Opinion by Frida Ghitis
As we watch the efforts of search and rescue teams at the site of the collapsed condo building in Surfside, Florida, and catch our breath pondering the unfathomable anguish of the families of the 18 people who have been confirmed dead and those waiting for news about their loved ones entombed in the rubble, the word infrastructure intrudes like a distant, arcane matter. Thoughts of politicians negotiating in Washington are even more unwelcome. But sometimes it takes a disaster to remind us that politics, that government, affects us all in a direct, palpable way.
From the relentless gun violence destroying lives across the country and making everyone unsafe (which half of the country’s politicians refuse to address; the Republican half) to the scorching evidence of climate change, which some experts suggest may have played a role in the Florida disaster, to the poor pandemic response followed by the development and rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, we have proof that we need government, and when it doesn’t do its part, the consequences can be calamitous.
Would the building remain standing today, its residents carrying on with their lives, if authorities had imposed stricter building codes, if inspectors had carried out tougher reviews, if sea levels hadn’t risen by several inches in recent years, causing more frequent flooding with corrosive saltwater? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet.
But this seems a good time to note that the current polarization of American politics — a phenomenon that is afflicting many other countries as well — is more than distasteful political career-building. It is, in fact, a macabre dance that is undercutting the working of government and taking a toll on the way we live. It is costing lives. That’s because government is not some remote entity we should think about only when elections approach. Government is a necessary part of a complicated world. Those who obstruct its functioning are keeping it from performing functions that are indispensable.
We see it not only in the work of fire and rescue teams, the most unalloyed of public servants. We see it also in the ones that fail the test, the many public figures who so often seem more focused on their political prospects than on carrying out their avowed charge, to serve the public.
It’s exceedingly rare these days, and a welcome breath of fresh air, to hear politicians of opposing parties come together, speaking well to each other, setting aside their differences to try to get results. Thursday, when President Joe Biden visited the command center for the disaster in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis told him, “You guys have not only been supportive at the federal level, we’ve had no bureaucracy.” Biden, his hands resting lightly on DeSantis’ arm, responded, “I promise you, there will be none.”
When government fails, when politicians fail, the consequences can be truly catastrophic. We had our clearest, deadliest evidence last year, when a tsunami of death in the form of a virus was moving ashore, and a President decided to lie to the public — as he later told an interviewer — deliberately downplaying the threat. The mishandling of the pandemic by the previous administration concerned about its political prospects, aided by local and state politicians echoing the signals from the White House, made a terrible crisis far worse than it should have been. By some models, a more effective, less politicized response could have prevented almost 400,000 deaths, according to research from the University of California at Los Angeles. The United States, of course, wasn’t the only country battered by a politicized virus response.
But it was government investment years before that made the rapid development of vaccines in the private sector possible. Without government intervention, the economy would have collapsed, homelessness would have exploded, and vaccine distribution would have been much less effective.
When government works well, the private sector works well, and the ups and downs of history can become much less destructive to the lives of everyday people.
Also faltering badly in the age of political polarization is America’s response to climate change. Most Americans believe climate change is real, but while 83% of Democrats believe it is already having an impact on their community, just 37% of Republicans do. People like Tucker Carlson on Fox News routinely strafes his audience with lies and misinformation, ridiculing the claims of scientists while he mocks the President. On one occasion, laughing, he claimed the warm relationship between Biden and his wife shows “their love is as real as global warming.” Climate change, he mocked, is “like systemic racism in the sky.” Politicizing a crisis in a divided country is a recipe for inaction. So, temperatures soar across the world, streetcar cables melt in Portland — even Siberia, Earth’s air conditioner, broils.
The timing of the Miami tragedy highlights the next item on President Biden’s agenda, just behind his top priority, taming the pandemic.
We didn’t need any more reminders that the US is in dire need of major investment. Americans can see it in the bone rattling roads they travel every day, and they’ve been watching it in the news. When a bridge collapsed in Washington last month, we found out it had been rated in “poor condition.” A bridge that collapsed earlier in Miami had been “screaming that there was something definitely wrong.” A meaningful upgrading of infrastructure is one of those things only government can do, and if it doesn’t the price is paid by everyone, from businesses trying to get their products to market, to individuals walking on a crumbling pedestrian bridge or living in a condo tower supported by corroding metal.
Collapsing buildings used to be the heart-breaking reality of poor countries. Not anymore.
It’s America’s tragedy today that it is facing multiple urgent, severe problems whose solution requires the government to take action during a time when one side of the political spectrum seems more focused on blocking successful legislation than crafting solutions for the people they claim they want to serve.
Perhaps the wrenching images from Florida will play some part in pushing the country’s leaders to work together. The interaction between Biden and DeSantis offers a faint ray of hope.
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