Note: I’m writing again after a few months of research on the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. Such work is an enterprise which, given the pace of events and the rate of change, has a dangerously short shelf-life and is necessarily preliminary. The standard caveats, and then some, apply.

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In March, states rushed to impose new stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus. Yet two months later, after establishing ‘gating criteria’ for reopening that were vague at best (“make the essential workforce safe”, “widespread testing”, “protect public health and safety, as well as the health of vulnerable populations”), states unsurprisingly relaxed these restrictions on economic activity, as cases continued to surge. The results of these decisions have been disastrous for public health, prompting top infectious-disease official Anthony S. …

How to make state politics invisible

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Wisconsin State Blue Book, 1967

Where political conflict is obscure, crises make celebrities. And in the American states — where politics is invariably (and tragically) obscure — crises make governors (in)famous. But for the Little Rock Nine, who would still recall the name of Orval Faubus? Without Katrina, the name of Kathleen Blanco might well be lost to history. During the Covid-19 pandemic, governors have been inescapable. More than inescapable, they have become a synecdoche for state politics. “Evers” and “Cuomo” now stand in for “Wisconsin” and “New York”.

There are admittedly some good reasons for this substitution. Governors possess broad emergency-management authorities, which constitute a unique vantage point for governance. Routine news briefings, crisis communications, legislative package deals, and a ruddy sheen of (relative) competence have helped to depolarize public opinion on how “the governor” is managing each state’s unique crisis. Each one of my newspapers bears some variant of a column praising governors around the country for their leadership and offering some contrast with the incoherence, division, or general malaise of Washington. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin compares the “lying liars” in the Trump administration to the “competent governors” in Virginia and Ohio. At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David Shribman highlights how “four governors have stepped up to provide essential leadership.” …

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Source: WhiteHouse.Gov

The document was eighteen pages long, bearing all of the hallmarks of management consultancy: clean sans-serif fonts, wide margins, and above all, an irreducible vagueness. In it, the White House suggested that states should proceed to re-open their economies after meeting a series of “gating criteria.” A “downward trajectory of documented cases” over a fourteen day period, or a downward trajectory of “positive tests as a percent of total tests.” Were these the Trump administration’s recommendations? The evening news suggested as much. Yet the text that followed the asterisk, as ever, told a different story:

State and local officials may need to tailor the application of these criteria to local circumstances (e.g., metropolitan areas that have suffered severe COVID outbreaks, rural and suburban areas where outbreaks have not occurred or have been mild). Additionally, where appropriate, Governors should work on a regional basis to satisfy these criteria and to progress through the phases outlined below. …

American Federalism and the Politics of Democratic Subversion

— Based on a paper given at a conference on Democratic Resilience, Cornell University, Nov. 2019

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People lined up to vote outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee on Tuesday. Credit: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, via Reuters

From time to time public attention is focused on scandalous situations in state government…These moments pass; state affairs recover their wonted obscurity and it is assumed that the wrongdoers have been exposed and punished.

Grant McConnell (1966)

The 2016 presidential election brought on a blizzard of foreboding announcements about American democracy. Yet as political scientists and pundits alike turned their gaze towards the spectacle of Trump’s Washington, fewer seemed as concerned about what was happening in places like Raleigh or Jefferson City. In fact, scholars and commentators troubled by abuses of power in the executive branch pointed to federalism as — in Corey Brettschneider’s words––“the most effective tool” for protecting democracy, “especially if other constitutional checks fail.” States, it was argued, provided crucial venues for dissent and the formation of alternative governing coalitions. And while new analyses of democratic backsliding mentioned gerrymandering in state legislatures and state-level episodes of ‘constitutional hardball’, they tended to focus their attention on the national level. …

Fiscal plague,
information dust,
piled over everyone,
everyone of us.

Stephen Malkmus, “Solid Silk”

I’m writing this after a walk along the Milwaukee River in dying pink sunlight. An election will be held on Tuesday in which thousands of people in this city will be crammed into only five polling places. Everyone knows the consequences of this and is calling for a delay. The Democratic Governor has attempted to avoid responsibility. He has deferred to courts, who can’t act, and the legislature, whose Republican leaders refuse to. …

The melancholy of having to count souls
Where they grow fewer and fewer every year
Is extreme where they shrink to none at all.
It must be I want life to go on living.

Robert Frost, “The Census-Taker” (1923)

It was built as a quartermaster depot during the Civil War. Later, it became a shirt factory. During the Korean War, parachutes and refrigerated trucks were manufactured there. But for the last sixty years, the massive complex in Jeffersonville, Indiana, close to the Kentucky state line, has been devoted to counting everyone in the US. …

“Now we in West Virginia want to embrace all and have people come from all walks of life when this is over — but right now, we don’t want you to come. And we want you to hear us: We don’t want you to come across our borders.”

Those were the words spoken today by Governor Jim Justice (R) — one of a handful of state officials issuing directives restricting travel across state borders in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Proposals to restrict interstate travel, whether implemented or not, sit uncomfortably in the public mind — a threat to the last shreds of a union left in the idea of federalism. But they have historical antecedents, and not merely in local quarantines during the 1918 flu. …

A student should enter the field of intergovernmental fiscal relations with modesty and even humility…It is a field mined with explosives; beneath a placid surface lie some very deep emotions ready to burst into flame at the slightest provocation.

Committee on Intergovernmental Fiscal Relations, U.S. Treasury Department (1943)

Crises, as Peter Gourevitch reminds us, are to countries what reagents are to compounds in chemistry. However unprecedented or unpredictable, COVID-19 has helped to reveal much about the underlying structural conditions that affect the capacity of government to provide for human needs in a moment of peril.

In the last few weeks, Americans have been routinely introduced to a host of institutions whose capacities (or lack thereof) are typically obscure, from the Federal Reserve to county health departments. Google Trends data now reveal a search volume for the term “governor” only matched by days preceding high-profile elections. Hence while political scientists frequently cite the “invisible” American state as a source of democratic dilemmas, COVID-19 exposes another problem altogether: state formations are now ever-visible, yet incoherent and incapacitated. Where do gubernatorial authorities begin and end? Can states really restrict travel? Who is responsible when public-health infrastructures fail? To whom should we direct our appeals for relief? These questions barely scratch the surface, but reveal a small fraction of the public doubts about the capacity of the American state to meet basic demands of the public for protection from complex risks. …

Scholars Strategy Network, Medicaid Working Group

January 30, 2020


On January 30, the Trump administration released guidance through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) inviting states to transform part of Medicaid into a block grant. This would effectively allow states to eliminate Medicaid’s entitlement status, which ensures that the program adapts to changes in the economy. Instead, states would be able to receive a fixed payment from the federal government and would be free from numerous Medicaid rules and minimum standards. If states adopt this path, it would represent the most significant retrenchment in a US social program since the 1996 welfare reforms. There are, however, serious concerns about whether the new guidance is legal at all, and how it would affect patients, doctors, hospitals, and state economies. …


Philip Rocco

Assistant professor of Political Science // Marquette University // Coauthor, Obamacare Wars (2016) // Coeditor, APD and the Trump Presidency (2020)

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