Many Americans bemoan the lack of civics education nowadays. They have a point, with evidence ranging from opinion polling to those “man on the street” interview bits on late-night TV.
But there have been several civics lessons during these tumultuous recent months, if anyone bothered to notice.
Start with the response to the new coronavirus. How long has it been since people who keep up with the news, but aren’t total political junkies, could name so many state governors and what they’ve been doing? Andrew Cuomo in New York, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Ron DeSantis in Florida and our own Brian Kemp: Their executive orders, press conferences and loosening or tightening of the reins on their residents and economies have filled news cycles for months now.
Our system of government entrusts to states and their leaders the power to deal with such emergencies. Congress has appropriated funds to fight the pandemic — more on that in a moment — and President Donald Trump has been vocal about what ought to be done. But it’s instructive how much more active state governments have been in taking on the virus.
States are the core pieces of our republic. They created the federal government to deal with common problems, not micromanage the entire country. We’ve gotten away from that in many unfortunate ways, but the pandemic demonstrated how federalism works. If you don’t like how your governor handled things, just be glad he or she isn’t a president empowered to manage the crisis nationwide.
Yes, Congress and the administration have played a role, largely in funding and securing supplies and equipment, and providing relief for businesses and workers idled through no fault of their own. But here we see the temptations to overreach and overcorrect that are harder to resist at the federal level: calls to bail out profligate states that were fiscally troubled well before COVID-19, and inflated unemployment checks that pay people more to stay home than to work, to name a couple of examples.
Similarly, as we have seen demonstrations across the country to protest police brutality and the unjustified killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, a comparatively smaller number of people have turned violent, wreaking havoc and destroying or stealing others’ private property. Despite some calls to send in the U.S. military, it has been left to mayors and in some cases governors to restore order and protect individual rights.
Again, that’s as it should be. Policing powers are, by and large, the province of state and local governments. Consider that the calls to institute more community services and to reduce police presence and activity, whether correct or misguided, are a tacit acknowledgement that this form of government power should be kept as close to the people being served and protected as possible.
That starts with city police and county sheriff’s departments. But when they fail to act properly or to safeguard individual rights — whether of the accused and arrested, or of private property owners or of those exercising their freedoms of speech or assembly — it is up to the states to step forward. Why? Because, like the federal government, local governments are also creatures of the state.
Finally, the voting problems across Georgia this past Tuesday, and especially in Fulton and DeKalb counties, reinforce that state-local relationship. The state is supposed to establish a uniform process, but counties run the elections. When problems surface, they most likely fall at the county’s feet. But if a county demonstrates a continual inability to perform, as in Fulton’s case, it is the state’s responsibility to find a way to rectify the problem and protect voters’ rights and interests. That’s local control with state accountability and oversight.
Being an informed citizen means understanding more than who would do what if elected to office. It means understanding the responsibilities and limitations of that office, and the others in our system, so that the entire system works.
Dalton native Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org).