When Confronting the Coronavirus, Federalism Is Part of the Problem

When Confronting the Coronavirus, Federalism Is Part of the Problem

When Confronting the Coronavirus, Federalism Is Part of the Problem

That some cities and states have stepped up to fill the gap left by Trump’s catastrophic failure is a matter of luck, not design.


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In the absence of national leadership, states and cities have stepped up to take charge of the coronavirus crisis and its unfathomable economic fallout. San Francisco early on took steps to mitigate spread among the city’s highly vulnerable homeless population. New York state has enacted a 90-day moratorium on evictions. Cities like Seattle and Columbus are issuing emergency vouchers to help people buy food. It has largely been up to mayors and governors to decide how seriously to take the threat and how strenuously to respond. Even some Republicans, like Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, have won praise for their decisive actions. “This has been mostly a state and local effort,” one county health official explained to Politico. “The federal government has been sort of behind the times.” Indeed, Washington has essentially abandoned the states to their own devices.

Conservatives have cheered this as a triumph of federalism, proof that the founders’ model of splitting responsibility between the states and the central government still works. The coming weeks will reveal the shortcomings of such an approach. Far from encouraging competition and thwarting authoritarianism, the ambiguous division of powers has effectively fractured the country. In the United States, Polly Price of Emory University explained, immediate responsibility for handling the pandemic rests not with the federal government but with “2,684 state, local, and tribal public-health departments.” The Centers for Disease Control only offers nonbinding guidance for these smaller agencies. Though states and cities can take important steps to limit contagion, this patchwork of competing jurisdictions and overlapping authorities is too creaky and cumbersome for this crisis.

Conservative celebrations of federalism have also served to obscure the fact that their authors’ own preference for candidates who seek to weaken the national government has undoubtedly had a hand in enfeebling the federal response and making the actions of states and cities necessary. Some say that if the federal government is ineffective, it’s good to have power in the hands of the states—but the federal government is ineffective precisely because the ideology pushed by the right for at least 50 years has made it that way. During one of his terrifying news conferences last week, President Trump expressed his reluctance to invoke the Defense Production Act to force companies to manufacture ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other necessities. Trump said he didn’t want to use it because “governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work.” Such reliance on state action is about to get us into big trouble.

It is hard to imagine anything ever going fully back to normal, and that includes our current fluid division of powers between the federal and state governments. In the near term, states and cities have to continue to step up to fight both the virus and the economic disruption that has already begun. But when the emergency is over, it will be necessary to take a hard look at the naive assumptions that prevented this country from mounting a timely and effective response. A political system that can be brought to its knees by a virus emanating from an obscure city in the Chinese hinterland—and with two months’ notice to prepare—is perhaps not a system worth preserving.

At the very least, we should be raising difficult, long-postponed questions about how well the present constitutional system is fitted to the exigencies of contemporary life. Our inexcusably delayed response to the virus is not simply a failure of the Trump administration. The encounter with Covid-19 is a perfect case study in America’s deep-seated dysfunction. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson described the pandemic’s effects in the United States thus far as “a kind of grotesque caricature of American federalism.” We continue to worship the founders as far-seeing, even divinely inspired, political philosophers and constitutional craftsmen. But because the document they bequeathed to posterity nearly two and a half centuries ago is never clear, on almost any subject, about which powers and responsibilities belong to the states and which to the federal government, American politics ever since has been one extended debate—occasionally tipping over into violent struggle—over just what they actually meant.

The United States wouldn’t be alone in seizing on the coronavirus outbreak as an invitation to reconsider long-accepted assumptions about the value of decentralized government. Switzerland is a much looser confederacy than the United States. But “in the face of a global pandemic,” one Swiss paper argued, “federalism is definitely an outdated remedy.” A similar debate has begun in Germany over the country’s commitment to the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that decisions should be made as close to the local level as possible.

Some have tried, as the Harvard scholar Archon Fung recently did in Politico, to put a positive spin on the wholesale abdication of leadership by the federal government. “Just as the trauma of fighting World War II laid the foundations for a stronger American government and national solidarity,” Fung wrote, “the coronavirus crisis might sow the seeds of a new civic federalism, in which states and localities become centers of justice, solidarity and far-sighted democratic problem-solving.” Another way of putting this would be that America’s postwar solidarity—such as it was—has definitively come to an end and the “stronger American government” it supported will soon be a thing of the past. If the worst-case scenarios come true, it may not be a “new civic federalism” that takes the place of our discredited mid-century mythologies, but something darker, more anarchic, less democratic—and far from progressive.

Absent federal leadership, New America’s Anne-Marie Slaughter recently wrote in the Times, “America will save America” from the pandemic. She cheered evidence of a “horizontal, open society” working as it should, far preferable to a closed, top-down autocratic society like China. To Slaughter and others, the pandemic offers a war-like wake-up call to once more rally ’round the flag.

“We can use this crisis to create a better America,” Slaughter suggested. Maybe. But if the crisis offers a one-time opportunity to rebuild the American political system, perhaps we should consider options other than focusing power in a single radically unrepresentative national government or the 50 wildly unequal states, the often-senseless creations of Gilded Age railroad interests and 17th-century royal decrees.

Instead of prematurely celebrating the leadership shown by states and cities as some kind of triumph of the American system, we ought to recognize it as a desperate grasping for the usual exceptionalist narrative at a time of systemic, world-historical national failure. Juliette Kayyem, a Homeland Security official under Obama, wrote in The Atlantic that Trump’s abandonment of the states calls to mind the weaker union of the Articles of Confederation, under which states constantly put up trade barriers with one another. States are already vying over precious resources—competition that raises the costs for everyone. It’s not inconceivable, once the virus spreads widely through Red State America—where denialist political and media figures have been consistently downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic—that armed checkpoints will go up on roads between states. It is almost as if the union is effectively dissolving before our eyes into its 50 component parts.

Our once widely admired federal system is obviously not up to the challenges of the modern world, or what will be left of it when all this is over. When the dust settles, rethinking the fundamental geography and architecture of government ought to be near the top of the agenda. Yet, while Trump’s ham-handed leadership has slowed the national response, we should be equally wary of a turn toward erratic and autocratic solutions, state-of-emergency “exceptions” that might prove difficult, or even impossible, to repeal.

We are genuinely fortunate that some states and localities have been able to partially fill the vacuum left by national political dysfunction and the Trump administration’s appalling mismanagement. But it has also become clear that action at the state level is too limited to really have a significant effect. That is why New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey have teamed up to contain and mitigate the outbreak. It’s possible that further regional arrangements will transform in the months and years ahead into more formal interstate compacts or “consortiums,” which band together to work out long-term arrangements regarding not only public health but also transportation, infrastructure, and climate change. That would be a good thing, suggestive of an alternate federal framework that could allow for both the scale of medium-size nations and the human-level responsiveness of smaller republics, without dangerously further empowering an already unstable national regime.

As with Trump, if there is any upside to this virus it is that it has revealed so much of what was already wrong with our country. It’s “the disease that divided us,” suggests one Bloomberg pundit—as if we were not deeply divided already. Bipartisan resistance to thoroughgoing constitutional reform has for far too long prevented us from adequately reckoning with the manifold crises besetting 21st century America. If a badly outdated political system is hindering our response to this unprecedented crisis, maybe the time has finally come to rethink it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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