For all that has gone wrong in America in the last year, the main thing that has gone right is our system of 50 independent states has endured and prospered.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge to our federalist system. The impulse in March 2020 was to have all states respond in the same way to the virus. Of course, in a country with large cities and small cities, sprawling suburbs, small towns, extremely rural areas and everything in between, that made little sense. We quickly corrected it and governors took control of COVID-19 policies for their states.
The results of that have been astonishing. States that had tight lockdowns, such as New York, New Jersey and Michigan, did not see better outcomes than states which loosened their lockdowns early on.
Florida, in particular, has stood out as evidence that lockdowns simply didn’t produce better results. Florida opened their beaches in the spring and Gov. DeSantis moved to lift all restrictions in September. Yet it was closed New York that experienced the worst winter spikes. It’s something we would have never discovered if we followed one prescription for our vast country.
The magic of federalism meant that people could also vote with their feet to choose the COVID response which best suited them. If someone believed that tight lockdowns and double-masking was the way to beat the virus, they were able to go to a state that reflected those values. Anyone looking for a freer path was also able to make their own choice, whether temporarily or permanently.
Compare this with the response in Europe, where countries had similar or worse results than the US, which made policies for whole countries from a centralized entity in a capital city. If a citizen was unhappy with the COVID policy, they could not simply travel to another region in their country for a different one.
For all the complaints that the federal government failed to implement coherent COVID policy, it is particularly the American way to leave these kinds of decisions to states. In an otherwise terrific piece comparing school policies across state lines, ProPublica writer Alec MacGillis referred to an ‘abdication of federal leadership’. But it’s specifically because of this abdication that states were able to forge different paths from each other and we were able to see what actually worked vs what just sounded like it would work. If the federal government were in charge with a one-size-fits-all solution that solution would have been the more strict, closed one — which has proven to be incorrect.
America did a lot wrong during the pandemic but maintaining our federalist system was exactly right. Post-pandemic, let’s remember that that’s what worked and defer to state governments to solve more of our problems. We’ve moved toward looking at the president and Congress to lead us. We shouldn’t.