The Return Of Regionalism?

Let’s face it, the federal government has essentially abandoned the states. So far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been to ignore it, downplay it, and then abdicate responsibility for doing anything, leaving it all up to the states. Worse, Jared Kushner’s “task force” is not only forcing the states to compete with each other as well as the federal government in order to obtain critical supplies, it is also using the supplies it has to reward vulnerable Republicans and burnish Trump’s re-election campaign. Nor has the Trump administration apparently prepared any plan for the slow and painful transition back to normalcy, besides the usual Trump bluff and bluster. In essence, the federal government has abandoned the union.

Now, it appears that the states themselves are forming their own “unions” in a coordinated attempt to deal with this crisis. Washington, Oregon, and California have announced that they will be coordinating strategy on just how to implement that testing, tracing, and isolation policies that will allow their economies to reopen. As Governor Inslee notes, “Any successful lifting of interventions must include a robust system for testing, tracking and isolating. The states will work together to share best practices and coordinate a framework to get it done”. A similar “union” has been formed in the Northeast, with New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Delaware also agreeing to coordinate efforts to reopen their economies. Today, Massachusetts joined that group.

As those West Coast states start on the downslope from their peak of infections and deaths, they are shipping excess medical supplies to other states in desperate need, without the interference or coordination of the federal government. Earlier, Gretchen Whitmer announced that Michigan was joining with other Midwestern states in order to increase their buying power for critical medical supplies. The Governor of Minnesota is now talking about joining with Michigan and Wisconsin to also coordinate on their reopening of the economy.

It would be a small silver lining to the big black cloud of Trump’s response to this pandemic if it ended up inspiring a return to regionalism. Certainly there is already a certain amount of regional coordination on the West Coast and in the Midwest and Northeast. Some of that coordination has been successful, some not so much — think of the MTA or Port Authority in the New York City metropolitan area. In addition, the states in these new regional alliances are critical in fostering the rebirth of older industrialized cities which still account for one eighth of the US economy and are important anchors for the suburban and even rural areas that surround them as well as the region as a whole. As Will Stancil notes, “American metropolitan regions — even the impoverished ones — have the combined political and economic clout of small nations. But they’ve been enfeebled by destructive intra-regional competition and fragmentation”. The hope is that this crisis and the lack of response from the federal government will reduce that competition and lead the way for more regional solutions.

After income level, probably the most important factor in determining whether you live or die in this pandemic is the response of your governor, mayor, or county executive. Hopefully, this crisis will finally make voters pay as much attention to their state and local races as they do to federal ones. And perhaps these new regional unions will last beyond the present crisis as states abandon beggar-thy-neighbor policies and realize the enormous powers they have as a combined group where each individual states can thrive as the region thrives.

Originally published at on April 14, 2020.

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