Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell teaches in the political science department at Columbia University. His most recent book is “San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval Punk Rock and a Third Place Baseball Team.” (Rutgers University Press, 2019) Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
America’s federalist system has always fostered political competition. By dividing power between the national government and the states, it contributes to important differences in how individual states are governed. While this might have some upsides with regards to things like tax policy or developing good schools and universities, it is not the best way to respond to a pandemic.
The inability of our federalist system to address the spread of coronavirus and the confusion it has created was readily apparent in White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s bizarre claim that “the notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile (of crucial medical supplies). It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”
President Donald Trump exacerbated this strange argument by telling a reporter: “You know what ‘our’ means? United States of America. We take that – ‘our’ – and we distribute it to the states,” adding “because we need it for the government, we need it for the federal government.”
As coronavirus infections and deaths keep rising, it has become increasingly clear that it is governors who are on the frontlines, finding ways to save American lives during the crisis. Although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has drawn the most attention, West Coast governors like Jay Inslee of Washington and Gavin Newsom of California, as well as J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, and several Republican governors, like Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, were in the vanguard of implementing strong social distancing policies while trying to find ways to support and bolster public health systems in states that are being overrun by the virus.
Americans who are not reassured by Trump’s daily press conferences and early failure to grasp the severity of the crisis are turning to a few governors for solace and for a road map out of this extraordinary moment. It is therefore tempting to be grateful for our federalist system that allows governors to take over in the absence of national leadership. However, federalism is playing a more complex and mixed role in the American response to the coronavirus. The same Constitution that allows states to have different policies on everything from LGBTQ equality to gun laws or welfare payments also allows governors, not presidents, to make the decisions about pandemic responses that most affect ordinary Americans.
Not all governors are responding to the pandemic with equal speed and competence. For example, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves gave a series of confusing directives last week that initially seemed to suggest the state was ignoring the threat raised by the pandemic. Similarly, as late as mid-March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was refusing to shut down state beaches where young people on spring break were congregating in large groups. Last week, DeSantis changed his position, announcing that some beaches would be closed or have limits on how many beachgoers could congregate. Perhaps most egregiously, Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp stated on April 2 that only in the previous 24 hours had he learned that the virus can be spread by people who are asymptomatic. This piece of crucial information has been known by many others for well over a month.
The mishandling of the pandemic by these governors, all Republicans, as well as other governors who have been similarly tardy in addressing the health crisis has likely accelerated the spread of the coronavirus in their states. If that were the extent of the damage, it could still be argued that American federalism was helping address the crisis. However, the absence of national regulations has allowed Americans to move freely from state to state, so somebody visiting family in Mississippi might have brought the virus with them from New York. Similarly, a college student on spring break in Florida could have contracted the virus and then returned to a state like Ohio or Wisconsin. This is exactly what has happened in recent days and is why a handful of competent governors who implemented the right policies was never going to be enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Our federalist system has also forced governors to find ways to acquire crucial medical supplies, such as ventilators and even protective masks. Governors are competing against each other to secure needed supplies for their states, a process Cuomo has compared to “being on eBay with 50 other states.” This not only pits Americans against each other, but because the US is unable to bid as one massive market, forces prices up, thus costing us badly needed financial resources as we enter an economic downturn. The competitive aspect of federalism is made worse as it is becoming evident that governors must also compete for the goodwill of a very capricious White House.
Federalism is at the absolute core of our political system and is the raison d’etre for the undemocratic quirks of our Constitution that created the US Senate and the Electoral College. Today, these institutions are directly responsible for Republican control of much of our federal government, because they give more weight to the votes from smaller states that usually vote Republican. If we elected our president and upper chamber of the legislature based on the democratic principle of one person one vote, they would either be controlled by Democrats or by a much different Republican Party – one that would have to reach beyond its heavily white, rural and older base. This is relevant because if that were the case, our response to the coronavirus would have been a lot different.
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But there is even more to it than that. Already, we have seen evidence that some states are getting more medical assistance from Washington than others. A Washington Post report found indications that this is based not on need, but on politics. This approach is neither morally nor medically sound, but the political logic of it is undeniable and grows out of our Constitution, which makes some states matter more than others. Trump is not the first president to govern accordingly, just the first to govern that way during a pandemic.
Those governors who are acting quickly and conscientiously are indeed helping tremendously, but we are also seeing that our federalist system is not enough to compensate for an ineffective national government and, in the context of this pandemic, is only as strong as the weakest governor. American federalism is even older than our Constitution, but the coronavirus crisis is testing it in ways we have never experienced before.