America’s Response to the Coronavirus Proves Federalism Isn’t Dead

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media as U.S. Army personnel look at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, which will be partially converted into a hospital for patients affected by the coronavirus outbreak, March 23, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Previously marginalized state and local governments have taken the lead in fighting the present pandemic.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A lexis de Tocqueville’s America was supposed to be long gone. Seeing political centralization as the great woe of the French state — which had been periodically wracked by violent instability since 1789, and would be again in 1848 — the young French aristocrat found a possible cure in the highly decentralized system of Jackson-era American government. Political life, he wrote, was overwhelmingly concentrated at the local level, where town meetings still decided most matters of significance. Counties were administrative divisions that mostly existed on paper, state governors were kept on an extremely tight leash, and the federal government was still in its infancy, its powers strictly confined to a few undeniably national concerns.

Until several weeks ago, it was hard not to think that contemporary America had turned Tocqueville’s analysis completely on its head. Following the Civil War, the vast expansion of federal power that was deemed necessary to guarantee the rights of freed slaves against the states that had enslaved them, and to enforce Reconstruction while it lasted, famously (though more gradually than some have implied) accompanied a grammatical change in the way we describe the United States, from plural to singular: “The United States are” became “the United States is.” Early 20th century Progressives led the growth of a federal bureaucracy, which expanded with the New Deal and the Second World War until, by the end of the 1940s, it was common to speak of a federal “administrative state,” attached to the executive, ruling the country, unaccountable to voters.

All of this led inevitably to the moment just before the current crisis hit, in which national politics, blaring on TV screens and dominating social-media feeds, seemed to crowd out state and local politics. The newspapers that had reminded Americans of the importance of these closer, smaller realms declined and disappeared. Ticket-splitting, which could be considered an indicator of the strength of the Tocquevillian tradition, hit a new low in 2018.

Intermittently, Beltway writers issued calls for others to abandon the swamps of Washington and rejuvenate local institutions and state politics, which served mainly to illustrate the desperation of the situation. All the major political issues — drug legalization, gay marriage, abortion — were either removed from state purview by Supreme Court fiat or seemed destined sooner or later to receive such a treatment. It appeared increasingly clear that the federal constitution was a pretty relic of the Tocquevillian era, prized mainly by nostalgists, serving a legitimating role in an order that no longer had any space for it, like the Roman Senate under the Empire.

Then a pandemic struck. The initial federal response was faltering, with test kits malfunctioning and the president downplaying the risk. So states — and, in many cases, local governments — came to the fore. California’s Bay Area issued the first “shelter in place” order, followed quickly by a similar order for the rest of the state. Governor Gavin Newsom has proclaimed California a “nation-state.” New York, which was next in line for lockdown, has seen its governor, Andrew Cuomo, emerge as a leading protagonist in the struggle to combat the virus. Cuomo’s bullying style, a nuisance in tranquil times, now soothes the frayed nerves of New Yorkers, in the latest demonstration of Machiavelli’s tenet that men’s characters fit some times better than others. Crucial, life-and-death matters were suddenly in the hands not of the federal government but of state and local authorities.

The public-health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus has proven that you can’t fudge federalism. It isn’t enough to set up formal federal bodies and give them constitutional powers; sub-national units must have traditions of independence and popular sanction to actually use the powers they’ve been given. The viral pandemic has given the lie to systems in countries around the world that are federal on paper but unitary in fact.

Spain’s autonomous communities were supposed to have very extensive powers, including over decisions relating to public health — until, on March 14, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government declared a state of emergency and announced that the central government in Madrid would be assuming control.

In Italy, decrees isolating first a handful of northern towns, then the region, and finally the entire country came at every stage from the central government. Regional presidents such as Lombardy’s Attilio Fontana, unable to put in place firmer measures themselves, were reduced to begging the central government to do so.

In the United Kingdom, devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland —governments that some thought were moving toward an ad hoc form of federalism until the pandemic — have had no opportunity to exert influence on the response to the virus. They have been forced, as have local councils across England, simply to implement the decisions made in No. 10: first, a laissez-faire policy intended to build “herd immunity,” then, following predictions of mass death resulting from the strategy, an escalating about-face ending in nationwide lockdown on March 23.

In Germany, it’s true, the states (Länder) took the lead, with Bavaria locking down two days before the rest of the country — but reports circulated that Angela Merkel was nervous at the prospect of divergent policies across the country. She quickly directed the federal government to retake control of the fight against the virus by banning gatherings of more than two people.

Only in Brazil, where president Jair Bolsonaro has refused to institute a nationwide lockdown, taking to national television to proclaim the coronavirus a “tiny little flu” and attack the World Health Organization for its “destruction of jobs,” have federal units had a real chance to step up. State governors in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have led the response, introducing lockdown measures within their jurisdictions, and making themselves targets of the president in the process.

Of course, it can’t be said that the present resurgence of federalism in Brazil and the United States has happened under the best of circumstances. And it’s too soon to determine how a decentralized administration helped, or didn’t help, the response to the virus. But for now, it’s enough to take stock of how robust and relevant previously marginalized political institutions suddenly seem. They are a piece of the old constitution still with us, having showed signs of life at a moment when, across the world, many of their counterparts did not.

Nick Burns writes on international politics for The American Interest and other publications.

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