Back in my high school civics class — remember “civics class”? — we were taught the distinction between a “federation” and a “confederation”, with an eye toward understanding the difference between the American states before and after 1789. The take-away from all this was that a functional Federal government was necessary to preserve both the relative autonomy of the individual states and a means by which they could act together to preserve the common good in which all states shared.
Despite my own frequent dissent from the perennially upbeat view of American history, here I agree with the received opinion. Without the symbiotic relationship between local and national polities, the United States would not have survived, and cannot survive, not just politically but socially and economically. The Civil War put this Federal proposition to the test, and the triumph of the Union seemed to answer it definitively: the correct phrase is “the United States is”, not “the United States are.” (Plus the vanquished Confederacy, despite all the rhetoric about “States’ rights” that prevails to this day, was a federation in disguise. In politics rhetoric conceals as much as it reveals.) So Benjamin Franklin had it right when he designed the dismembered Snake flag: Join or die.
That was then. What the COVID-19 pandemic has shown is that the Federal government now may be beyond redemption. It is worse than useless — it is positively harmful. The American political culture of possessive individualism has made it impossible to co-ordinate local efforts to address a national and indeed global crisis. It’s every woman, man, and State for themselves. Its mission is to epitomize, from across the pond, Margaret Thatcher’s smug quip that “There is no such thing as society: there are only individuals and families.” Thatcher ignored the fact that her own state of relative petty bourgeois comfort was made possible by the work (and leisure consumption) of millions of fellow Britons, and her very ability to understand anything dependent upon shared social practices and civic institutions. Americans have long understood their existence in terms of the strategic competition that Thatcher and neoliberals everywhere have worshiped. Now the consequences of possessive individualism have hit home. Aesop and Abraham Lincoln were right after all: in unity there is strength. There is such a thing as society.
The snake has been cut in pieces.
There are many, many lessons to be learned from this miasma. Here’s one.
It has been the efforts of State and Local governments to intelligently and decisively confront the medical and economic emergency of COVID-19 that stand out, rather than the delusional blathering coming out of the White House and the blatant oligarchism of McConnell’s Senate. I do not count myself much of an admirer of New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo: he wears his neoliberalism on his sleeve, which must be an embarrassment to the ghost of his late New Dealer father. Moreover his unembarrassed touting of prison labor to manufacture scarce hand sanitizer is downright disgusting. But one has to admit that he at least knows how to govern, has the practical judgment to know a crisis when he sees one, and to respond accordingly, especially if the necessary response demands thinking out of the box. He knows how to talk to his constituents. In a similar vein, California’s Gavin Newsom and Washington’s Jay Inslee have risen to the occasion. And this does not surprise me.
I can understand my fellow Leftists’ disdain for the characteristic timidity of these very establishment politicians in the face of the economic elite, and their placid acceptance of the late-capitalist status quo. But I wish to remind them that a Governor Cuomo (or, for that matter, a President Biden) is not your Daddy or your favorite rock star. The key, pressing issue is: can they govern? Because in a disaster, that’s what’s needed. You don’t have to like them. You don’t even have to like their policies in a period of normalcy. But they do reality-test, react with understanding, and convey a sense of hope, however tenuous the circumstances. Winston Churchill was in my humble opinion a rat bastard, a toady of aristocratic privilege and a Tory apostle of the cult of wealth, who hated the Irish and Indians and was racist to the bone. But without Churchill, or someone like him, at the helm in the UK, things would have been very different.
The problem facing Cuomo, Newsom, et. al. is that they cannot in principle play Churchill. While States might be on their own, they cannot govern on their own in a catastrophe like this. The medical resources sufficient to address this crisis are in D.C.’s bailiwick. Same with the economic resources. And what do we see transpiring in the swamps of the Potomac? Dithering. Pseudoscience — at best (e.g. the first death yesterday related to President Donald Trump’s touting of chloroquine phosphate — used to clean fish tanks — as a potential “cure” for COVID-19). Narcissism on bold display (the relentless focus, in his pressers, of Fearless Leader on Fearless Leader). And on Capitol Hill: the McConnell axis and its plan to preserve the dominance of the plutocratic rentier class at all costs. It does not inspire confidence, never mind social hope.
In 2004 — remember then? — after the re-election of the hapless George W. Bush, there was a meme going around: The United States of Canada v. Jesusland. It was very funny, even if it made me wince nervously. The meme indicated some very rough geographical borders for two very different political cultures. Rough, to be sure: there are denizens of Jesusland in New York and California, and aspirational Canadians in Alabama and Georgia. But there are differences of degree that condense, at some point, into differences in kind. And so the borders between The US of C and Jesusland may be fuzzy, but as Wittgenstein taught us just because a line is fuzzy does not mean it isn’t there. On one side of the line, States like New York and California and Washington are taking this crisis seriously and at face value. On the other side, not so much. And the Feds are sleepwalking.
Perhaps these two political cultures, one epitomized by Trump and McConnell, and the other by Joe Biden at one end and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the other, are not far enough apart, but that they do represent different sensibilities is I think clear. The COVID-19 crisis has brought this dichotomy into stark relief, and the clear rationale for American federalism is put in question. This is not only a political issue. I feel the pull of patriotism — but not toward the United States so much as the ground on which I stand and upon which I have lived my entire life, the city and state of New York. The D.C. regime is pretty much set on sacrificing millions, mostly in urban and suburban areas in the Northeast and West Coast, for the sake of the mandarins of capital and that abstraction called “the economy.” It is hard to identify with the priests of that religion.
Politically, there is one curious and frightening parallel. In 1988, no one thought the Soviet Union would collapse. No one anticipated the fragmentation of the USSR into dozens of independent nation-states. But by 1991, a mere three years later, the unimaginable was reality. While the consequences of the USSR’s disintegration are at best mixed — at least the Baltic nation-states are not utter kleptocracies — it seems in retrospect a foregone conclusion that the USSR was the walking dead among nations. I remember thinking that the smug, self-congratulatory conclusion among Americans that we were the only game in the global town forever was far too premature. Yes, retrospection is easy: the end of the Soviet Union did not look inevitable then, as it does now. But history has this tendency to play practical jokes. The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk and returns with tales of the previous day’s events. But the bird is not telling stories for its own amusement.