Is it just me, or is the Union of states on shakier ground right now than it has been in any of our lifetimes? History, a strong central government, respect, and culture ties the states together. Remove any of those, and the whole goes out of balance.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so when in a crisis there is an absence of leadership at the very top of America’s government, the states have rushed in to fill it. That started with each individual state deciding when to shut down businesses and schools and to issue stay-at-home orders. That led to a patchwork of policies, with some states locked down and others almost completely open.
Even then, it was clear that there needed to be cooperation across borders. Gov. Lamont coordinated with Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey in implementing the shutdown of bars and restaurants, so that residents couldn’t just zip across a border to a state with open bars.
But recently, large coalitions of states on the west coast, in the northeast, and now in the midwest, have formed to coordinate responses to COVID-19 and plan reopening strategies. This is a bipartisan effort – the northeast group has one Republican governor, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and the midwest group has a majority of Republican governors.
This is the sort of thing that would have been unthinkable under a competent administration. The federal plan should have been to recognize the threat early, coordinate shutdowns with governors across the country, apportion medical resources to where they were most needed, use the power of the U.S. government to purchase and compel the creation of more medical resources, and then help ease restrictions when the crisis is over. The president and the administration should have been a source of calm, rational, science-based thought and action.
What we got instead was the opposite of that. Washington has been sending out all kinds of mixed messages, and it’s clear there’s no overall plan. The federal government itself is meddling in the distribution process, forcing states to bid against one another for needed medical equipment – when they’re not just taking it for themselves.
Worse, the president has actually found a way to bring the stupidity of the culture war into a pandemic, because we live in the cruelest and dumbest timeline. Suddenly, flouting social distancing guidelines and calling for the reopening of the economy became a cultural touchstone for the right wing. In what other country would there be right-wing protestors slowly driving their cars past state capitol buildings, demanding that the economy be reopened?
The president is throwing gasoline on the fire by tweeting a call to “liberate” three states with Democratic governors where protests were taking place.
Can you blame states for taking one look at this farce and deciding to band together instead of relying on the federal government for direction?
I expect these regional coalitions of states to grow in influence and relevance during the coronavirus crisis and beyond, especially if leadership from Washington continues to be lacking. The implications for federalism and American governance may be far-reaching and transformative.
After all, wouldn’t it make sense for states who share cultural and economic ties to work more closely together on other issues, especially when Washington seems so incapable? For instance, it might be a good thing for all of the northeastern states to coordinate tax policies for the wealthiest, to prevent them from hopping over a border to pay fewer taxes and cause outsize damage to state budgets.
What about social programs? A state like Connecticut doesn’t have the tax base or the buying power to truly explore some kind of universal health care. But all of the states on the Acela corridor, which is the beating heart of the American economy, absolutely do. Universal basic income, too, might be something regions would be well-equipped to explore in the face of what could be a lengthy economic downturn.
The danger for the Union is the potential for regions to start to drift away from one another, especially as Washington continues to flounder. There may come a day when one region takes a look at the rest and wonders, what did we ever need with you, anyway?
Unlikely? Sure. But unthinkable? No. If the past decade has taught us nothing else, it’s that nothing is off the table.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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