Many scholars have argued that American democracy has been slowly decaying, culminating in the election of populist Donald Trump. Political scientist Robert C. Lieberman et al write, “Trump has openly derided many of the core institutions of democratic governance: the independent press, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the validity of elections, the legitimacy of democratic contestation and opposition, and the centrality of facts to political discourse.” Along with this erosion, federalism has been losing its importance, as a trend of nationalizing politics has been occurring in the last eight years. When discussing the nationalization of politics with political analyst Alex Burns, Michael Barbaro of The Daily summarizes this effect stating, “the nationalization of American politics is kind of the death knell for the governor as the go-to figure in our politics.” Due to the lack of guidance from President Donald Trump about the current COVID-19 epidemic, governors have had to step up and take measures, such as executive orders, to protect their constituents. Perhaps this will once again strengthen federalism in America, which could contribute to a new resistance to democratic erosion.
Donald Trump’s response to COVID-19 has been inconsistent. Despite recommendations from scientists, he has mentioned considering lifting social distancing rules and travel bans in time for Easter on April 12th. This is no longer a viable option due to the increase in the virus. Trump has also blamed public-health official’s recommendations as attempting to hurt the economy and his reelection campaign. Alex Burns states, “when you have a national scale crisis, typically it is the president who people hear from every day about the threat that is coming into their homes and their neighborhoods and what their government is going to be doing to help protect them. That’s not happening here from the White House.” This is why the governors have stepped in. Sixteen state governors have declared some form of lockdown, some of the most notable being Andrew Cuomo of New York. This switch of Americans looking to the President for guidance to looking to their governors could change the current balance of federal and state power. State governments exercising their power more than before due to the virus could help to combat the state of democratic erosion in America today.
A core component of federalism is state governments implementing the policies created by the federal government. States can use their power to participate in uncooperative federalism and limit the power of the federal government. Uncooperative federalism is defined as how “the state and local level can influence policy simply by refusing to partner with the federal government.” When partaking in this, states force issues onto the national agenda, which the executive branch may want to avoid, especially if in a split government. The federal government must also spend money and capital to oppose the state governments, which they may feel would be more useful somewhere else. Due to COVID-19, governors have been making calls for lockdown and social distancing more severe than the White House. While this is not uncooperative federalism in itself, as they are not refusing to enforce certain policies, it certainly is a step in the direction of states ignoring federal mandates and acting unilaterally. This could create a trend of state governments acting freely and refusing to enforce policy from the White House. When states use uncooperative federalism, they are taking away power from the federal government, which may be crucial in preventing erosion if the federal government begins to become corrupt and attempts to turn authoritarian.
Another tool states can use to defy the federal government is state-level regulatory spillover. This is when a state makes a regulation that affects nearby states. California is a particularly important state due to its large population and economy. The governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, was the first to issue a type of lockdown order among the epidemic. Not long after, neighboring state governor, Gavin Newsom of California, was “one of the first big state governors to issue what we now think of as a lockdown order.” These governors have started a movement of lockdown that would be followed by other states, especially those of their party, the Democrats. While more Democratic governors are locking down compared to Republicans, it is not mutually exclusive. “[Y]ou also have Mike DeWine, the Republican governor of Ohio, taking some of the most aggressive measures to close schools, ban large public gatherings, even at a point when Ohio has a tiny number of confirmed cases. But at the time that Mike DeWine essentially shuts down Ohio, you don’t have any kind of message like that coming from the leader of his own party, President Trump.” It is clear states are looking to each other to decide on regulation. Neighboring states must also enforce similar orders so citizens will not just go to a nearby state, and continue to spread the disease. The collaboration of states to have a similar policy regarding lockdown without an overarching order from the federal government proves state-level regulatory spillover is alive and functional, which can be used to prevent democratic erosion because states are forced to compromise.
Unfortunately, America is in a period of democratic erosion. While the COVID-19 epidemic is tragic, it is exposing the power of the states that has been hidden for the last decade. States making more aggressive regulations than recommended by the White House may create a trend of states making their own policy despite the mandates of the federal government. This shows states have the power to take part in uncooperative federalism. The collaboration of states in creating similar lock-down policies also proves the power of state-regulatory spillover, which is another safeguard to resisting the policies of the federal government. Despite the tragedy that is COVID-19, it has increased state power and shown that federalism in America is alive and well enough to prevent an authoritarian government. Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, Thomas B. Pepinsky, Kenneth M. Roberts, & Richard Valelly. “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States.” Working paper. Gerken, Heather. “We’re about to See States’ Rights Used Defensively against Trump.” Vox. December 12, 2016.  Ibid.  Ibid.