The CDC activated its Emergency Operations Center to assist public health partners in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The CDC activated its Emergency Operations Center to assist public health partners in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. James Gathany/CDC

The Federalism Divide Is Shading Government’s Response to COVID-19

We can’t afford a government where the odds of an effective attack on the novel coronavirus depend on where citizens live.

The coronavirus is inescapably rippling across the country. But underneath the virus’s spread lie three important issues: 1) It struck first in blue states. 2) State and local officials, impatient with the federal response, are seizing the reins. 3) How they do so will determine whether our assault against the virus helps us shrink the polarization that has poisoned American politics. 

Of course, there isn’t a partisan way of treating patients. It’s unseemly, in fact, even to suggest that COVID-19 might be a red or blue issue.

The initial outbreaks, however, flared up in blue states: Washington, followed by California, New York, and Massachusetts. As of March 10, a dozen mostly red states, especially in the Deep South and the West, had diagnosed few or no cases. 

It’s hardly the case that the virus pays attention to the partisan divide. The states that saw the first cases were the hyper-connected, high-tech states, where the governments and leading companies quickly took aggressive action without waiting for the feds. Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft asked their Seattle-based employees to work from home. When they shut down employees’ travel, that decision effectively shut down Austin’s hugely popular South by Southwest festival. 

Many state and local officials, frustrated by frictions with the feds, stepped out on their own. New York state imposed a containment area around New Rochelle and, when supplies of Purell ran short, devised its own hand sanitizer, which Governor Andrew Cuomo quipped had “a very nice floral bouquet.” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg complained about confusion over federal testing. 

Along the way, a truly national problem became a partisan clash. President Donald Trump tweeted a complaint about “Do Nothing Democrats” and called Washington Governor Jay Inslee “a snake.” Local officials countered that they too often have felt alone. “This has been mostly a state and local effort. The federal government has been sort of behind the times,” Sacramento County Director of Health Services Peter Beilenson told Politico

That the virus crisis has become a forum for polarization is scarcely surprising.  As I found in my research for The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work, the kind of government Americans get increasingly depends on where they live. Deep polarization in the country springs from precisely the differences that are surfacing in the battle against COVID-19. 

The divide spills over even to just how big a problem the virus poses. A Reuters poll conducted from March 2-3 revealed that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to believe that the virus posed an imminent threat to the country. Rush Limbaugh argued that the virus was “the common cold,” something “being weaponized” to attack Trump. New York’s Governor Cuomo countered that the federal response could be characterized as “bad government and poor planning.”

It’s scarcely surprising that the virus, like everything else in American politics and policy, falls into the chasm of polarization. But two things are about to become crystal clear.

One is that this virus cares nothing about red state versus blue state politics. The virus itself will decide whether it’s an imminent threat and it’s not going to pay attention to where it wanders.

The other is that the federal government will surely shape broad guidelines, but state and local governments will be responsible for carrying them out. From decisions about containment zones to strategies in dealing with nursing homes, we’ll discover yet again that the driving realities of governance are what happens on the front lines. Federalism matters, and this virus will provide a searching test of how well Madison’s grand design works in the 21st century.

We can’t afford a government where the odds of an effective attack on the virus depend on where citizens live. And we surely can’t afford to allow our need for a truly nationwide attack on the virus to deepen the already large chasms in American politics. It’s a searing reminder about the need for building bridges across government’s boundaries, at a time when so many forces are eroding its pillars.

Donald F. Kettl is the Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work (Princeton University Press). He can be reached at kettl@austin.utexas.edu.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.