During the early days of the coronavirus crisis, President Donald Trump couldn’t make up his mind about the governors who were closing schools, banning large gatherings, and shutting down businesses across the country. He veered between admiration and resentment, praising governors for working with “urgency and speed,” while calling one a half-wit and another “a snake.”
As Trump staged elaborate stunts to goose the markets, governors made no secret of their anger. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois tweeted that “the federal government needs to get its s@#t together,” and Jay Inslee of Washington fumed at the president in a private call in late March. Still, they recognized that they had no choice but to proceed on their own.
The states are turning into real-life laboratories, conducting 50 different experiments in how to halt a pandemic. Andrew Cuomo of New York has won accolades for his on-point daily press briefings. In Kentucky, Andy Beshear has reassigned state employees to work at food banks. Pritzker has launched a state website that matches healthy residents with opportunities to help their neighbors. And David Ige of Hawaii threatened those who leave their homes before April 30 with a year in jail. (Other states have been less aggressive about social distancing; in Arizona, Republican Governor Doug Ducey stepped in to make sure golf courses could stay open during the crisis.)
In that sense, and maybe that sense alone, the coronavirus response represented political business as usual. The Trump presidency as a whole has accelerated a long-standing trend of state officials taking action while dysfunction in Washington grinds the legislative machinery of Congress to a halt.
Even before the coronavirus hit the United States, states were a liberal fail-safe in times of GOP control. Name the issue—gun safety, voting rights, marijuana legalization, data privacy—and states have taken real action. In March, Colorado abolished the death penalty. That same month, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon signed an executive order launching one of the most ambitious carbon reduction plans in the country. Virginia raised the minimum wage, ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, and repealed the intrusive requirement that women seeking abortion undergo an ultrasound first, all in 60 days. Such hyperactivity is nothing new; over the past decade, states have far surpassed Washington as policymaking venues. But many of the victories have been on the Republican side. Now, thanks to growing Democratic numbers at the state level, liberals are at last fulfilling lengthy wish lists that members of Congress can only dream of.
This may sound like a reversal. For decades, federalism was the last refuge of reactionaries. Throughout the twentieth century, Southerners claimed they fought the Civil War not to preserve slavery, but rather to uphold states’ rights. They used the same argument to justify their resistance to civil rights legislation.
During the Obama presidency, Republicans continued to take state power seriously. In 2010, Chris Jankowski and the Republican State Leadership Committee took over 20 chambers—with just $30 million. By late 2014, Democrats controlled both the governorship and the legislature in only seven states, their lowest count since the Civil War. Voters had replaced them with Republicans like Bruce Rauner of Illinois, a multimillionaire businessman who was deriding the press and insulting his enemies even before Trump entered the presidential race. They would go on to cut taxes, bust unions, pass abortion restrictions, and approve new voter ID requirements.
Democrats let this go unchallenged for many years. Barack Obama only got around to endorsing about 150 legislative candidates in 2016, his final year in office, and it wasn’t until Trump took power that donors began paying attention. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, numerous groups dedicated to electing Democrats to state offices sprouted up. Some were founded during “what do we do now?” drinking bouts on election night. Former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee alone has raised more than $50 million. (Tellingly, Republicans have now set up a copycat group, led by former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.)
That investment has paid off. Many of the Republicans elected in the 2010s struggled to deliver tangible results or even master the basics, such as paving the roads and running the schools. (Rauner couldn’t pass a budget for half his four years as Illinois governor, and Matt Bevin of Kentucky insulted teachers and fired two infection control directors during a recent hepatitis outbreak in which his state suffered a third of the nation’s fatalities.) All told, Democrats have won back nine governorships since Trump took office, and now control the governorship and legislature in 15 states.
Democrats have used this newfound power to challenge Trump—and provide protections for American workers who can’t get past the gate in a divided Congress. A dozen states now have paid sick leave. Thirty have increased the minimum wage above the federal level. And while Trump has rejected the Paris accord’s goals on climate change, more than half of all Americans live in states that have pledged to meet them anyway. Meanwhile, the 24 Democratic state attorneys general checked Trump in court on everything from immigration to the environment. The coronavirus has now rendered elections a safety hazard, and even though Congress hasn’t been able to pass legislation to allow people to vote by mail, multiple states are making the shift themselves. And although Trump has trapped many states in a bidding war for essential medical equipment, states have found creative ways to protect the public, such as designating grocery store workers emergency personnel to grant them access to free childcare.
It’s the nature of states that achievement is not uniform. Republicans still control a majority of legislatures and governorships. But even where Democrats are shut out of office, liberals have dusted off a tool from the Progressive era: Thanks to ballot initiatives, red states in recent years have raised the minimum wage, expanded Medicaid, taken redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers, and legalized marijuana.
When your party is blocked in Washington, you can still make things happen at the state level, often in a hurry. That’s a lesson liberals have taken to heart. And now, when it comes to public health, having real power in the states has helped save countless lives. Things are bad enough, but imagine how much worse off the country would be if Trump’s policy of neglect were not answered forcefully by governors and state legislatures.