Michael Swartz / July 17, 2020

Federalism Under Fire

Certain states are all about their own autonomy — unless they have to pay for it.

The onset of the coronavirus has created a different America than the one we knew just six short months ago, but President Donald Trump’s approach to dealing with it has also beautifully illustrated a trend that has overtaken our constitutional republic in recent decades.

Back in January, the president created the White House Coronavirus Task Force. With that entity in hand, it was perhaps expected that President Trump would use his executive powers to take control of the situation. Accordingly, the president “charged the Task Force with leading the United States Government response to the novel 2019 coronavirus and with keeping him apprised of developments.”

While the Task Force has made a celebrity out of the previously obscure Dr. Anthony Fauci, those media experts expecting President Trump to be the tyrant they always assumed him to be were shocked by the hands-off approach he’s taken in dealing with the Wuhan flu and its effects. Of course, since they’re stuck on “Orange Man Bad,” they now complain that Trump doesn’t take the virus seriously enough.

But true to our intended federalist system of government, President Trump has chosen to allow each individual state significant license in handling the outbreak within its borders. At first, nearly every state shut itself down in response to the virus, a mid-March action that was initially believed to require 15 days, then extended to Easter as an “aspirational goal”. Once Easter came and went and the virus stayed on, we began to experience the open-ended (or never-ending) lockdown we see today.

Federalism has thus created a nation where state situations run the gamut from needing a second shutdown like in California to never really shutting down at all (smiling at you, South Dakota). This may sound like a poor way to do policy, but a one-size-fits-all approach would likely be causing healthy South Dakotans to chafe under a lockdown they didn’t need because the outbreak was half a country away. Government tends to respond to the worst-case scenario in these situations, and the coronavirus more than proved that point.

And so did the media. As we’ve seen, states handling the China Virus as they see fit have created a media feeding frenzy. Those that were the first to open up and begin putting people back to work and reversing the severe economic downturn have been raked over the coals of public opinion, while utter failures like the governor of New York are taking tone-deaf victory laps and being accorded heroic status.

In their coverage of COVID-19 and their cheerleading of policy ideas like Joe Biden’s promise to make mask wearing mandatory, we can more clearly see that the media and its leftist allies have instilled the idea into Americans that the only good solution is a big-government federal solution. A decade ago, a different president began “fundamentally transforming” America by shifting power over healthcare to the federal government — and the media cheered, labeling as racists those “deplorables” who objected. Back then, the people stood against the concept of federalizing the health-insurance industry, but once Trump and the GOP came to power and sought to defund ObamaCare, the media mustered the means necessary to preserve it.

Yet we can’t just reflexively blame the media, either. Some place the blame on the two-party system, but Zachary Faria argues in a recent Washington Examiner op-ed, “The problem of polarization in politics is not the existence of the two-party system but the gradual and ongoing nationalization of power, especially in the hands of the president. When these issues are pulled out of the local legislatures and made into national questions, the localities get left behind.”

Once states became dependent on the fiscal narcotic of Uncle Sam’s largesse, legislators bent on increasing federal power began placing preconditions on the states to retain their share of funding. For example, a state seeking its full share of federal highway dollars must ensure that its impaired-driving laws conform to a particular standard for blood-alcohol limits. For generations, members of Congress have won or lost reelection based on just how well they bring home the bacon, but people forget that the price of the bacon is borne by everyone.

Thanks to all that conditioning, those who used to make their case for change to city hall now bypass that step and take demands directly to the street, preferably with breathless news coverage. Thus we see Minneapolis voting to disband its police force after the death of George Floyd while begging for federal taxpayer money to pay for the rioting local authorities allowed. Uncle Sam apparently owns an ever-growing money tree.

There will come a day, though, when other people’s money runs out, so encouraging a state-level response to a national crisis may be good practice for the future. States can still be the creators of their own success, but too many states have citizens who believe that this requires too much work and independent thought.

If listening to the drumbeat of negative media has led you to become one of those citizens, it’s time to turn off the noise and reevaluate the situation. There’s still a place for personal responsibility in this country, and the biggest rewards often come from taking a risk — just like those who founded this nation did. It’s a shame this teachable moment had to come from a pandemic.

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