After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Nathan Cummings Foundation funded the Breakthrough Institute and the Center for American Progress to work with American Environics in developing social justice and environmental initiatives in response to this crisis. We sought to create Strategic Initiatives that not only addressed the needs and vulnerabilities that the hurricane exposed or created, but that laid the framework for a new social contract for the postindustrial economy we live in and prepared for future global warming disasters.
In order to understand how Hurricane Katrina was comprehended and experienced at a values level, our linguists on staff analyzed the national media coverage and advocacy materials relating to the disaster. Their report, Katrina as Rorschach Test: The Framing Meta-Narratives, identified the narratives present in the post-Katrina debate over preparedness and reconstruction. The stories told about Katrina are more than descriptions of what happened. Increasingly, they are stories about why the hurricane happened, why it was so bad, why people were caught in the aftermath, and what now should be done. They offer internally coherent, competing explanations of what happened and prescriptions about what to do next. There are strikingly different narratives of the tragedy on the right and left, each of which points toward very different assessments of causes and prescriptions for solutions. These different views rest on the arguments put forward from both conservative and liberal sources on the role of government, the drivers of human nature, and questions of retribution and responsibility for personal life outcomes. In every case, differing narratives leads to differing levels of willingness to embrace structural or individualistic solutions, resulting in dramatically different policy demands.
Drawing on this narrative research, we conducted a series of Strategic Initiative workshops, where we worked to identify the values and underlying worldviews relevant to post-Katrina policy initiatives, and the Constituencies of Opportunity most likely to connect to these proposals. We constructed three key themes of a post-Katrina progressive agenda: 1) disaster preparedness; 2) inequality and opportunity; and 3) the role of government.
Guided by these three themes and their policy entailments, we conducted a series of psychographic focus groups with our targeted Constituencies of Opportunity. Further cognitive analysis of the focus groups allowed us to further refine the policy specifics of the three proposed Strategic Initiatives designed to elevate key values and worldviews in contested political space.
"Get Ready: A Plan for Global Warming Preparedness" says that we need to prepare for global warming as we do every other national disaster-by assessing risk, augmenting communication, building infrastructure, coordinating agencies and creating emergency plans. The debate about global warming following Hurricane Katrina was the same debate environmental and global warming advocates had been having with the public for decades-a debate that implicitly makes scientific uncertainty a prerequisite for action, and one that prescribes various "limits" to prevent global warming.
Global Warming Preparedness reframes global warming from prevention to preparedness, from certainty to uncertainty, and from limits on human activity to greater activity. It points out that, regardless of cause, global warming is here and we need to prepare for it in the same way we prepare for every other imaginable disaster. As the focus group moderator asked the group, "If the weatherperson says there's a 70 percent change of rain, do you take an umbrella?" Global Warming Preparedness acts in the same context-uncertainty becomes a reason to take action instead of a reason not to. Once this kind of reasoning is in place-when global warming is understood as a reality that must be addressed in some way-this understanding of uncertainty will be applied to other aspects of global warming, such as emissions.
"Fresh Start: The Transformative Power of Work" requires that government assistance be reciprocated through work, thus building skills, confidence and hope in those who receive it, and ensuring that they are perceived as more than passive recipients of government handouts. We attempted to create this policy proposal so that it flowed from the complex way most Americans view issues of poverty and social assistance: they want to help people in need, but also believe that aid should be deserved or earned, and people should be taught to help themselves. In our research, discussions of work helped people to cope with the inherent moral complexity of issues involving race, class and poverty. We believe that work must be put at the center of any initiative aimed at poverty or social assistance, but not in a way that cedes important ground to the conservative worldview.
The Fresh Start Opportunity Agenda begins with the transformative power of work, both increasing economic mobility through building skills, and inspiring a greater generosity toward those in need. This initiative represents an opportunity to reclaim the inherently communitarian role of work in this country-work as a means not to amass extraordinary amounts of personal wealth, but to help build and rebuild our communities and better the lives of others.
"Putting Government Back to Work" is an initiative that addresses the deep cynicism about government in America. Our research showed that many people saw Katrina not as an illustration of why we need government-contrary to what many progressives hoped-but as another example of government's persistent tendency to fail. In an effort to create a debate that isn't about "big government" versus "small government," this initiative places government in a role that feels needed and appropriate to a skeptical public. Instead of wanting more government services, many Americans want more rules from government. They believe the best role for government is to set standards, provide incentives, demand accountability and play the role of contractor.
Putting Government Back to Work aims to restore civic confidence by requiring mandatory tests of qualification at every level of government, ending no-bid contracting, dividing government contracts so smaller firms can compete, guaranteeing a professional civil service, and ensuring that all public employees — from soldiers to teachers to DMV workers — receive the training and resources they need to get the job done. Forming three threads of a new progressive agenda in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, these initiatives will continue to be tested and refined in the coming months.