By: Nick Santangelo

This past semester, Political Science students in Joseph P. McLaughlin Jr.’s American Federalism: Will It Save or Sunder Our Fractured Republic capstone course were given a choice.

“After decades in the shadows of American discourse, federalism was emerging as a more relevant field of study than it had been in my lifetime. That was before COVID-19 pushed issues of federalism at the top of the public agenda,” explains Dr. McLaughlin. “Students in my course had to write a paper about topics of their choosing, but once the pandemic hit, I allowed them to switch to the pandemic if they wanted to. Seven students abandoned the work they had already done on other topics and chose federalism and the pandemic.”

Among the seven who chose to switch topics were Maria Brewster, Kimberly Burton and Jason Linderman, all Political Science majors and part of the Class of 2020. The students created additional work for themselves—and during a tumultuous semester that abruptly switched to online learning, no less—by changing topics. However, they felt like they had a unique opportunity to examine federalism and through the lens of an all-encompassing current event that will likely stick with those living through it forever.

Kimberly Burton

In her paper, Kimberly Burton focused on how the U.S.’s federal, state and local governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how those responses differed from how cities like Philadelphia responded to the 1918 Spanish Flu.

“The local government has power in how they handle things, with local health departments and mayors of cities making decisions,” says Burton. “But it's primarily governors that are making a lot of the decisions on a statewide basis, and we also have the federal government passing restrictions and that kind of thing, which didn't really happen in 1918.”

The response in 1918 was more locally oriented. Unlike President Donald Trump, President Woodrow Wilson didn’t really address the pandemic. In the absence of federal or state guidance to do otherwise, Philadelphia held a parade during the outbreak, which led to a disastrous local spread.  

“Wilson didn't do that much, whereas now people are looking to the president for advice on what's going on, and he's making a lot of decisions, on international and national levels, involving restrictions and what medical professionals say is best,” explains Burton. “Some of that could be because we are more medically advanced than we were in 1918, and there are a lot of federal organizations that do medical research and advise the government.”

Despite federal guidance, however, governors ultimately have the power to make the final decisions on issues like closing schools and public spaces and imposing social distancing requirements.

Jason Linderman

And Jason Linderman’s paper examining the differences in state responses found that partisan similarities or differences between the White House and governors’ mansions have partly impacted each state’s response.

“There was a definite correlation between political parties, and the executive branch signaling that the pandemic's not actually a problem, how it's being exaggerated, how one day it's just going to go away,” explains Linderman. “Obviously it hasn't just gone away, it's not even done. You certainly could argue that a lot of Republican governors were affected by that.”

Still, Linderman points out that many Republican governors shut their states down right away. Additionally, state populations, the urban-rural divide and political cultures have also played big roles in state responses. And Linderman adds that while Democratic Governor Cuomo has been hailed for his response, he could have done a better job of responding sooner.

A strong federal government would, theoretically, be preferable for addressing a pandemic. But given that, as Linderman argues, the U.S. federal government could have handled things better, it’s generally been beneficial to have stronger state governments.

“Strong governments are generally pretty good at handling pandemics,” he says. “You can see countries like South Korea handled it very well because South Korea is a small, homogenous country with a strong federal government. Whereas the United States is such a vast country that having a single, unifying force in charge of responding would make things more difficult.

Maria Brewster

Speaking of South Korea, the country was the topic of Maria Brewster’s paper. Her original hypothesis was that South Korea’s unified system of government must be responsible for keeping the novel coronavirus relatively under control. However, Brewster doesn’t think that response applies to the U.S. In addition to our cultural and governmental differences, South Korea also had a higher stock of N95 masks and other equipment and had the experience of fighting a previous coronavirus outbreak a few years ago.

“I couldn't find any direct connection between the fact that we started drive-thru testing so late because of necessarily federalism,” says Brewster, “but there's definitely a correlation there just with how our government works and how much state autonomy there is and how public health is reliant on the police power of the states. The federal government, even if they wanted to, couldn't have acted like South Korea’s. It's more, ‘These are our guidelines, this is what the CDC is recommending, this is what we're recommending based on the research we've done.’”

Echoing Linderman’s thoughts, Brewster says that partisan politics and cultural differences would have made it nigh impossible to have a unified response and a country-wide shutdown. Unfortunately, when one city, county or state closed and a neighboring one didn’t, it made it easy for the virus to spread.

Does Federalism Save or Sunder?

Because of the multiple factors the students mentioned, it’s difficult to say if federalism alone could make a difference. However, when Dr. McLaughlin polled the entire class at the end of the course on whether federalism would save or sunder our fractured republic, save won by a landslide. That, says the professor, gives him hope for the future.

The research shows that a unified government is better structured to fight a health crisis such as the novel coronavirus. The main indicators of this conclusion were the rapid implementation of free and available testing by South Korea, the most effective tool in fighting the virus. The United States’ delayed response and the refusal by certain states to shut down public operations such as tourist attractions assisted the spread of the virus until it was beyond containment and contact tracing.

Federalism is an efficient form of government in terms of state rights and tailoring policy for specific areas and needs, but contagions such as COVID-19 spread rapidly regardless of location. For this reason, individual state policies aren’t as effective as nationwide orders. One state opening up too early or closing too late endangers surrounding states and localities. The only way to efficiently combat coronavirus is swift and unified action.

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