If it wasn’t for federalism, we would never have learned that lockdowns do not work, that children need to see our faces, that people need to worship, that fans need to cheer at the stadium, that people need to work.
As the COVID pandemic has traveled about the world, considerable debate, name-calling and posturing has been done regarding how best to deal with this global crisis. The United States, in particular, has presented to the world a country that has apparently no consensus on how to address COVID. Instead, we have 51 different ways to combat the disease. In fact, we have infinitely more than that. While states usually provide the general rules regarding COVID, localities and businesses have their own set of rules. To say the least, it can appear that chaos reigns in the United States.
Welcome to federalism.
Federalism is found in many countries and regions around the world. Federalism implies two things. First, the member states share some things in common that brings them to form a federation. Second, federalism allows for some measure of autonomy amongst the member states. The European Union is a great example of a federation. Germany is a sovereign nation, as is France, Italy, Poland and all the other member nations that make up the EU. Yet they have formed a federation because they see a benefit, mostly revolving around trade. It is a slow process. It is often a frustrating process. There is a lot of compromise, and there is tension. It is a bit messy. But due to this ongoing commitment to do things in concert, Europe has effectively put an end to their long history of conflict.
Across the Atlantic is the one nation that is possibly the template of federations. While the United States was not the first federation, it was the first republic to successfully build a nation using a federal model. The states held most of the power, but they formed a “more perfect union” in order to establish uniformity in interstate commerce and to more effectively pursue policies that built the nation as a whole, such as engineering rivers, building railroads and canals, and establishing for a mutual defense. All that seemed to be working until about the 1850’s when it became evident that the issue of slavery would divide the nation. Yet even the Confederate States of America would soon discover the tension between the ideal of autonomous states and the pressing need to have a central government capable of defending the cause. Critics at home and abroad wondered if federalism was a realistic form of governance.
So we fast forward to the present day and it is rather peculiar that federalism is once again seen not as the solution, but as the problem. On the one hand you have the Democrats who fully control 15 states, the White House, and very slim majorities in both Congressional chambers. They seem to demonstrate the anti-COVID model based on lockdowns, masks, mandates, and purges. Republicans who fully control 23 states have been more guarded about deploying lockdowns, more flexible about wearing masks, deplore mandates and subsequently consider firing so-called “anti-vaxers” unconstitutional. Democrats spout out that Republicans do not “follow the science.” Libertarians and Republicans reply that there is more to life than chasing after a virus. They would argue that to effectively fight a pandemic you need a balance between “following the science” and simply allowing society to continue to function. To the world it must appear we are a confused society.
So let’s suppose we look at the world at large. In some degree, due to transport and technology, we are a global community, albeit it not exactly a federation. What we see globally is what is actually mirrored within the borders of the United States. Nation-states have shown considerable creativity in dealing with the pandemic. Some approaches have been rather successful. Others have been futile. Israel, for example, was probably more advanced in deploying vaccines than any other country in the world. Yet the failure rate of the vaccine baffled the experts. Sweden shocked everyone as they simply did nothing, allowing the virus to spread throughout the country. People accused them of being ruthless as the vulnerable began to die from COVID. Yet, in the end, Sweden may have a lot to teach us as “herd immunity” has appeared to have worked as well as all the lockdowns, mandates and vaccinations. Some countries, like India, had to utilize non-vaccine solutions and through that experience demonstrated that the impact of COVID can be significantly mitigated. We have a lot of lessons to learn from the global community.
We can all see that countries throughout the world are all quite different and face unique challenges. So why can’t we recognize that phenomenon when it comes to a country that occupies half a continent with 350 million people! We often forget, as Americans, that the USA is a big place. For all my adult life I have marveled how pundits and politicians spout off one-size-fits-all solutions to our problems, considering the size and complexity of our country. The very thing that saves us is that which divides us – federalism. The intent of the founding fathers was that central power was to be controlled through several avenues, one of which was dividing political power between the states and the federal government. The United States has, thankfully, avoided the tragedy of totalitarianism because the power of the federal government is constrained, albeit it is hard for many of us to believe it these days.
Yet COVID, like the world wars, has put federalism under considerable strain. Both the Civil War and World War I pretty well demonstrated that the state militia model was not workable. The professional, permanent national military was a fact after 1914, which ripped away from the states a vital aspect of the federal model. The evolution of socialist policies has further added strain to the federal model as more and more of the tax money travels through Washington, DC before it is returned to the states. This has left the states at the mercy of what amounts to extortion. When the President says a state must vaccinate their children, he can add pressure by withholding funds. This applies to every aspect of governance, whether it be college loans, housing subsidies, food subsidies or highway funds. This battle is now being waged in regards to Biden’s vaccine mandates. Governors are pushing back.
In many respects, federalism has been a good thing. Instead of having one possibly wrong way of fighting COVID, we have 51 ways of fighting it. Each state, and each locality, can work on solutions that are best for them. The federal government is also a player in this game. What is remarkable about the past two years is that “the science” is not always clear. It isn’t clear because we are looking at a phenomenon that it is multi-dimensional and unprecedented. Researchers are going to have a field day for a decade attempting to unravel the numbers. They will see all the lurid apocalyptic predictions that never happened, whether it be the estimated impact of the outbreak when it first appeared in the US, to the presumed impact of mass gatherings from bikers in Sturgiss, partiers in Miami, or protesters in Minneapolis.
If it wasn’t for federalism, we would never have learned that lockdowns do not work, that children need to see our faces, that people need to worship, that fans need to cheer at the stadium, that people need to work. Because 23 governors stood up to the madness, we have learned that we can move forward through this pandemic. People will get sick. About 1.5% of them will die. But life must go on. It is “in our nature” to desire the freedom to assemble, to worship as we please, and to “pursue happiness,” i.e. to work. How best to do that is exhibited by the fifty states because in each case, the best solution is one that is supported by the people in the community. I may not agree with some of the measures, but I much prefer seeing decisions made by my state, my town council or the local school board, than having directives administered from the White House.
The Biden administration has made a serious mistake mandating vaccinations. As I follow this issue, what I have observed is who is affected the most by the mandates – your local hospital, your local police department, your local fire department and your local schools. These mandates are a textbook example of the dangers of central power. The economic impact of thousands of Americans losing jobs over these mandates will be felt by your local retailers and grocery stores.
States like California and New York can also be heavy-handed when it comes to fighting COVID. But at least people can vote with their feet if their vote at the ballot box is not successful. They can leave. The demographics have shown that people do just that.
It is vital we appreciate the importance of buy-in from the public. This pandemic has been a horrible ordeal, yet it is survivable because we, through democracy, determined how best to fight it. There is no way we can conceive of achieving considerable sacrifice from people through acts of Congress or executive orders. But we can swallow this bitter pill by supporting our town councils, local hospitals and schools. We can make changes by voicing our displeasure to people we see in the grocery store and who we can choose not to elect them.
Federalism recognizes that we are not the same. While we can declare we are all Americans, we are culturally much different. The State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri is not New York City. Juneau, Alaska is not Philadelphia. Hallsville, Missouri is not Chicago. Yet what they all hold in common is the privilege of governing themselves. If New York City wants to lock down, we need to recognize that New Yorkers choose this for themselves. We have been cautious in Juneau, but we choose to require masks in public places. In Missouri, it is more each man for himself – and it is their choice.
Freedom is messy. Isn’t freedom wonderful?