While we know the current Administration is science-averse, we also know that it sees “politics” as a game --- full of slogans, buzzwords, dog whistles, etc. There is an old hackneyed joke about “Political Science” being an oxymoron and, certainly, there might be some truth to it. Either way, I’d like to review another 11th grade United States History lesson that you may not remember: the political spectrum.
As we watch some states go into full-scale “sheltering in place” while others do little or nothing, it might be useful to understand how that can be. Our unique federalist system divides powers between our central (federal) government and the various states and commonwealths. There was, of course, a violent conflagration based on that division of power (The Civil War, 1861-1865) and, despite the outcome of that confrontation (the North/Federalists, “won”) we have watched American politicians engage in an endless tug-of-war over “Federal vs. State” power. In our current pandemic crisis, we are watching how that tug-of-war operates in real time. Given the President’s affiliation with the largely Conservative (right-wing) Republican Party, there is little to no leadership or direction coming from the White House at the present time. Add to that the aforementioned science-aversion of the White House’s current resident and we’re watching 50 separate dramas unfold as the virus spreads.
The Left-Right political “spectrum” is often taught as a linear construct (the directional designation originated during the French Revolution, with those opposed to the King standing on the Left and those supporting the King standing on the right (similar seating then occurred during the Revolutionary National Assembly). Presently, however, people confuse (or don’t know) left/right designations because of a number of mitigating historical factors. The charts at the top of this essay illustrate how, in fact, the political spectrum is better understood as a circle or diamond. With the 20th century rise of totalitarian regimes, we saw both the “left” and the “right” co-opted by dictators who professed allegiance to either a left-wing or right-wing ideology. (Stalin on the Left, Hitler on the Right)
What we can see, examining the charts, is that those who are “leftist” believe the Federal/Central government needs expansive power --- particularly when dealing with a crisis (a Depression, a World War, a Pandemic) while those who are “right-wing” are more invested in power being retained by the States and/or Private Sector actors. FDR’s social programs, then (the TVA, the “alphabet soup” agencies, Social Security, etc.), can be seen as the exercise of “extreme” Federal power. The current situation, where the Governors of each state are being left to determine how to deal with the coronavirus crisis is an example of the Conservative/”states-rights” ideology. Given its allegiance to the private sector/business community, it explains why certain Governors have been slow to enact measures which would ensure public safety. Indeed, Trump’s equivocating and magical thinking --- spurred by his concern regarding economic consequences --- contributed to a number of “Red State” Governors not taking action.
On January 22, 2020 President Trump, when asked “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” answered: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Despite warnings from a variety of Public Health officials and scientists, he tweeted, on January 24th “It will all work out well” and, in a speech on January 28th, stated:
“We have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.”
The point here is that Trump’s adherence to rightist political philosophy (combined with his own stubborn belief in his personal infallibility)meant the State Governors have been left to lead the charge against the coronavirus. As a result we are getting a very slow response to the pandemic from certain states.
According to Wired reporter Paris Martineau on April 1, 2020 “Governors of a half-dozen states worry about the economic fallout of forcing businesses to close and say there's no clear guidance from Washington.” As Martineau reports:
In Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and South Dakota, calls from public health experts to institute strict social distancing measures have largely fallen on deaf ears.
Anyone watching the news knows that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump acolyte, left the state’s beaches open for Spring-Breakers, not only exacerbating the possibility of widespread virus infection in Florida but also potentially spreading the disease to countless other states in the process. He finally relented yesterday, after earlier stating:
"this is not a virus that's impacting every corner of the state." He doubled down on the decision on Tuesday (March 24th), adding that the White House has not recommended a statewide order. On Wednesday (April 1st), after this article was initially published, DeSantis reversed himself, and issued a statewide shelter in place order, effective April 2.
The key phrase, regarding left-right politics, is “the White House has not recommended a statewide order.” Examining statements by the Governors of Alabama and Mississippi is instructive --- not only regarding left/right politics but also in the way they echo the same talking points. For example, Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama said:
“Y’all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York state, we are not California,” Ivey said, emphasizing the devastating impact more stringent social distancing measures could have on the state’s economy. “Right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place.” ((Wired, Martineau)
In much the same fashion, Tate Reeves, the Governor of Mississippi stated:
“What’s happening in New York, California, and Washington, and particularly in where they are in the cycle and the curve, is very different than what’s happening in Mississippi and Alabama and other Southern states,” Reeves said, adding that when he reached out to the White House, members of the task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence recommended that he not issue a statewide order.” (Wired, Martineau)
The notion that these Southern states are not New York or California certainly makes it clear that these Governors (from Trump-supporting states) may believe, as Vice President Pence seems to, that an “end of days” plague will only wipe out the non-believers in places like New York and California (left leaning Democrats and Independents), preserving the Nation for “true believers.” As noted by Jeremy Konydnyk, of the Center for Global Development & the World Health Organization:
The president had more or less told the states to just go figure it out on their own. And we were hearing from the mayors' and the governors' offices that we were talking to, that they felt they were sort of flying blind .If you don't have that consistent approach, then you basically have a lowest-common-denominator approach, and whoever is making the weakest decisions puts everyone else at risk, (Wired, Martineau)
We have been hearing that, as a result of this piecemeal approach from the White House, states are bidding against each other, as well as FEMA, for PPE and ventilators, to the detriment of all those affected by the virus.
Trump has declared himself a “Wartime President” but has hardly acted like one. His stubborn refusal to enact, rather than simply invoke, the Defense Production Act has left the nation at high-risk and we are seeing that Red-State governors (particularly in the South) are toeing Trump’s party line, endangering the populations of their respective states. One of the ways historians distinguish “Great” Presidents from “average/mediocre” and “poor” ones, is how they respond to crises or unique opportunities (Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana, for example, defied his basic conservative principles). Trump has the opportunity to distinguish himself as a “good/great” President, if he could only break free from his rigid beliefs and a philosophy that endangers the entire nation.