Opinion: During a Crisis, People Look to the Government

As Hurricane Sandy sends the East Coast into shutdown, families bunker down with supplies and go-backs.  Many of us check in on our elderly, infirm and solo neighbors.  Those with no place else to go head to shelters.  Most of us stay off the roads — for our own safety and to not unnecessarily imperil first responders who will have their hands full in the days ahead. In short, we all are preparing as best we can for the unknown.

In it all, there are very few of us who are wishing that government would just get out of the way.

There are many political and policy arguments to make when disaster strikes, and more than a few apt metaphors Sandy offers to our current electoral landscape.  Yet, aside from politics, it's government that's in the spotlight today.

Government that serves as our tool to confront the challenges we can't take on individually.  Government that pools our shared resources to help us pursue common goals.  Government that doesn't look first and foremost at a financial  bottom line but at the welfare of its citizens, especially in times of crisis. Government who lends a hand to those who need it the most.

That's not the government you hear right-wingers wish to shrink to the size they could drown it in a bathtub (the words of anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, not mine).  It's not the government that both parties find an easy target when they want to contrast it to the example of the business world.  Even in this presidential election, when we should hear a vigorous debate about the role of government, we mostly hear how government can help support or unleash individual ingenuity and creativity, which is one of its functions.  We hear less about the services it provides directly —  because direct government services somehow frighten the American voter.

Right now, those voters are scared of what happens if downed power lines start a fire and how they'd get someplace in an emergency.  They are worried about the direction of the hurricane and relying on accurate storm tracking.  They aren't worried that they are on their own.

Right now, Americans in Sandy's path are relying on a functional government.

Thankfully, efforts to eviscerate, compromise and privatize government haven't worked completely.  There are still civil servants dutifully making government operate for all of us.  There are still services we can count on.

Hurricane Sandy can get us thinking about climate change, discussion of which was absent from this year's election, but which goes hand-in-hand with the increase of violent and destructive weather.  It can remind us of the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina, when cronyism and incompetence kept the government from serving its people well.  It can make us reflect on Mitt Romney's proposal to shrink FEMA, and Paul Ryan's budget proposals to slash support for emergency services.

It can also make us speculate how campaign interruptions in Virginia will effect next Tuesday's outcome.  And it should make is reflect that one-day elections are prone to all manner of disruptions.

We'll make it beyond this 24-hour news cycle.  We hope that political leaders will have substantive conversations about climate change and the future.  But let's also push to discuss government in a way that isn't always dismissive, with the aim of making it work effectively for us all, especially when we're reminded that there are some challenges —  like hurricanes —  we just shouldn't face alone.