Rogers M. Smith and Desmond King
This article represents the views of the authors, not of the Rothermere American Institute or University of Oxford.
The United States is in the midst of three national crises: a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of public violence provoked by racist police brutality and structural racism. Each demands national responses and leadership. Designed to prevent centralized tyranny, the American political system has always had trouble coping with nationwide domestic disasters. This national infirmity has rarely been so stark.
The nation’s two greatest crises, southern secession to preserve slavery and the Great Depression, were met by the nation’s two greatest presidents, Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. But both leaders had to bend if not break the nation’s Constitution in order to save it.
In response to the triple-crisis of 2020, America’s current combination of erratic presidential leadership and polarized politics, on top of its constitutional structure of federalism, has produced not just incoherent but clashing local, state, and national efforts to combat COVID-19, economic damages, and police misconduct and civil disorders. How, especially in an election year, could national leaders do better?
Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison has provided an example. He created a National Cabinet that included the premiers (governors) of the nation’s states on a bi-partisan basis, along with the heads of pertinent national ministries, to develop coordinated strategies for confronting the COVID-19 threat that could overcome the divisions of partisanship and federalism. Surprisingly Morrison gave great weight to the views of medical experts and labor as well as corporate representatives. Australia has coped with the COVID-19 crisis far better than the U.S., and avoided sniping between national and state authorities or between parties. It has gone so well that Australia may continue the National Cabinet after the crisis ends.
If President Trump had put such a bi-partisan council of national and state leaders in place, it might have produced more coordinated and coherent public health and economic reopening policies throughout the land. Instead he berates the nation’s governors for being ‘jerks,’ and in the midst of crisis about racist policing, calls for policing to intensify: “You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
An Australia-style National Council might also have helped craft a more unified and effective response to the civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd. That response could have amplified the very real bi-partisan criticisms of the Minneapolis police officers; cooperated in investigating who is responsible for peaceful protests becoming destructive; and coordinated local, state, and national efforts to quell the violence. Instead, in analysis of all three of its crises, America has descended into partisan finger-pointing.
The current national election campaign threatens to be dominated by more of the same. But it can be turned into a competition in which each presidential candidate presents serious, bold proposals for national action, so that the current crises and future ones can be met more effectively. In addition to creating some form of federal/state National Council, other national initiatives are needed.
- The US Department of Justice should adopt stronger measures to ensure that police forces throughout the nation are not only integrated but trained and monitored to curb racist abuses.
- Massive national housing initiatives are needed to combat the economically and racially segregated neighborhoods that generate hardship leading to crimes in poorer areas, and paranoia leading to crimes in richer ones. The Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond explained the necessity for federal housing policy in his searing book, Evicted. As a start single-household zoning law strictures should be challenged.
- Election law reforms must ensure that all state and local electoral systems give equal voice to all citizens rather than working to exclude some voters with demanding ID tests.
- And national funding initiatives are required to provide adequate jobs, schools and health care, especially in needy communities, which in America today are disproportionately communities of color. Since the late 1990s America’s publicly funded schools have become more not less segregated as the achievements of the post-Brown decades evaporate.
Republicans and Democrats can constructively disagree on the means toward these ends, including whether to incentivize market solutions or directly provide public services. But very soon, both President Trump and former Vice President Biden should announce major multi-point programs for insuring that the conditions that have made possible the current triple-crisis will not endure. America’s voters can then choose which direction forward they believe to be best—instead of having to decide, as they must right now, simply who to hate the most.
America is not repeating history. It is living the unresolved history of a failure to use national power to tackle and quell racism.
Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Desmond King is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford.
They are the authors of Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America (2011) and “White Protectionism in America,” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 18 (2020) - available here.