Many North Carolina conservatives have long pursued a cynical, ends-justify-the-means strategy when it comes to their ultimate goal of radically remaking the social contract. Here’s how it frequently plays out: First they complain incessantly that public institutions are inherently corrupt and inferior to the private sector; then they use this supposed “fact” as justification to slash public funding and/or sell off core public structures and systems to private interests. Soon, the whole process repeats itself as the self-perpetuating cycle plays out.
For a classic case-in-point, see the Right’s treatment of North Carolina’s public schools. First came the ceaseless drumbeat of complaints about a “broken” public education system and the “failure” of “government schools” and “mass education.” This was followed by years of funding cuts designed to curb “waste, fraud and abuse” and to force “education bureaucrats” to get their house in order. Next came the aggressive push for privatization in the form of vouchers and charters – accompanied, of course, by highly publicized (though frequently ephemeral) pledges to raise teacher pay, even as other essential components of the system were quietly squeezed and starved for resources.
Naturally, none of this stops conservatives – especially those comfortably ensconced in well-off neighborhoods – from doing whatever they can to direct public and private resources to public schools their children might happen to attend.
Protecting the environment
Sadly, education is far from the only area in which this kind of disingenuous propagandizing has been employed in recent years. It’s also a tried and not-so-true tactic when it comes to natural disasters and environmental crises (be they natural or human-caused).
The most egregious recent example in North Carolina surrounds the GenX water pollution crisis in the Cape Fear River. As Policy Watch Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg has detailed in several recent stories, conservative legislators and advocates who have long attacked the state’s environmental protection agency, the Department of Environmental Quality, and slashed its budget in response to supposed over-regulation of industry are now bashing the agency for, it is alleged, not protecting the citizenry adequately.
As per usual, none of this is really about a serious effort to boost environmental protection efforts in the state. Rather, the objective was and is to score political points against the state’s Democratic governor Roy Cooper while further reinforcing the conservative narrative that state government cannot be trusted. Hence, the downright bizarre publicity stunt of the conservative Civitas Institute purporting to appeal to the Trump administration’s defanged EPA to intervene. And hence also the equally nonsensical idea included in a bill vetoed by Cooper recently of appropriating $185,000 to the Cape Fear River public utility and $250,000 to UNC Wilmington to address the GenX contamination in the river and drinking water supplies downstream, while approving no new funds to the state DEQ.
Responding to natural disasters
If there is an area in which conservative tale-telling and hypocrisy have reached their apogees in recent weeks, however, it has to be in and around the debate over hurricane relief. First, as multiple news observers have noted, came the spectacle of Senator Ted “I’m a federal government-hating libertarian” Cruz demanding federal aid for Hurricane Harvey relief in his home state of Texas after having worked to block it for victims of Hurricane Sandy a couple of years back. As Joan Walsh put it in an article for The Nation entitled “Everyone’s a Socialist After a Natural Disaster,” Cruz’s hypocrisy was off the charts:
“The hypocrite who tried to block Hurricane Sandy aid to the East Coast in 2012 is now demanding the federal government expedite emergency funds for the survivors of Hurricane Harvey along the Gulf Coast of Texas, and in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city. East Coast Democrats are happy to help, though New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tried to renew his relevance by beefing with his party mate over his Sandy selfishness. The Washington Post gave Cruz three Pinocchios for claiming on Monday that he blocked Sandy aid only because it was larded with pork. It was not. But even in a disaster, Cruz can’t help lying.”
Meanwhile, lest Cruz be allowed to give anyone the idea that government should take the lead in responding to natural disasters, the Civitas people were back with yet another truly bizarre post last week in which the author actually claimed that government is essentially irrelevant when it comes to such matters.
We’re not making this up. According to the post (which conveniently featured a photo of three people from Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse organization doing volunteer work somewhere), “religious groups” are providing “a whopping 80 percent” of Hurricane Harvey relief. The post continues:
“What the media is shocked to discover is something we conservatives already know: that when real help is needed, government entities fall tragically short of providing aid in a crisis. We’ve seen this to be true of Veterans Affairs offices that fail to meet the needs of our own veterans, true of the public school system, consistently outperformed by private and charter schools, failing our children.
Here in North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper recently issued grants to a handful of effective disaster relief organizations to aid in the rebuilding efforts in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. The majority of the grant money was issued to relief organizations with religious affiliations, totaling almost double the amount awarded to other groups.
That’s right, even Roy Cooper cannot ignore the fact that religious organizations are most effective at disaster relief.
You see, when I’m asked why I’m a conservative, the short version of that answer comes pretty easily. I’m a conservative because I believe individuals and organizations like churches do a much better job at organizing and implementing where the government falls short.”
This post is so absurd and inaccurate on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, the number quoted is wrong – even if one accepts the author’s biased, unverified and incomplete source (a USA Today article that, in turn, relied upon the self-serving claims of a nonprofit that does relief work). The article doesn’t say, as Civitas claims, that 80% of disaster relief is provided by religious organizations. Rather, it claims that 80% of recovery involves nonprofits – a majority of which are religious. Also left out: that a large proportion of the relief nonprofits provide – both religious and non-religious – is government money.
In other words, as the author of the post even admits further down, government at all levels has long worked with nonprofits to mete out disaster relief funds and to accomplish important tasks. The idea of public-private partnerships in this area makes obvious and abundant sense. But this doesn’t mean that government is bad or falling short any more than it means that private relief nonprofits are bad because they rely on public funds.
The simple truth is that governments at the federal and state levels appropriate tens of billions of dollars per year to help Americans deal with and recover from disasters. And this doesn’t even include the billions upon billions more spent on police, firefighters, the military and other first responders or the billions more spent on public infrastructure maintenance and repair. Without those efforts, the United States would be a permanently devastated landscape.
Why does the Civitas author think Ted Cruz is going to such great lengths to bring home the bacon for his constituents? If all the relief were really coming from the Samaritan’s Purses of the world, clearly Cruz would be lobbying Franklin Graham, not his fellow senators.
The bottom line
The ideologues don’t want to admit it and are doing everything within their power to deny it, but the undeniable truth is that a vibrant and well-funded network of public structures is absolutely essential to the construction and preservation of a free, healthy and sustainable modern society. Charitable relief and the work of nonprofits (as well as local governments and public utilities) are all vitally important and always worth celebrating, but it is delusional to believe such groups will ever play anything more than a supporting role when it comes to existential societal threats like natural and human-made disasters. It’s a tragedy that so many on the Right will not admit this obvious fact.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research at NC Policy Watch and has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer, commentator and trainer.