Sometimes I doubt all those surveys that show Americans would fail U.S. citizenship tests. Can Americans really not pick three of the original 13 states from a multiple-choice list? Do they really not know why the patriots declared independence from Britain or what year the U.S. Constitution was written? Are America’s schools failing to teach basic civics?
Then I see this tweet from Molly Jong-Fast, editor-at-large at the Daily Beast and contributor at The Bulwark, and I know those surveys are true — tragically, horrifically true. Somehow Jong-Fast, an author and the daughter of authors who attended three schools and earned a Master’s of Fine Arts at Bennington College, never learned the concept of federalism.
As states have stepped forward to address the coronavirus crisis in various ways, Jong-Fast blamed this flurry of activity on … President Donald Trump.
“So the states are basically governing themselves because our president doesn’t know how to president at all?” she tweeted. She then suggested that Trump was not acting like a president because he had been a celebrity before entering the Oval Office. “Maybe next time we won’t elect the guy who played a businessman on teevee?”
So the states are basically governing themselves because our president doesn’t know how to president at all?
— Molly Jong-Fast🏡 (@MollyJongFast) March 16, 2020
This kind of ignorance is nothing short of astounding. The principle of federalism is central to the U.S. Constitution. The United States is even called the United States because it started as a confederation of states that bound together for a common cause. The Articles of Confederation made the sovereignty of the states paramount, and even when the country adopted the Constitution to make the central government powerful enough to solve enormous threats, the Founders bent over backward to preserve the states’ powers.
The Tenth Amendment clearly states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis popularized the idea of states as the “laboratories of democracy.” In New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann (1932), he argued, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” While the Supreme Court and the federal government can restrain that experimentation, states have the power to adopt a wide range of unique policies, testing what works and what doesn’t — that’s the beauty of federalism.
If federalism is so central to America’s history and form of government, where does Jong-Fast’s ignorance of it come from? This kind of ignorance does not simply appear of its own accord — this kind of ignorance is learned.
While federalism is as old as America, a new ideology that arose in the 1890s helps explain Jong-Fast’s view that states acting on their own authority to fight the coronavirus somehow represents a failing of President Donald Trump.
You see, in the heady days of the late 19th and early 20th century, Americans began to put their trust in science, and with that trust in science came the idea that government was better managed by a scientific bureaucracy than by elected officials accountable to the people.
Woodrow Wilson in particular, who merged academia and politics as president of Princeton and later president of the United States, advocated for a “progressive” bureaucracy that would manage American life to get it ticking like a well-wound clock. Wilson used World War I to implement a takeover of the U.S. economy dubbed by many historians a form of “war socialism.” His Democratic Party took a beating in the 1920 election when Republican Warren Harding promised a “return to normalcy” after the 1919 influenza epidemic, World War I, and war socialism. Harding and his successor, President Calvin Coolidge, cut the size and scope of the federal government and helped usher in the Roaring Twenties.
Yet Wilson’s dream persevered, and it breathed new life under Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Hoover and FDR both expanded the government in response to the Great Depression, but their reforms arguably prolonged the depression and made it worse.
Yet the idea of the president as a dictator — not as a tyrant but as an emergency-crisis manager in the old Roman sense of the word — persisted.
Under the Constitution, the president does have certain extraordinary powers in cases of insurrection and rebellion, and under recent statutes, he can declare an emergency to free up federal funding, as Trump has done. Yet none of this means the states have no role in acting on their own — in fact, the states arguably have a greater obligation to help their citizens because they are closer to the problems at hand.
Jong-Fast’s criticism seems ironic. After all, she is a fierce opponent of President Trump — associating herself with the Never Trump publication The Bulwark. If Trump were to overstep his bounds in directing states during this crisis, she would likely call him a tyrant.
As it stands, Trump has behaved admirably. Medical experts have said his decisive actions have saved lives, and the president has worked with the private sector in a way that strongly contrasts with his Democratic opponents’ big-government approaches to health care. Some critics have suggested he moved too slowly, but that kind of criticism comes with the territory.
However Americans judge Trump’s actions, there is one thing they should not say. They should not fault the president for the actions of governors across the country — presidents and governors have different jobs. For this reason, Jong-Fast’s tweet reminds me of a tweet from New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay. Gay suggested that a loss of running water in houses in East Harlem was somehow President Donald Trump’s fault, not the fault of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
PJ Media’s Charlie Martin pointed out that Gay’s tweet suggested the NYT board member wants the president to be a micromanager in chief, involved not just with the concerns of one state but with the concerns of one city block.
This is madness, but it is also the result of progressivism. If the president is the representative of the people, who are themselves represented by governors and mayors at more local levels, then the president should allow local leaders to handle local issues, and partner with them during crises like the coronavirus. But if the president is some kind of manager-in-chief who heads up a vast bureaucracy, then he can direct his underlings to deal with local problems, bypassing those pesky state and local leaders who represent smaller portions of the general public.
Progressivism is corrosive to federalism. Democrats have demanded that the vast bulk of the American population should pick a president who then directs everything down to the smallest level. They eschew forms of local control and even state control — condemning institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College, which give the states more of a say at the federal level.
Jong-Fast’s tweet is representative of an entire worldview that is antithetical to the Constitution’s basic principles but very much in line with a certain ideology that would remake America’s government. Yet there is some good news: if this ignorance is learned, it can be unlearned.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.