President Ronald Reagan once claimed, in that jovial, grandfatherly voice that often concealed the impact of his words, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’”
Thirty-five years worshipping at the altar of free markets and deregulation later, America has gone from being perceived by most countries as “a city on a hill” to a nation that sometimes has actual bread lines. (Wasn't this one of the things we didn't like about the Soviet Union?).
Yet, after a year in which the federal government under Donald Trump refused to take any responsibility for coordinating the response to a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic that has claimed nearly half a million American lives, the tide seems to be turning. As I write this on Thursday, millions of Texans are without power and half of the people in Harris County, the third largest county in the country, also lack running water, after being hit with a frigid winter storm. Instead of bread lines, 20 years of all-GOP government in Texas has Houstonians lining up to get a bucket filled with potable water.
Without even getting into environmental degradation, gun violence, and income inequality we haven't seen since the Gilded Age, this the the moment for anyone who understands that a modern post-industrial country in an international economy needs a strong, fair government "to stand athwart history, and yell stop" at those who weaken us through a cultish devotion to deregulation at any cost.
Today the nine most terrifying words in the English language may be, “I'm a Republican politician and I run your government.”
Don't believe me? Let's return to the unnecessary suffering taking place across Texas right now, a state run 100 percent by Republicans, which hasn't had a Democratic governor since Ann Richards left in 1994. When the ice and snow storm began to shut down power across much of Texas on Feb. 15, the state was already a sitting duck..
According to Dan Dicker, longtime energy futures trader, analyst and author of three books on energy production, "Texas is the most lax in regulating oil and gas production in the entire country. That attitude extends from wellhead to gas burner—and these blackouts are a tangible result of that free-for-all."
In fact, two disastrous deregulatory decisions made by the long line of Republican leadership in Austin would set the state up for this tragedy that has already been linked to over 30 deaths. First, as Dicker told The Daily Beast, "Texas' ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] is an entirely independent electric grid from the rest of the country… And theirs is the only state where people are freezing—that tells you all you need to know."
What does this mean? For some context, there are three grids in this country, the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and the Texas grid, ERCOT. Texas may not have succeeded in its endless, mindless threats to secede, but its power grid sure did.
What this practically means is right-wingers running Texas, in order to avoid the federal scrutiny that comes with interstate electricity transmission, purposely put themselves in a position where they are mostly isolated from other power grids. Even with scientists warning that storms would get worse and this was a risk not worth taking, Texas Republicans decided to continue to take it.
Second, there was the decision by the state’s Republican governors and lawmakers, also in response to these warnings by scientists, to just put their cowboy boots up and ignore the necessity of weatherproofing power plants and transmission lines. Why? Because according to The Texas Tribune, these politicians “prioritized the free market.”
There were unenforceable guidelines issues, but unlike most other states Texas simply chose not to require the kind of equipment upgrades that would’ve prepared the system to handle more extreme weather events. In other words, this was completely predictable. In fact, it was predicted! But power companies have profits to make, and in any case, climate change is a Chinese hoax.
And, still, Texas got lucky, as the state was “seconds and minutes” away from having the whole system collapse into a catastrophe of months-long blackouts. Maybe that’s what Texas’ Republican Senator Ted Cruz was thinking as he ran off to Cancun while his constituents froze from his ideological handiwork. Or as Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Gov. Greg Abbott, blatantly lied about their failures by ridiculously trying to blame it on all on wind turbines.
But Cruz, Crenshaw, and Abbott, while awful, are just emblematic of the GOP's dishonesty about their deregulation fetish in the years since Reagan. This is not to say the Democrats didn't also buy into some of this during the Clinton era. But in more recent years, from the Affordable Care Act to Dodd-Frank financial regulation, the Democratic Party has mostly embraced smart, 21st century regulation and infrastructure upgrades.
Meanwhile, for the GOP, every week is infrastructure week.
Which is to say, whether it's the derivatives market, energy, health care or many other areas that impact our everyday lives and need robust (but smart) regulation in our modern times, the GOP either ignores it, blocks it, or fights to deregulate it. The biggest example, of course, being a pandemic that needed a strong federal response and instead got a president sharing disinformation, attacking state leaders, and ignoring any responsibility to lead a massive (or any) response.
Which is why Democrats must step up and step forward with a strong message and emotional, personal stories about how deregulation really harms us, and how we need well-run government in this modern age. They cannot allow this to remain an abstract concept for Republicans to message. And members of the GOP must be forced to reevaluate these stances, or they must lose.
The alternative is that we'll suffer more Texas storm responses. More financial meltdowns. And we'll continue to fall behind China and other countries that realize a 21st century infrastructure is necessary if a country expects to compete in a 21st century world.