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A Remedial Explanation Of Federalism For Jonah Goldberg


Jonah Goldberg seems to think I’ve been inconsistent in a series of recent articles about state and local government efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus, suggesting that my past praise for federalism conflicts with my recent criticism of mayors and governors who have taken their emergency powers too far—little tyrants, I called them.

But of course there’s nothing inconsistent about affirming the primary role of state and local governments in a crisis, and also noting that in some places, local officials will behave badly and will have to be held accountable, either by voters or by the courts.

That’s sort of the entire point of federalism, and one of its chief blessings: the tyrants are little.

It’s a lot easier to remove a mayor or county commissioner from office than a president—just ask Nancy Pelosi. Even overreaching governors can be brought to heel by the threat of a recall, which is what Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is now facing after she issued an absurd order banning the sale of things like vegetable and fruit plants, but not lottery tickets.

For Goldberg’s sake, let’s take a step back. Federalism means the separation of powers between the federal government and the states. Some things fall under federal authority, like national security and immigration, and some things fall under state authority, like disaster response and police powers.

The proper role of states during a pandemic is to issue lockdown orders, close businesses, and restrict travel for the sake of public health. The proper role of the federal government is to help develop a vaccine, close borders and ports of entry, and work with state governments to contain the virus.

In a big, sprawling democracy, sometimes politicians will take things too far—like Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville, Kentucky, who mistakenly thought he could ban Christians from celebrating Easter at drive-in services. Thankfully, a federal judge stayed the mayor’s order in time for churches to hold their services. What’s more, our federalist system ensures that the good people of Louisville will have a chance to let Fischer know exactly what they think of his bone-headed authoritarianism in the next election.

It’s unclear whether Goldberg understands this or if he was just trying to be funny, but praising federalism on the one hand and calling out the abuse of power on the other isn’t contradictory, it’s complementary. If I say I like whole milk, and then complain that I hate spoiled milk, I’m not contradicting myself. Sometimes milk goes bad and you have to throw it out.

Goldberg isn’t the only one who needs a remedial explanation of federalism. During a press briefing yesterday President Trump averred that the authority of the president is “total,” and that governors “can’t do anything without the approval of the president.”

This is obviously not true. The most charitable explanation is that Trump was simply reacting to the media in his usual provocative way, pretending he can do whatever he wants and daring the media to flip out (which they did). When pressed on details, it seems clear he meant it would be politically untenable for most governors to keep their states closed after Trump says they should open, which is probably true.

But in the era of NeverTrump and Trump Derangement Syndrome, some people have developed an unhealthy preoccupation with the current occupant of the White House. Even subscription newsletter writers can fall into this trap. And although the president is certainly more powerful than your governor or mayor, the coronavirus pandemic is a potent reminder that the government that most affects your daily life is that which is closest to you: the mayor, the city council, the county commissioners court.

Goldberg used to understand this. Way back in 2016, right after Trump won the election, he wrote, “People on the ground in their own communities have a better understanding of how they want to live and what they want from government. Local politicians are easier to hold accountable, and culture-war arguments aren’t abstractions when the combatants have to look each other in the eye.”

It’s amazing what four years can do.