Writing about the politics of Hurricane Harvey is difficult — necessary but difficult. Politics is part of everything, up to and including disaster response, and ignoring it is to pretend otherwise and forfeit your role as a watchdog.
The problem is that you can get it very wrong. And Politico just got it very wrong.
The main Politico account tweeted this cartoon from Pulitzer Prize-winner Matt Wuerker early Wednesday afternoon. The backlash was swift, and the tweet was quickly removed, though the cartoon remained on the website as of this posting.
A sampling of the reactions:
The first problem with the cartoon is its crassness. People are still being saved, and it's making fun of those same people.
The second problem is the stereotypes. It's almost a caricature of what you'd expect a liberal cartoonist to draw in response to conservative Texans relying upon the government in their time of crisis. The Confederate flag T-shirt. The Gadsden Flag. The reference to being saved by God (which seems extremely dismissive of Christianity). The Texas secession banner. It's all kind of ... predictable?
The third problem is that, while this tragedy struck Texas, a red state, the most acute devastation in a populous area is in Houston. Harris County went for Hillary Clinton by double-digits, and neighboring Fort Bend County was blue as well. The population of both combined is more than 5 million — about one-fifth of the entire state of Texas.
But perhaps more than anything, the cartoon is a needlessly vast oversimplification of a very complex issue at a very sensitive time. There seems to be an attitude among some on the political left in America that people who believe in smaller government and lower taxes believe everything should be privatized and that the government shouldn't be counted on to do anything. There is an attitude that if you don't believe government should play a major role in something or increasing funding for something, you don't believe in that thing.
Certainly, there is hypocrisy among some conservatives who may rely upon the government for their livelihoods while decrying big government. And talking about how Texans in Congress voted against Hurricane Sandy relief for the Northeast a few years ago is a valid debate. (They insist it was because the aid wasn't targeted enough and was full of pork. The Washington Post's Fact Checker poked some holes in those arguments.) But the cartoon suggests that normal people who believe in small government should essentially forfeit government help in their time of need — or, at least, that they should suddenly recognize that their belief in smaller government is wrongheaded.
It's all very smug, and it gives extremely short shrift to very complex issues. People can have reasonable disagreements about how big government should be and what role it should take in disaster response and other issues. But until you declare yourself an anarchist, you probably believe that the federal and/or state government has some role to play in saving people's lives. That's a very basic government function.
And the idea that a bunch of Confederate flag-T-shirt-wearing tea partyers in Texas are suddenly learning the error of their ways seems like a poor way to have a constructive dialogue.
Update: Wuerker comments to the Washington Examiner, saying he was only targeting those calling for secession and wasn't broadly targeting all conservatives:
"As a political cartoonist, I try to get people to think – to consider the ironies and subtleties of the world we live in. This cartoon went with an extreme example of anti-government types – Texas Secessionists – benefitting from the heroism of federal government rescuers," he told the Washington Examiner.
"It of course was not aimed at Texans in general, any more than a cartoon about extremists marching in Charlottesville could be construed as a poke at all Virginians," he added. "My heart is with all the victims of Hurricane Harvey's destruction and those risking their lives to save others."
For what it's worth, a 2009 poll showed 18 percent of Texans favored secession, a number that would translate to millions of residents of the state.