Out of Left Field: American federalism stumbles during Covid-19 calamity

Professor Michael D'Innocenzo will be guest speaker at Emanuel


[Part I]

Times of crisis quickly dramatize what is effective and what is not working. America’s celebrated federalism has fallen woefully short of competence during the coronavirus pandemic.

In fewer than three months, 100,000 Americans have died (that is almost double U.S. military deaths during the eight-year war in Vietnam).

Where does responsibility for failures rest? Are there ways we could have done better to prevent grief with such loss of lives? Is it feasible to do better going on from this point as we enter June?

During its 1987 Bicentennial, our Constitution was celebrated with federalism as a key feature. Like many other historians, I adopted the effective defining caption of “That Delicate Balance.” It spoke to the challenges of dividing powers between a national government and the individual states that had preceded it.

For most of modern history, countries moved to nationalism; it made establishing unity (and uniformity) more feasible and efficient. My great Columbia University teacher, Henry Steele Commager, taught a course on nationalism.

When I worked as a teaching assistant, I vividly recall Commager reaching into his pocket to pull out a watch. Then holding it aloft, he said at this moment every fourth-level class in France is doing the same assignment.

That may have been an exaggeration of the uniformity of national power. But, in contrast, states in America (often local school districts) can determine their own education paths and many other policies. We have had extended debates concerning state sovereignty. How independent can individual states be – a right to withdraw from the Union? (there were 750,000 deaths during the Civil War, 1861-65)

Our federalism paths reflect dynamic developments that even preceded the “Spirit of 76.” Historians accurately note that British colonial policy was the parent of American federalism. For a century and a half, the Mother Country dealt in different ways with each colony. Indeed, a major factor during the American Revolution was that colonies saw themselves as separate entities that cooperated during crisis in a “Battle for Home Rule” (“Redcoats Go Home”). They mostly wanted to be left alone to continue nurturing political and social arrangements that had become the most advanced in the world.

For a while, the British had accepted “salutary neglect,” signifying that the colonies were benefiting while the Mother Country also benefited. However, British leaders were long unaware of how the colonies were outpacing them and developing more advanced societies.

It should come as no surprise to be reminded that American federalism was shaped by two crises. The first one was the responses to the British effort to exert more controls (after all the American colonies had largely become self-governing, separate units). With several reservations, all 13 colonies came together in 1776 to form a  confederation (a version of national government) in order to have a better chance to oppose Great Britain, the most powerful nation in the world.

Even in the midst of uncertainties about success and survival (crises that extended for eight war years), Americans had differences and concerns about how much authority to grant the “national” government.

The second major federalism crisis came with the immediate aftermath of winning the Revolutionary War (or did the British lose it?). Historians properly refer to the years of the 1780s (Peace Treaty of 1783 through ratification of the Constitution and first national government in Philadelphia) as “The Critical Period.”

Many of the heroes we celebrate in our history believed that the new nation would collapse and fail unless the national government could be strengthened. They saw the situation as a series of crises. The interactions among leaders for independence during the 1780s included profound differences about how power should be distributed and exercised. This is a highly distinctive feature of U.S. history.

It was not surprising that leaders who opposed strong national power did so after leading a rebellion against Britain’s extreme centralizing authority. However, the most notable leaders (Washington, Franklin, Madison and Hamilton) prevailed in persuading their countrymen that more centralized national power was vitally needed during the time of extended crises.

At what point are crises so severe that they approximate a state of war?

Key aspects of debates in any crisis consider which leaders get to exercise significant power. Would there be checks on such authority? Would there be sufficient opportunities for review and revision? As Progressive Party leader Robert Lafollette would later emphasize: Could individual states serve as laboratories for democracy, providing models of leadership for other states and for the national government?

[Coming next: Part II, Evaluating Pandemic Crises’ Leadership in the U.S. system of federalism]


  1. It may always be an undecided. Can we write law, federal, constitutional, state or otherwise which will satisfy the future needs of the nation, pandemic or otherwise?


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