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24 March 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:38pm

How coronavirus exposed the US’s divisions as deeper than ever

As the Democrats struggle to agree on how to respond, Donald Trump’s behaviour has pitted states against each other.

By Emily Tamkin

“Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” US President Donald Trump declared at a press briefing on Monday night (22 March). The phrase was at once ridiculous – what country is built to be shut down? – and ominous, given that there are some, particularly in right-wing media spaces to which Trump is known to listen, pushing for the country to return to “normal” before medical experts advise it to do so.

But the sentence also contained perhaps more than the president intended. The country wasn’t built to be shut down, but the various divisions in the country have become further and fully exposed by the crisis that is coronavirus (with 49,070 US cases and 624 deaths at the time of writing). Cracks that were overlooked are now impossible to ignore; rifts that were already apparent now seem more difficult to traverse. That isn’t to say it was originally intended to be shut down, but certain pre-existing divisions made it easier to grind to a paralysing halt. 

Take, for example, the Democratic Party. For months – since the 2016 election, essentially – the party occupied itself with a debate over how far left or progressive or bold it should be. The debate seemed to have been won, at least in the short term, by the moderate wing; a host of more moderate Democratic presidential candidates coalesced behind former vice-president Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and standard bearer of the US progressive movement, seemed to have lost.

But the pandemic changed, if not the number of votes, then the terms of the debate. “What would happen if you lost your job and suddenly lost your healthcare, too” was already more than an intellectual exercise for millions, but suddenly became more real, more tangible, more urgent on a national level. 

For progressives, the trauma has been a lesson in why we need a social safety net; in why Sanders was right. That Sanders addressed the nation in a livestream before Biden, the presumptive nominee, and that the latter appeared absent from the national discourse for a week, seemingly ceding his role to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, has not helped Biden’s moderate case. (Sanders also faced criticism; he held a livestream from Vermont instead of heading to Washington, DC to vote against a bill that was described, including by himself, as a handout to big corporations with little regard for workers).

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But while not everyone has concluded that bold intervention or a substantive safety net is what’s needed at this time, some have. Democratic Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stating that every American adult should be given $2,000 a month for at least six months, and that there should be “a temporary, nation-wide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for homeowners and renters”. 

Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, two of the four members known in Washington as “the squad” (all first-time members of Congress, all progressives, all women of colour), introduced legislation that “cancels at least $30,000 in outstanding student loan debt per borrower”. But that is still just one wing of the party; last week, Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in the House, reportedly dismissed the idea of direct financial relief to every American, leaving progressive activists reeling at the gap between themselves and the party. 

During the crisis, this division has become ever more conspicuous. In a country where the President has fumbled his response to a world historic crisis, the opposition is still unclear what the answer should be. 

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Power to the people

The same could be said of the debate over the extent to which power should be held at the state or national level. Under the US federal system, great power is afforded to states, not just the national government. Yet as Srinivas Parinandi, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, noted, since the Second World War the US has practised mixed federalism, with the federal government working with states to solve policy challenges. “The federal government really is the one that should be providing the central infrastructure and know-how,” he said.

In the case of coronavirus, that hasn’t happened. And some states – New York, for one example, but also Washington state and California – grasped the urgency of the situation far earlier than the President did.

“The federal system has been an advantage for the United States because state and local governments have very substantial powers that have enabled most governors and many mayors to respond quickly and adroitly and to time and tailor policies to local Covid-19 conditions,” John Kincaid, the president of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Lafayette College, wrote in an email to the New Statesman. “If the US were a unitary country totally dependent on the Trump administration and a polarised Congress for its response to Covid-19, we would be in big trouble.”

“A unique advantage of the federal system is that, if one order of government is derelict, another order of government can compensate,” Kincaid wrote. But he conceded that a major challenge of the system was “co-ordinating federal, state, and local action and targeting federal assistance where it is most needed at various points in time”.

This is always true, but it is perhaps doubly true now. For one thing, a virus doesn’t stop at state borders, but a governor’s jurisdiction does. One of the reasons that the decision by the governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania to form a coalition is sensible is that the spread cannot be slowed in one state if the state next door is continuing business as usual. 

A governor in one state might make a decision from a public health perspective; another governor might make an economically motivated choice. And unlike the California wildfires, this was never going to be a local, state, or even regional problem. Louisiana, for example, is not in the Pacific Northwest, where the first US cases of the virus appeared, or in the hotspot that is the mid-Atlantic region, but its growth rate has been, according to its governor, faster than that of any state or country in the world. 

By leaving the response to individual states, Trump is forcing them into competition with one another. This is the problem with him telling governors to try and obtain ventilators themselves, as he did last week; without a united response, states are divided against one another in trying to fight the virus and keep their own people alive. “The states don’t necessarily have incentives to cooperate,” Parinandi said.

The country wasn’t built to be shut down – but perhaps it has evolved to be torn apart.