By: Bartosz Maj
Though it seems America is a declining civilisation on the international scene, the US handling of the coronavirus pandemic is not an example of this. Rather, it’s an example of why de-centralised systems with poor leadership struggle with crises. It’s a combination of long term constitutional factors, which pre-date any recent “decline”, and short term political failures by leaders.
Public health authority is a state responsibility resulting in an uncoordinated national response
Centralisation during a crisis is important because it’s effective. A medical crisis does not require political pluralism, but an efficient resource flow achieved through the mobilisation of society and a united national message, especially when early action is remarkably crucial.
America is a perfect example of this, the system is constitutionally opposed to centralisation. Public health authority is a state responsibility resulting in an uncoordinated national response. Instead of a united national reaction the separate states are fighting over equipment amidst shortages, the New York Governor compared the process to bidding for ventilators against 50 other states on eBay.
It also undermines a coherent national message, political scientists emphasise the importance of a single message during a national emergency but a lack of coordination between various levels of political authority (Representatives, Senators, Governors, and the President) has made this impossible. This means the public are less likely to follow social distancing advice, furthering the crisis.
The matter is worsened by Trump’s delayed response and lack of leadership. Florida Governor Rod DeSantis delayed the closure of beaches and other facilities because it could upset the local voter base; he argued he received no specific instructions from the White House coronavirus task force, and if he did it would influence his actions significantly. A decentralised system can be given direction by a leader with the will to do so, Trump is not this leader.
This means the public are less likely to follow social distancing advice, furthering the crisis.
Trump’s failure to respond to the pandemic with the urgency suggested by experts has resulted in the US being the country with the most infections whilst having 5 times less tests per capita than South Korea.
America is a strange system; decision-making is difficult by design. The whole country is a criss-cross of checks and balances, devolved responsibility, and a constant political debate about how much power the federal government should have. This was intentional, with the system designed as a reaction to the experience of the American colonies under British rule, and it was meant to prevent such a centralisation from occurring ever again.
Coronavirus has shown the problems with such a system, though America is an impressive example of federal management, its insistence to painstakingly devolve and control power makes it vulnerable to weak leadership.
It could be argued America is a declining civilization in some areas, but the reaction to coronavirus is not a part of this grand story arc. As much as it could contribute to a further decline, it is not caused by the decline. It is caused by the constitutional make up of America which causes the most damage during times of emergency when leaders Trump fail to give the country direction.
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