America’s Federalist Dysfunction Isn’t Going Away

Instead of prompting the coordinated, national response that’s needed, this pandemic is exacerbating one of the most destructive and enduring themes of US political life: the sectional conflict between states, and between town and country. Progress in battling coronavirus will continue to be hamstrung by our dysfunctional federalist system.

Donald Trump speaks to reporters while hosting Texas Governor Greg Abbott about what his state has done to restart business during the novel coronavirus pandemic in the Oval Office at the White House May 7, 2020 in Washington, DC. Doug Mills-Pool / Getty

Labor organizers often describe the strike as the ultimate “structure test” of their organizational strength and leadership among the workers. It is a crisis point that puts the future of the organization at stake, and it can end in failure even if the leaders make all of the best possible decisions. The pandemic has been, in many ways, the ultimate test of each country’s social structure and ruling class. As the death toll and unemployment claims continue to soar from week to week, it’s all too clear that the United States has failed the test on almost every front.

As hospitals groaned under the weight of the pandemic and millions of laid-off workers struggled in vain to file unemployment claims, corporate lobbyists were busy writing eye-watering tax giveaways into the coronavirus relief bill. Instead of putting private industry to work on behalf of the federal government, the Trump administration has instead gone to work on behalf of private industry. Major corporations like FedEx, which appears to be vastly overcharging the federal government for chartered cargo flights, have not hesitated to take advantage of the administration’s chaotic and mismanaged supply chain group. The president has compelled slaughterhouse workers to keep working despite obvious health hazards, and has signaled his intention to protect their employers from legal liability. Business lobbyists and campaign donors are shaping decisions to reopen state-level economies, and the fitness-club industry leveraged White House connections to get gyms, of all things, into “phase one” of President Trump’s national reopening plan.

Such openly predatory behavior is certainly offensive, particularly in the midst of a supposedly equalizing pandemic. But it’s far from surprising, and is quite consistent with the “mechanisms of politically constituted rip-off” that have defined the political economy of neoliberal capitalism. While millions of us face economic ruin, sickness, and death, America’s ruling elites continue to distinguish themselves as first-class passengers on a sinking ship.

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci characterized a truly hegemonic ruling class as one that “really causes the whole society to move forward, not merely satisfying its own existential requirements, but continuously augmenting its cadres for the conquest of ever new spheres of economic and productive activity.” This is the essence of capitalist hegemony: the ability to plausibly claim that the interests of the ruling class are the interests of society as a whole, and to exercise a gravitational pull over the best and brightest members of the subordinate classes.

Such claims were plausible during the postwar era, when rapid growth, low unemployment, and high wages conferred a substantial degree of legitimacy on economic elites and the dominant political parties. The titanic class struggles of the 1930s established organized labor as a force to be reckoned with, strengthened the state, and increased its autonomy relative to capitalist class power. It was this balance of power, unique in the history of the country, which shaped the politics of the postwar period and allowed government action to be something other than a simple instrument of narrow ruling-class or sectional interests.

This New Deal order, however, was incomplete and historically contingent, and it came apart under pressure from increasing international competition, decreasing profitability, and the heightened social and class conflicts of the 1970s. With the global system in crisis and labor in a weakened position, economic elites worked with political allies in both major parties to reshape the US political economy in their interests. The upshot was a finance-led, politically oriented capitalism that redistributes wealth and income upward in a zero-sum game that only benefits a narrow sliver of people at the very top. The quip “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” was certainly self-serving, but it contained an important kernel of truth. Does anyone really believe Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein when they say the same thing about Wall Street?

Sectionalism Resurgent

Ruling-class rot is bad enough on its own. But its interaction with America’s fragmented state structure has been a recipe for death, disaster, and discord on a frightening scale.

President Trump has oscillated wildly between claims to “total” authority over the states and a do-it-yourself voluntarism that dumps responsibility in the laps of the nation’s state governors. With the White House more concerned about the blame game than crisis management, governors in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast have understandably taken it upon themselves to deal with the situation before them. Most prominently, a number of governors have used their constitutional authority to strike interstate compacts to coordinate public health policy and the reopening process.

This kind of voluntary regional action, while unavoidable under the current circumstances, carries a significant downside. In the absence of effective national leadership, the pandemic is exacerbating one of the most destructive and enduring themes of US political life: sectional conflict.

Sectional friction is one of the biggest threats to national cohesion and effective policy responses, particularly in the midst of a major crisis. In the United States, sectional friction has historically been grounded in economic competition between the country’s main regions, which in turn has shaped the party system and patterns of partisan conflict. Interregional competition between the industrializing Whig-Republican north and the slaveholding Democratic south over the fate of the West led to a bloody civil war, and this basic geographical pattern continued to drive American political development well into the twentieth century.

