Yesterday’s post was about Gavin Newsom’s challenge to Washington, and what it might mean for federalism, and for the divisions–both philosophical and partisan–between the more thinly-populated Red states (most of which are also “taker” states) and more urbanized Blue states (mostly “donors.”)
The Guardian also addressed the federalism issue, albeit from a different angle.The Guardian looked at the effect of Trump’s ego and behavior, focusing especially on Trump’s clear resentment of Puerto Rico after its hurricane, and–in the midst of the pandemic–his unmistakable message that he would be more likely to send needed medical supplies to states whose governors treated him “with appreciation.”
Clashes between presidents and states are nothing new. But according to government theorists, public affairs experts and political analysts, Trump’s rattling of the federalist compact, by which the 50 states are both autonomous and bound in a national union, is unprecedented in modern times.
“You’ve redefined the role of state governors,” said David Super, a professor at Georgetown Law. “Governors must grovel to the president. Governor [Gavin] Newsom [of California], Governor Andrew Cuomo [of New York] have understood that, and they’re doing it. Governor [Gretchen] Whitmer has largely refused, and Michigan is going through hell as a result.
“These governors are more like provincial chiefs under this system, and if we want to restore federalism in this country we will have to make some very dramatic changes after this is over. If we don’t, federalism is dead.”
Super calls the White House approach to the nation’s governors “flippant federalism.” And along with many other observers, he conveyed shock and concern over reports that the federal government is intercepting ventilators and other equipment ordered and paid for by the states, which Trump appears to be handing out on a political patronage basis.
“On the one hand, they’re telling the states they’re on their own,” said Super. “On the other, they’re seizing the supplies that the states get on their own.”
Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland has called the administration’s approach “Darwinian federalism.”
“His [Trump’s] behavior is not in keeping with the office of president,” O’Malley told the Guardian in an email. “The notion that governors have to bow down and praise him in order for their citizens to receive federal disaster assistance is contrary to the very nature of a republic.”
In the wake of this pandemic, what happens to federalism, to democracy, to government legitimacy, to partisan polarization, the social safety net– are all open questions.
Every newscast, every performance, practically every Facebook post ends with “We’ll get through this– together.” I hope that’s true, but I’m not so sure.
One thing I am sure of, however, and that is the importance of trust in a society’s institutions, based upon a belief that those institutions and structures are fair. Right now, Americans don’t have that belief and that trust.
Much as I detest Donald Trump and the know-nothings and predatory bigots he’s assembled, he’s not the cause of the multiple failures of governance we’re experiencing. He’s the pathetic result of years of civic apathy.
Our national motto was not originally “In God We Trust.” It was e pluribus unum–out of the many, one. The existential question we face is whether we can breathe new life into that motto–if we can use this horrible time to recommit ourselves to the values that once did make this country exceptional (although probably not in the way the nationalists believe).
Federalism isn’t the only institution we have to repair.