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Coronavirus Crisis Exercises Democracy’s Flabby Muscles (Washington Examiner) April 1, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Not so fast.

For one thing, our democracy has emergency tools that allow for a timely response in selective situations. First governors, and then the president, have declared states of emergency that consolidate powers and reduce checks and balances on a selective, and hopefully temporary, basis. Government institutions such as the Federal Reserve are empowered to act unilaterally when the situation calls for it. Ideally, when things return to normal later, our government does as well, although this has been a problem given the 30-plus states of national emergency still on the books, the oldest declared by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. As I have written before, national emergencies may come and go, but emergency declarations have a tendency to remain.

More encouraging, however, is that this crisis has prompted our democracy to begin exercising some muscles that we had allowed to become flabby — namely federalism, deliberation, and civic virtue.

Federalism, the increasingly old-fashioned idea that not everything is a matter for the federal government, has been vital to addressing this crisis. We learned early on that the way in which states such as Washington, California, and New York addressed the crisis needed to be faster than and different from other states, and federalism allowed those governors to do so. In California, there were much higher concentrations in the early days in Silicon Valley and San Francisco than elsewhere, so again, federalism empowered county and city governments to act as their circumstances demanded. These early and smaller-scale interventions also provided the kind of laboratory of experimentation that informed larger state and federal policies later. Two of the leading battlefield commanders are in Sacramento, California, and Albany, New York — not in Washington, D.C.

In an era where government power has long traveled along a one-way street toward Washington, it is good to see federalism alive and well.

Deliberation, also an old-fashioned idea, holds that our leaders go into government to talk and work through difficult problems together. The Senate, once called the greatest deliberative body in the world, hardly deliberates anymore, and most policy issues quickly devolve into partisan warfare. In the present crisis, however, we see evidence of some deliberation and bipartisanship.

President Trump and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, both Republicans, were at the table with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats. The latest bill, deemed urgent by everyone, was nevertheless delayed a few days to reach an actual compromise. Even within the administration, you see some back and forth in pursuit of the truth, with leaders openly discussing how to balance the needs of the economy with public health. All this is a “healthy” development.

Finally, the crisis demands greater civic virtue of a nation whose civic and virtue muscles had all grown flabby. It calls for greater patience from the “now” generation used to instant technology and immediate gratification. It calls for the “me” generation to become a “we” generation. It demands a long-term patience along with a willingness to listen and respond to authority. Frankly, the jury is still out on this one. Too many people, especially younger people, are still out and about, ignoring social distancing requirements. Some pastors are still holding church services. People are still hoarding masks, sanitizer, and even toilet paper. Benjamin Franklin articulated the founders’ view on this quite well when he said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” This is truly the front line of our democracy today: Can we put community above self and exercise civic virtue?

Yes, we need everything medical science can offer to address this crisis, especially the silver bullets of a cure and a vaccine. We will also need some golden eggs from the federal budget. But this is also a great opportunity to restore democracy’s flabby muscles by cheering on federalism and deliberation in government and exercising civic virtue at home.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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