Map of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States as of March 24, 2020. (Wikimedia Commons)
When historians think back to “the 2020 coronavirus crisis,” they will likely focus on the spread of the disease, the economic upheavals it has caused, and how the federal government has responded to it. Predictably, and depending on the depth and duration of the dislocation, the current moment will be labeled as the “end of an era” or the start of a new one.
But at some point in the future, you can be sure that more nuanced thinkers will probably judge our current crisis as a piece with those who preceded it: how, in terms of American history, the more things change the more they stay the same.
This has been made clear in the past two weeks, when a group of state governors complained that the federal government had not provided a unified, coordinated and national response to the crisis. “It’s the Wild West over there,” said Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, while a second group was pushing back. federal guidelines on policies to deal with Covid-19 – with a choir of southern states in mind.
The first of these was Alabama, where, on March 26, Governor Kay Ivey rejected the idea of a statewide home stay order, emphasizing the uniqueness of Alabama, while channeling the notions of lost cause according to which the Enlightenment had hatched somewhere near Montgomery. “All of you,” said Ivey, with an unmistakable hiss, “we are not Louisiana, we are not New York State, we are not California.”
Ivey couldn’t have been fairer: relative to Louisiana, New York, and California, Alabama’s education system is a mess (last dead on Education Ranking in the United States News and World Report), one of the worst healthcare infrastructure in the country (42nd according to an authoritative investigation), and in the lower level (45th out of 50) in economic opportunities – with more than 17 percent of its citizens living at or below the poverty line. Compared to Alabama, New York is Xanadu.
But comparing a state’s reluctance to adopt federal directives on Covid-19 with its ranking in education, health, and economic indicators is a tricky business. While Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina (the heart of the old Confederation and the reddest of America’s red states), led the parade of skeptics on the guidelines of much-touted social distancing from Washington, South Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska and Utah showed the same reluctance.
In a wink better late than never at the prospect of digging mass graves in downtown parks, each of these states has since adopted stricter social distancing policies, but disagreements over the extent of the mandate. from the federal government reminded us of America’s shaky political arrangements. As Douglas Egerton, a nationally renowned and eminent historian at LeMoyne College, points out, the question is whether the United States is “a patchwork quilt of sovereign states,” or a single country in which states are granted only “Powers not delegated” to the central government, as the tenth amendment to the Constitution says.
For example, when Donald Trump suggested on March 28 that he was considering quarantining New York and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, the “hot spots” of the virus, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo responded with a sharp historical reference: “This is a civil war type discussion,” he told reporters. “I don’t think an administration can be serious about the physical blockages of states.”
The Governor of New York (who would probably step back from being called a “fairer state”) then noted that such a lockdown would constitute a “federal declaration of war”, confirming that he knows his story – even if did not. cite the main “cancellation” controversies that provided a political petri dish when states defied federal orders.
The first controversy over the cancellation was sparked in 1832, when Congress passed a tariff that protected northern manufacturers at the expense (according to southern states) of planters and farmers. The South Carolina legislature responded by issuing a cancellation order that declared the tariff null and void in the state. President Andrew Jackson retaliated, threatening to send federal troops to enforce the tariff. A conflict was avoided when Congress adopted a revised tariff which allayed the concerns of South Carolina.
But the American Civil War provided the ultimate cancellation crisis that was only resolved by force. “In secession, South Carolina and other states practically canceled the 1860 elections,” said Egerton. But even then, it seems that the question of who governs has remained open. In 1957 Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from entering the center of High Rock in Little Rock, quashing the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Education Council decision. President Eisenhower replied putting the Arkansas National Guard under federal control and the dispatch of 1,000 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce the law.
Of course, the 2020 pandemic is not the American Civil War. But the question of “who governs” is as relevant now as it was in 1860. In 2001, in a day and a half simulation that tested federal responses to a biological weapons attack (that I have written on somewhere else), the replacement “national security council” nearly disbanded over whether the president (played by Senator Sam Nunn) could impose a quarantine on Oklahoma, where the epidemic was first detected. In an incredibly prescient exchange, Tom Keating, playing the governor of Oklahoma at the same time as he was his governor, turned on Nunn in a moment similar to Andrew Cuomo:
“My fellow governors will not allow you to make our states colonies of lepers. We will determine the nature and extent of the isolation of our citizens … You are going to say that people cannot come together. It’s not your [the federal government’s] a function. It is the function, if it is the function of anyone, the state and local authorities. ”
The simulation was now more than a simple exercise: “We will have absolute chaos if we start to wage war between the federal government and the state government”, Nunn observed.
A war between the federal and state governments? Policy makers point out that states regularly practice cancellation – by declaring sanctuary cities, Roe deer v. Wade, by legalizing marijuana. But refusing to apply federal laws is not always the same as defying them. Donald Trump seems vaguely aware of this, promoting a federal orientation on social distancing without making it mandatory, perhaps out of fear that it would spark distrust among his main supporters, such as the red state governor Kay Ivey.
“We have a thing called the Constitution,” says Trump. “I want the governors to run things.” And they are, with states like Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina (the last of the southern red states to issue a stay at home order), pursuing policies that are rather pleasant than the government. federal recommends, but will not require – Some kind of reverse cancellation.
The result, according to the preponderance of medical officials, is that America does not wage a single war against a common enemy, but fights fifty different wars against a virus that knows no borders. It is because of this, the lack of coordination of a single authority, that the disunited states of America could in fact lose their fight against the coronaviruses.
“Not having a national strategy where there is a policy for the country as opposed to a patchwork based on whoever the governor is,” says Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, “is something that I think creates a more porous where Covid-19 will go more and more people will fall ill. “The inimitable and now celebrated face of the administration’s fight against the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has clearly indicated that he agrees.” Shouldn’t everyone be on the same page with this stuff? “He asked.
The answer is no. “And it is because of this that the governors took matters into their own hands: traffic control points were erected between Texas and Louisiana, and between New York and Rhode Island (up to Andrew Cuomo worshiped Rhode Island to eliminate them), and Florida law enforcement officials have been ordered by Governor Ron DeSantis to stop vehicles entering the state from New Yorkurge the natives of the Empire State to isolate themselves. The DeSantis order came even though it refused to implement its own statewide lockdown. Trump defended the action: “He doesn’t want people to come to the country that doctors don’t like,” he said.
Perhaps, but many New Yorkers have heard a different message: that Floridians believe that the price of being cosmopolitan, worldly and international (which made New York a hotspot to start with) is that you are likely to end your life on a respirator. And finally, and only last week, the governors of the West, in the absence of a coherent federal program, considered joining forces to shape a regional response to the threat of coronaviruses – a sort of pending confederation.
The truth, however, could be much more disturbing. Embarrassing shootings between the federal and state governments may not have anything to do with politics – despite the fact that fifteen of the 21 states with the strictest home state orders are led by governors democratic. In fact, the gap is not between Republicans and Democrats, or red and blue states. The gap is much deeper and more disturbing. It’s between empty streets and crowded churches – between those who believe in science and those who don’t. The result is clear to everyone: that after more than two centuries of constitutional governance, our national currency remains more a hope than a reality.
E pluribus? Absolutely. Unum? Not really.