ZURICH (Reuters Breakingviews) - The Great Lockdown brought on by the official response to the coronavirus pandemic is bringing many big questions to the fore. In the realm of U.S. politics, it has raised a thorny matter that ought to have been tangential at best: the possibility of a potential Great American Breakup.
It started with the abdication of leadership in Washington in coordinating an effective public-health response to the spread of the Covid-19 disease, followed by threats from President Donald Trump to override states’ rights. It’s all fodder for arguments that the United States has become too big to manage - and several U.S. states just provided an alternative blueprint worth considering.
American presidents don’t generally like to discuss the secession of any of the 50 states. That’s understandable given that as many as 750,000 soldiers died in a civil war that began with the splintering of Southern states following Abraham Lincoln’s election 160 years ago. But as with many things, Trump likes to break the norms. Having brought up the question of the independence of states on Tuesday (naturally, in a tweet) the question of The Great Breakup is fair game.
The issue has arisen due to the Trump administration’s handling of the spread of the coronavirus. As the media outlets the president loves to hate have documented at length, the White House and the institutions at its disposal botched repeated opportunities to act early to reduce the human and economic damage that has now plunged the United States, along with much of the rest of the world, into a downturn the International Monetary Fund likens to the Great Depression. For weeks, Trump actively promoted falsehoods about the situation.
Trump has repeatedly lashed out at news organizations documenting the shortcomings. On Tuesday he blamed the World Health Organization for not responding adequately to Covid-19’s emergence and said he would stop America’s funding of the multilateral group. In time, there will be a clearer accounting of who did and didn’t do what, and when, as the pandemic blossomed. But one thing that has been manifestly evident in the United States has been the federal government’s ceding of guidance and decision-making to states on matters ranging from the provision of personal protective equipment and ventilators to the decision on whether to issue stay-at-home orders to citizens.
Consequently, the president’s insistence earlier this week that he alone had the ultimate authority to decide when and how the country would begin a return to normal patterns of work, travel and socializing was surprising. It is also of dubious constitutional merit, though that’s for legal scholars and judges to quibble over. Even the National Review, a stalwart of Republican thought, recoiled: “To hear the words ‘the authority is total’ pass the lips of our chief executive was jarring, unwelcome, and dangerous,” the magazine opined.
The chief executives of some states had already coordinated aspects of the lockdown with their neighbors. Within a day of Trump’s claim, a handful of governors banded together more formally to coordinate plans for restarting their economies without jeopardizing the health of their citizens. On the West Coast the leaders of California, Washington and Oregon pledged to work in tandem, while the governors of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Delaware pooled their efforts on the other side of the country. All but one is a Democrat.
This provoked the president to raise the issue of secession: “Tell the Democrat Governors that ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’ was one of my all time favorite movies,” he tweeted on Tuesday, seemingly comparing himself to British naval Captain William Bligh, portrayed as a tyrant in the film. Trump specifically taunted Andrew Cuomo, the governor of his home state of New York, where more than 10,000 people are dead with the virus: “Now he seems to want Independence! That won’t happen!”
Though Cuomo has not asked for the Empire State’s independence, his counterpart in Sacramento, Gavin Newsom, did last week refer to California as a “nation state.” Nonetheless, the spat raises the question of whether some states would be better off independent, or as part of regional groupings with more authority on matters ranging from public health and immigration to economic policy and even taxation.
That’s why the alliances among those 10 states are interesting. Take the seven contiguous states in the Northeast. Call them Atlantica. As of last year, the region would have had a gross domestic product of $4.3 trillion – slightly bigger than Germany’s – accounting for just under 20% of total American output, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Internal Revenue Service collected 22% of the country’s taxes from the same seven states in 2018. Not only are they a big chunk of the economy, they punch above their weight in taxes.
Similarly, the West Coast group, call it Pacifica, accounts for almost 19% of American GDP. A mooted grouping of contiguous Midwestern states, including Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, would comprise a tenth of the U.S. economy and rank just above Italy on the global scale.
None of these governors are publicly suggesting they would like to secede from the Union. But the once-taboo topic has now become a subject for the Twitter account of the occupant of the Oval Office. Add to the coronavirus the fact that there’s a presidential election in November, and it’s a reasonable prediction that legal scholars and pundits will be revisiting the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union in the months ahead.
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