The Blog

Re-Engineering New Orleans

Rove and his team of political engineers no longer need to worry about gerrymandering district boundaries; they can just gerrymander the population within those boundaries instead.
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The Bush administration could use a really good engineer to help rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf coast. But it seems the engineer they have picked is strictly of the political variety -- old Turd Blossom himself, Karl Rove. And that makes me wonder if the cynicism of the US political system isn't about to sink to unprecedented new depths.

We've already seen the iniquities of redrawing district boundaries for congressional and state legislative races. Fewer and fewer races are even remotely competitive -- last November's elections have been described by Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy as "the least competitive in history" -- which means voters have fewer and fewer reasons to get out of bed on election day.

But New Orleans offers up a whole new twist on this sorry scenario. Since 80 per cent of the city is water-damaged and prone to demolition, and since opinion polls show as many as 40 per cent of the city's former residents may never be coming back, Rove and his team of political engineers have a unique opportunity to refashion a hardcore Democratic city in their own image. In other words, they no longer need to worry about gerrymandering district boundaries; they can just gerrymander the population within those boundaries instead.

How can they do that? In any number of ways: by razing whole swaths of public housing, especially in the Ninth Ward, and by encouraging unfettered real-estate speculation on a scale that would all but exclude lower-income groups (read: poor blacks who either vote Democrat or not at all) from areas where they previously lived, often under severely straitened circumstances. Already, there is talk (from the Heritage Foundation, among others) of private takeovers of public property including school buildings and -- one assumes -- public housing. Inevitably, any exercise in social re-engineering will involve some measure of racial re-engineering: New Orleans before the flood was two-thirds African American, with a disturbingly high correlation between skin color and socio-economic status.

When I was in the disaster region last week, I heard a lot of stories of evacuee families being split up and shipped off -- either by bus or by plane -- to different parts of the country, in some cases without any indication of where they were heading until they were already on their way. Those stories, in turn, have led to rumors that the Bush administration is engaged in a crude exercise in population transfer, breaking up what polity New Orleans could lay claim to and dispersing it to unabashedly red states like Idaho, Utah and Texas.

My own take is that the pattern of dispersal is perhaps less crude and more complicated, but based nonetheless on the straightforward logic of political patronage. The red states in question almost certainly volunteered to take the evacuees, and were almost certainly promised a certain flow of federal money in exchange. The Rovean mindset would have taken a particular interest in Republican state administrations that could use a little boost, and a perfect case in point is Governor Rick Perry, George W.'s successor in Texas, whose anemic job approval ratings were making him vulnerable in next year's re-election battle. Now, thanks to the efforts of FEMA in Houston, Dallas and Austin, among other places (at one stage notably more energetic than those in the disaster area itself), Governor Perry is in the spotlight, looking good and riding high once again in public opinion.

On a rather brutal realpolitik level, one has to admire what Karl Rove is doing, just as, in another era, one might have admired the sheer organizational chutzpah of the Tweed Ring in New York or the Gas Ring in Philadelphia. It's an impressively ruthless way of running a political machine. But it's no way to manage the biggest natural disaster in the country's history.