Federalism is a form of government in which a national government shares power with individual regional governments. The United States is the prime example of such a federation, as established by the Constitution. The form of government has lasted us for 233 years, and despite many problems, it has yielded a country has more or less functioned. Indeed, starting in 1945, the United States had a unique position of power in the world.
This form of government is bound to be plagued by tensions between national and state power. This balance waxes and wanes over time. Over the past 75 years, there have been strong assertions of state power and strong ones by the federal government. In 1948, several southern Democrats bolted and formed the State’s Rights party in protest to the national party supporting a racial equality plank authored by Hubert Humphrey. In the 60s, the Civil Rights movement highlighted this tension in the requirements that schools integrate and that minorities be granted the right to vote, often in contravention of the wishes of the affected governors. In the 90s, the militia movement sprung up in response to perceived government overreach by Bill Clinton. And in 2009-10, the tea party movement arose to challenge perceived government overreach and economic stimulus by Barack Obama. Read between the lines and you’ll know where I stand on state’s rights overreach.
However, the system generally worked, after a fashion, because either the balance of power was not too extreme, or both political parties had some basic standards of decency. That is not where we are now, with the COVID-19 pandemic. In past crises, Presidents have attempted to emphasize the need for national unity. At minimum, they have provided a coordinated strategy to address the crisis. Thus, resources have been directed where they need to be needed (not always fairly, but at least directed).
In the current crisis, we’ve had a series of catastrophic failures by a President who was singularly unfit to handle the situation. For several months, he failed to acknowledge the scope of the problem. Then he minimized it and set artificial deadlines by which the problem would disappear. Then he said it would disappear magically. By the time he started to respond, he dithered needlessly, refused to admit he was wrong, insulted anyone who questioned his choices, raged against state governors who failed to kowtow to him, and accused those governors of hoarding or even stealing the supplies they requested. The “nice” governors get all they need and more. The situation has gotten so bad that Dr. Anthony Fauci has had to seek special protection because of rabid Trumpers who are furious with him for telling the truth.
Now, some three months since the first death due to coronavirus, we are left with a completely inadequate response. States are being told to solve insurmountable problems by themselves. Trump has repeatedly said “we’re a backup.” This divided and divisive strategy is resulting in the ludicrous situation that 50 states are bidding wars for personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. This is made even worse by the fact that the federal government is often outbidding the governors and is further compounded by the inexplicable decision to send this equipment to other countries. States cannot handle crises at this level. This is federalism on a grand and pathological scale.
The problem with this scenario is all too obvious. As a result, over 100 million Americans are living under close to house arrest, afraid to leave the house. New Yorkers are treated to constant sirens of ambulances that carry new coronavirus victims to hospital ICUs. We are facing a best case scenario of 100,000 – 240,000 deaths, and a worst case scenario of over 2 million deaths. To add insult to injury, Trump is claiming this lower range as a victory, in something out of a scene from Dr. Strangelove. I assure you, the families of these victims will not feel that way. This will not end well. Federalism might work, but it requires honest and fair brokers at all levels.