years.
Lake Charles, a city about halfway between New Orleans and Houston, faced widespread devastation one year ago after two hurricanes—Laura and then Delta six weeks later—struck the area. Laura, equal in force to Ida, was then the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana since 1856. As Carly Berlin reported in Southerly, “According to the USPS data, Lake Charles, La.—a city hit by back-to-back hurricanes during the most severe Atlantic hurricane season on record—tops the list for out-migration between 2019 and 2020 out of 926 metro areas surveyed.”
The effects of wildfires are similar. A year after the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed much of Paradise, California, more than 90 percent of the town’s 27,000 residents had not returned. The current population is about 6,000.
If evacuations are not the answer, then what can be done? Governments that are committed to protecting public safety must work to fundamentally change the conditions that threaten their residents. In 1953, a North Sea flood in the Netherlands killed 1,836 people—very close to the estimated death toll in Katrina. The low-lying country—much of which is below sea level or less than a meter above it—began an ambitious flood-control program. Enacting the Delta Works plan in 1954 and completing the project in 1997, the Netherlands has succeeded in protecting its citizens from a major environmental threat. But what evidence exists that the United States is capable of safeguarding the citizens most immediately endangered by climate change, especially when one of our two main political parties continues to deny the existence of such change?
[E]vacuation remains the primary response to major hurricanes. State and local governments have adopted elaborate “contraflow” strategies that dedicate all traffic lanes in a single direction away from the zone of destruction. However, this strategy of last resort has its limitations. As New Orleans officials pointed out as the recent storm approached the city, such a plan requires at least 72 hours to execute.
During this most recent experience, the city’s planning shifted to include what Collin Arnold, New Orleans’s director of emergency preparedness, described in The New York Times as “post-storm evacuation.” He noted, “We’re not intentionally choosing it. It’s changes in the climate that are doing it to us.” The ferocity and speed of hurricanes fueled by climate change may dictate that we simply hunker down in the path of the storm while the government prepares to try to get us out of the damaged city after the hurricane passes.
Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, recently announced that “many of the life-supporting infrastructure elements are not present, they’re not operating right now. So if you have already evacuated, do not return.” Although the advice is understandable in the aftermath of a Category 4 hurricane, the governor’s notice to evacuees may well be heeded literally.
My family has lived in New Orleans for hundreds of years, weathering yellow-fever epidemics, citywide fires, wars, hurricanes, and floods. Sooner or later, though, as climate change worsens, an evacuation will be ordered from which none of us will choose to return.