In making this statement, Newsom brought to the forefront two aspects of politics that are so basic that they are accepted as given during ordinary times in the United States. The first is that the state maintains social order through enforcement and social compliance. If all California residents stopped paying their taxes, the state would be hard-pressed to punish everyone. Fear of acting illegally acts as a deterrent preventing some actors from breaking the law. Studies show that an awful lot of compliance, however, comes from the notion that it is simply the right thing to do.
Newsom’s statement also reveals a second key aspect of politics: When it comes to severe threats, a whole-of-society response is invaluable. Regardless of whether a country is a democracy or an autocracy, the mobilization of the citizenry makes problem-solving much easier. For pandemics, governments should take the lead, but the more that civic society groups take action, the more it reinforces the message from the state.
These points are important to remember when considering how the United States has responded so far to the covid-19 pandemic. The federal government’s response has been … not great, and we’ll get back to that in a moment. But the United States has 50 state governments, as well as a variety of churches, civic associations, businesses and other groupings. And the variegated responses by these groups clearly make a difference:
There are a lot of colleges and universities in this state, and early on they all made the decision, before Trump declared a state of emergency, to shift to online courses and send students home. Anthony Monaco, the president of Tufts University (where I teach), argued in the Boston Globe on Thursday that university campuses in the region should be repurposed to facilitate a public health response:
Universities currently have a surplus of residential capacity with well-developed infrastructure — Wi-Fi and IT networks, dining services, and the ability to zone off residential areas for different purposes. These campuses are well situated to relieve stress on local hospitals as they reach peak capacity due to the covid-19 outbreak.
The local response to the outbreak has been encouraging. A few days ago, there was a wait to get into my local grocery store; they were allowing only about 30 shoppers to be in the building at the same time. People stood in line at a respectable distance from one another. We were given alcohol wipes as we got to the front of the line to wipe down our shopping cart. We were told we could purchase only two of any particular item. Everyone accepted this new normal without complaint and in pretty good cheer. Maybe I live in an outlier of a neighborhood, but my fellow residents all understood what was going on.
I strongly suspect this is the dominant behavior of Americans in affected areas, as opposed to, say, the toilet paper scrums that capture attention online.
Of course, other parts of the country are not responding as well. In Florida, for example, some young people and one governor could be doing better. But I suspect that significant portions of the country have already “flattened the curve” on this infection through social distancing and other prudential responses. If and when other areas face more severe restrictions, I suspect compliance will be pretty good.
There are two cautionary warnings to this, however. First, the next week or two will be difficult. We are still paying the wages of community spread that happened before most states got serious about social distancing. So even as it feels to most Americans that they are making more sacrifices, the aggregate data is going to look much, much worse.
The second warning is that there is a reason we have a federal government, and there are certain things that only it can do during a national crisis. Trump is now allegedly taking the novel coronavirus outbreak seriously, but the federal government’s ability to coordinate the response still seems hampered. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) told CNN on Sunday that when it comes to getting scarce medical supplies, “We’re all competing against each other. This should have been a coordinated effort by the federal government. . . . It’s a Wild West, I would say, out there.” This comes in response to Trump stating that governors should act on their own and that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.”
The 45th president handled this criticism with all the grace and maturity that you would expect from the Toddler in Chief:
.@JBPritzker, Governor of Illinois, and a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News @CNN & Concast (MSDNC), shouldn’t be blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings. We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2020
There are capable people in the executive branch working hard to combat this pandemic. But the fact remains that the White House lacks any long-term strategy and the president lacks the ability to regulate his emotions. This will hamper even a whole-of-society response.