Politics & Policy

The Coronavirus Response Shows That Federalism Is Working

President Donald Trump speaks during a news briefing on the administration’s response to the coronavirus at the White House, March 15, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
State leadership and decentralization work better in a crisis than nationwide measures decreed by a dictator-like authority.

On Saturday afternoon, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, put the 47 million people living in his country under a partial “lockdown,” closing retailers, shops, restaurants, and gymnasiums. That very evening France’s prime minister, Emmanuel Macron, announced the imminent shutdown of restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and nightclubs. It followed barely a week after Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, announced a series of escalating closures in affected regions of Italy and the whole country. As I write, Angela Merkel is announcing “never seen before” measures including closing shops (while allowing certain categories of shops to be open on Sundays) and banning all gatherings including religious ones.

And so people are asking questions such as, “Why didn’t the U.S. federal government shut down restaurants and bars the way France and Spain did?” Or they are kvetching about the president. Writer Molly Jong-Fast complains, “So the states are basically governing themselves because our president doesn’t know how to president at all?”

Well, no. It’s simple: Our president doesn’t have dictatorial powers, even in a national emergency. The president doesn’t have authority to shut down your local gin joint. Your state governor does have this power, in extraordinary circumstances. That so many governors have done so, often responding to popular demand for shutdowns, demonstrates America’s genuine practice of federalism — a system that is allowing us to respond to this crisis even faster than the states of Europe that have a more monarchical or centralized system of authority for a crisis.

One of the reasons federalism can act faster is that it allows decentralization. It is less politically risky to impose measures in one state than on an entire nation. You can respond where the hotspots are, rather than imposing costs evenly across an undifferentiated mass of the nation where the overall average risk may be low.

With regard to school shutdowns and other official social-distancing measures, little would be different today underneath a Democratic administration or a different Republican president. What is the difference between President Trump’s bloviating, and Governor Mike DeWine’s imposing restrictions in Ohio, and a hypothetical President Clinton’s having an advisory conference call with governors? Under a Democratic administration, we’d still have local school districts assessing their local circumstances and fretting over their decisions, as they should.

And in fact, given our character as a nation, it is better that it is this way. When President Trump first imposed the travel restrictions on China — you know, the ones that he can’t stop bragging about — the initial partisan kick-reflex among Democrats and in certain sections of the media led people to immediately criticize the measure as xenophobic and ineffective. If Trump had then set about closing New York’s restaurants, many of the same critics would be asking: What happened to the authority of mayors and governors? And when did the United States become a dictatorship?

These measures are extraordinary, and they are meant for extraordinary times. But because they have been enacted in a bottom-up way, in response to demand from citizens, they have a legitimacy they’d lack if the executive branch, by fiat, had tried to convert, overnight, into an East Asian or European-style authoritarian body.

It’s also a reassuring that popular demand, and individual governors motivated by it, can, when the time comes, reverse these costly shutdowns and other impositions on our social and economic life.

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