Combined with the federalist structure of the American state, the persistence of partisan sectionalism all but ensured a halting and disjointed public health response to the pandemic. As the political geographer Jonathan Rodden observes, the urban-rural divide that structures partisan competition today gave the Trump administration a perverse incentive to disavow ultimate responsibility for managing the crisis: “since the public health threat appeared to be concentrated in big cities, the obvious strategy was to let Democratic governors, mayors, and county commissioners implement these potentially unpopular measures, thereby ‘owning’ the resulting economic downturn — and perhaps the deaths as well.”

Intergovernmental and interregional tensions have also played out within many states, where the geographically based partisan divide pits metropolitan and rural areas against each other. In Georgia, for example, the Democratic mayor of Atlanta has openly rejected the Republican governor’s moves to reopen businesses around the state. In states like Michigan, where Democratic governors have maintained relatively strict social distancing guidelines, crabgrass reactionaries have descended on state capitals — often with guns in hand — to demand a return to normalcy. These potentially explosive tensions will probably not abate any time soon. As Rodden points out, calculations of the acceptable trade-off between public health and economic concerns will inevitably differ between the rural/exurban areas where Republicans rule, and the urban areas where Democratic-leaning white-collar telecommuters and low-wage service workers predominate.

While many urbanites may be tempted to embrace the politics of sectionalism, it is difficult to imagine a worse response to the crisis before us. Such a stance is not just morally abominable, but politically stupid. Metropolitan partisanship is a progressivism of fools. Sectionalism has long been a major barrier to the development of a fully national system of class-based politics in the United States. The Left should always be looking for ways to bridge the urban-rural divide within and between states, not exacerbate it. Cementing an alliance between the workers of town and country has long been a central strategic concern of socialist politics, and is one of the keys to a left-wing political breakthrough in this country.

A Great Unraveling?

Could the pandemic set in motion the unraveling of the United States? While this remains a remote possibility, it cannot be dismissed out of hand. The obvious dysfunction of the domestic ruling class, coupled with the end of US hegemony in the world system, is likely to stress the always-fragile underpinnings of national cohesion in the coming years.

The sheer geographical size of the country, coupled with the economic and social diversity it generates, has generated a consistent counter-tendency to the development of a common national will. As Peter Trubowitz argues in his excellent book on sectionalism and US foreign policy, political conflicts over defining the “national interest” have been shaped by shifting regional alliances between the Northeast, South, and West, with the winning coalition uniting two regions against the third. The Civil War was obviously the most dramatic and violent expression of this dynamic, but as Trubowitz demonstrates this general pattern persisted well into the twentieth century. Many of the recent developments in US politics cannot be fully understood without reference to the “sunbelt” alliance of Southern and Western interests against those of the older, deindustrialized Northeast.

In his 1925 essay on the significance of sections in US history, Frederick Jackson Turner outlines a strikingly regionalist interpretation of American political development. Turner described the American section as the “shadowy image of the European nation,” and argued that our “politics and our society have been shaped by sectional complexity and interplay not unlike what goes on between European nations.” In his view, Congress did not generate or reflect a common national will, but was rather a “League of Sections, comparable to a League of Nations” that allowed each section to defend its interests without resorting to violent force.

The main purposes of the US state, from the signing of the Constitution to the present, have been the construction of a continent-spanning commercial empire and its military defense. It has been very successful in these respects, but far less successful in generating a coherent national project. As Kevin Pask has argued in New Left Review, many of the central elements of the American mythos were fundamentally Northern-Yankee enterprises rather than fully national ones, westward expansion and mass immigration above all else.

The New Deal was, among other things, an attempt to nationalize US politics and culture. Like Reconstruction before it, however, it ultimately foundered on the rocks of sectional strife. Southern Democrats were supportive of many early New Deal recovery measures, and were seen as central to its political success until well into Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. But when industrial unionists and African Americans began to flood the party’s ranks around 1935 and press their claims, the Southern bourbons linked arms with Republicans to block the march of union power and racial egalitarianism into Dixie and the interior West. The most advanced attempt to build a “national-popular” class politics that could centralize and modernize the American state was defeated, and the influence of section continued to cast a shadow over future attempts to ensure a common standard of political rights and social provision across the country.

The pandemic has exposed our fragmented and competitive health care non-system for what it is: an utter and complete failure. In that sense, it is only a reflection of the political regime that allowed it to exist in the first place. Neither can be allowed to continue in the wake of this crisis, and it falls to the new democratic-socialist movement to develop a program that goes beyond health care reform to a truly hegemonic political project: one that causes the whole society to move forward. The alternative is more chaos and decline, and perhaps a great American unraveling we are not prepared to deal with.