America's fake federalism
The United States is supposed to be a federal republic — that is, a government in which significant powers are delegated to the individual states. The idea is that in a huge country like this, it makes sense to give regional governments substantial latitude so their people can choose different policy models appropriate to local conditions.
It's not a crazy idea.
But in fact, the U.S. version of federalism is largely disintegrating or fake. On the one hand, President Trump's abject failure to coordinate a national response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has forced states to jury-rig new federal structures themselves. On the other, the rump federal government is not actually constructed according to federalist principles — it is a minoritarian system which grants certain states enormous leverage over national policy.
To begin, the Trump administration has refused to set up a rational system to allocate medical supplies like protective gear and ventilators across the country. The Defense Production Act allows the president to nationalize factories during an emergency, or instruct them to produce important materials, which any sane person would have done months ago. Trump still refuses to do this on a systematic basis, so states have been desperately bidding against each other and the federal government and foreign governments for supplies. Indeed, Trump's FEMA has routinely been seizing shipments of protective equipment en route to hospitals or state governments, for unclear reasons or purposes. Meanwhile, even after he stopped relentlessly downplaying the threat of the virus, Trump has continually undermined Democratic governors by blaming them for equipment shortages and testing delays.
Now Trump and the right-wing agitprop machine are beginning to demand that the economy be reopened long before the virus is under control. He recently falsely claimed that he has "total" power to decide when states should reopen, and while he characteristically backed off that statement later, on Friday he recklessly encouraged the tiny groups of right-wing nuts who have been protesting state-level restrictions (after watching Fox News, of course).
All this is why three groups of states have created ad-hoc coalitions to manage their fight against the epidemic. At time of writing, California, Oregon, and Washington have created a Western States Pact; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky have created another pact in the Midwest; and New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Delaware have created a third in the Northeast. More states are likely to join, or create their own pacts.
The basic point is to rationally deploy medical supplies and hospital capacity, coordinate relief efforts to the hardest-hit communities, and carefully manage the easing of lockdown measures across states to prevent new infection surges from crossing state borders. In other words, they are doing what Trump should have done this entire time — except incompletely, and without nearly the resources available to the federal government.
A federal system has some advantages, but the lesson is that individual regions simply cannot go it alone when faced with a nationwide emergency. There must be an overarching authority to manage the overall response — because if there isn't, states will be forced to create one on the fly. What we're seeing today is precisely why the Articles of Confederation was abandoned as an unworkable mess.
That brings me to the anti-federalism of the American Constitution. If we had a true federal system then Donald Trump would not be president today. Again, the point of federalism is local control over local politics. But our goofy, anachronistic Electoral College gives small states enormously greater weight over national politics — in 2016, a vote in Wyoming counted 3.5 times as much as one in Florida, while one in Vermont counted 2.9 times as much as one in North Carolina. It is theoretically possible to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote 4-1 — and while that is an unlikely scenario, Trump indeed won in 2016 despite receiving fewer votes. Moreover, because Electoral College votes are allocated on a winner-take-all basis, in practice only those states which randomly happen to have a close partisan balance get any campaign attention. Fully 96 percent of all presidential campaign events in 2016 happened in the 12 swing states; both the largest and smallest ones were almost totally ignored.
The Senate is even more unfair. All states get two senators regardless of population — meaning Wyoming (population 579,000) and California (population 39,500,000) get the same number of seats. More people live in the largest three states (California, Texas, and Florida) than do in the 32 smallest ones. States representing just 16 percent of the national population can assemble a Senate majority, and ones representing just 10 percent can mount a filibuster — yet another ridiculous anti-democratic anachronism.
This is not federalism, it is tyranny of the minority. It is a system in which smaller states and randomly evolving swing states get to dominate the national community — and while some red states like Texas are disenfranchised as a result, as we see today the overall result is heavily biased towards conservatives. If the Constitution ever does collapse as the Articles of Confederation did, what replaces it should begin with the principle of one person, one vote.
Our broken Constitution has given America the most inept and corrupt president of all time. If we could instead pick a president by whoever gets the most votes, we might reduce the chance that the next one will horrifically bungle any crisis that strikes.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.