Feb 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

America's can't-do spirit

Illustration of a tipped glass with liquid forming the American flag spilled out

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The power outages in Texas are the latest in a series of disasters that will be harder to fix — or prevent from happening again — because Americans are retreating to partisan and cultural corners instead of trying to solve problems.

The big picture: From COVID to the election fallout to the utter collapse of Texas' electric grid, America is no longer showing the rest of the world how to conquer its biggest challenges. Instead, there's always another uncivil war to be fought — even when democracy, global health and now climate change are on the line.

  • Between extreme weather events, a pandemic and an attack on democracy itself, America has been pummeled with the kinds of existential disasters that usually come along once every 100 years — and are testing whether we still have the ability to overcome them.

Texas has never been prepared for extreme winter — or, really, any winter — but now the consequences of its decisions, especially its independent power grid, have become inescapable.

So what were the first instincts of the partisan warriors as millions of Texans, freezing in dark houses and single-degree temperatures, waited for someone to give them their power and heat back?

  • Gov. Greg Abbott singled out the loss of wind and solar power and turned it into a lesson about how "the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America" — even though breakdowns in thermal sources of energy, especially natural gas, were a far bigger factor, per the Texas Tribune.
  • Democrats like Julián Castro and Beto O'Rourke piled on Abbott and blamed him for the mess, while others used the crisis as an opportunity to declare victory for the blue states.
  • Meanwhile, Rick Perry — the former energy secretary under Donald Trump and Abbott's predecessor as Texas governor — said Texans are willing to sacrifice and endure blackouts to keep the feds from taking over the energy grid.
  • And the mayor of Colorado City, Texas resigned after declaring on Facebook that "No one owes you [or] your family anything,” and “I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!”

None of this pattern should be new to anyone who watched how America responded to our other crises.

  • We let COVID spread far more quickly than it needed to — not because all Americans ignored the danger, but because masks somehow became a cultural dividing line, with millions of Americans refusing to wear them despite all of the evidence that they save lives.
  • A presidential election that should have been over in a few days dragged on for weeks. That was not just because Donald Trump fought the result every way he could find, as he'd signaled he would, but because so many Republicans, egged on by right-wing news organizations and social media, refused to acknowledge the clear outcome.
  • The avalanche of lies about a stolen election set us on the road to the Capitol attack — led by gullible insurrectionists who overpowered a Capitol police force that should have had plenty of backup, given all the signs that a violent attack was on the way.

Flashback: The last time Americans felt their country was this far off the rails was in the 1970s, when the defeat in Vietnam, the crimes of Watergate, runaway inflation and energy shortages created what Jimmy Carter famously and accurately called a national "crisis of confidence."(His straight talk sabotaged his political fortunes.)

For all of our current failures, there are some reasons for optimism:

  • People are finally getting vaccinated, and there are lots more doses on the way.
  • Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all going down in the U.S.
  • The Capitol attack is going to be investigated by a 9/11-style commission, people who participated in it are being arrested, and for now, at least, the "stolen election" rhetoric is dying down.
  • One element of politics has been removed from disaster response: President Biden declared an emergency in Texas quickly, in contrast to Trump's refusal to declare an emergency during California's wildfires last year.
  • And the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state's independent power grid, will be shamed in public hearings in the legislature. But it will be a while before we know whether there will be any fundamental changes, even if it's just to provide basic winter-proofing to power plants.
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