All Government is Local

Capitol Veranda

During a recent interview with NBC, Melinda Gates declared the failure of our national response to the COVID-19 pandemic was due to a lack of a single plan executed by central leadership.

With disdain she said: “We haven’t had leadership at the national level to get out tests in the right way, protective gear in the right way, contact tracing in the right way. With lack of leadership, there are 50 homegrown state solutions. And that just shouldn’t be.”

Why not?

(Putting aside the obvious question, “What is the right way?”) Decentralized government has always been more responsive to local needs, having the agility to adjust for changing circumstances, and led by the people who know their communities best.

While Gates referenced Germany and their national leadership, able to contain the outbreak and then slowly re-open based on science, she ignored that Germany is 28 times smaller than the U.S.

When she said, “That’s the kind of leadership we should expect as citizens in this country,” I ask again, “Why?”

What have we done to earn competent leadership? We certainly haven’t elected it. We have elected celebrity, sound bites, and party lines.

The lack of a national response is not the failure. Our state and local governments are best positioned to lead. For decades though, we have considered local elected roles merely a launchpad for national politics. We ignore local elections, midterm elections, and the misdeeds of city and county councils.

We have the government we deserve.

In the earliest stages of this pandemic many wondered where the response leadership should really live. The CDC? FEMA? Which federal agency should take charge? But issuing tests, protective gear, and enacting contact tracing protocol are not the functions of federal leadership. Not when Nashville and Orlando are navigating two completely different experiences.

The failure here is not lack of national leadership, it’s leadership that doesn’t understand how our government is supposed to work.

Standardization and one-size-fits-all are myths of industrialization. The circumstances in each community are unique. What works in Texas does not often work in California. But news organizations are nationalized, politics is nationalized, and the big stage outshines the small one. Even though the small one is where the actual work gets done.

Governance is a local job. In the zoning commissions and school boards we shape the kind of community we want to have. National politics, in asserting their primacy over local, have created a nanny state. Senators, congressmen, and national political parties have hijacked the discussion of governance and fed us platitudes and generalities.

When COVID-19 began, our local government agents should have considered our own capabilities and vulnerabilities, which they were eventually forced to do. But only after the federal government demonstrated it had nothing. It’s clear that local response should have been activated immediately.

In floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, it’s the local agencies that act first. Why should a pandemic have been any different?

States have powers and resources to protect their citizens. So why did it take them so long to exercise those powers?

For too long our national rhetoric has been about national responses, national requirements, and national concerns. Meanwhile our local institutions have withered under the inattention of the very citizens they’re meant to serve.

Maybe the Trump administration completed flubbed this pandemic by ignoring experts, denying the seriousness of the problem, and now leading us all through a confusing and moronic speculative season. But the failure to respond didn’t start in March or even January. It started in the local elections when citizens didn’t bother to show up and place competent individuals into local office.

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