Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the political battles between the White House and the nation’s Democratic governors have been almost as fierce as the virus’s assault on the nation. With luck, we’ll get the virus under control with new treatments and an effective vaccine. But the damage to the nation’s sense of national unity is sure to be much more long-lasting.
Every nation in the world has faced the unprecedented challenge of doing battle against this invisible killer. But no other major democracy has seen this kind of vicious infighting among their governments.
No matter who wins in November, the divisions between the states are sure to deepen — at least into regional schisms and perhaps into a serious fracture to our notion of a truly united states in America.
From the very beginning, COVID-19 has been more a political than a public health problem. President Trump had bet his reelection campaign on a soaring stock market and a shrinking unemployment rate. When the virus blew them both up, he counter-punched by making blue-state governors his target. Back in February, he labeled the coronavirus the “new hoax” of the Democrats and argued that “the press is in hysteria mode.” He said the governors were spending too much time complaining and threatened that he’d withhold needed supplies if they didn’t treat him right.
When it came to reopening the country, President Trump pointed directly at the governors. The responsibility rested with them, he tweeted.
The governors countered that they couldn’t follow the president’s plan without a much larger number of tests and that they needed the White House’s help to get them. It “is sort of like the Hunger Games,” with states battling each other for scarce supplies, contended Johns Hopkins University health scholar Jennifer Nuzzo.
The public health strategy for attacking the virus was inevitably going to provoke a fierce political battle. It’s been exceptionally bad luck for the presidential campaign to collide with the Covid-19 outbreak. But the battles between Washington and the states have caused such deep schisms in American democracy that they won’t go away when the virus subsides and the presidential election is past us.
That’s because the fracture lines had already developed long before the virus’s outbreak and are part of a much bigger war.
Most of the states that jumped first to lock down their economies in March had also been the states that had most enthusiastically embraced Obamacare — 28 of the 32 early lockdown states had expanded their Medicaid programs to lower income residents under the Affordable Care Act. And for the other states that didn’t lock down in March? Most of them — 11 of 18 — didn’t expand Medicaid.
The Trump administration had already been at war against California’s clean air standards and Obama-era regulations on power plan emissions. If Trump wins a second term, he’ll be undoubtedly be fighting to slash more of these rules. And if Joe Biden beats Trump in the fall, he’s certain to push the rules back into place, only to have red-state governors fight back. There’s chaos ahead, no matter who wins.
Then there’s the growing war between state attorneys general. There was a time when they banded together toward common objectives. But these officials have increasingly broken into separate camps and through these associations they’ve waged war on each other about immigration, reproductive rights, data surveillance, and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, along with the high-profile disputes on health-care and environmental policy.
We’re used to wringing our hands about the partisan meltdown in Washington. But the growing divisions among the states—the separation of our states into mini-unions— is precisely the breakdown of national unity that the founding fathers most feared. These conflicts have crippled our war against COVID-19, and they’re likely to set the stage for even bigger battles to come.
In his farewell address to the country, George Washington celebrated how “every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.” He would be heartbroken at the deep divides the virus has caused.
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.” Follow Him on Twitter @DonKettl.