Partisan Fractures in U.S. Federalism’s COVID-19 Policy Responses

Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
Special Issue 2020
Partisan Fractures in U.S.
Federalism’s COVID-19
Policy Responses
John Kincaid
and J. Wesley Leckrone
The comparatively poor U.S. response to COVID-19 was not due to federal inaction or a flawed
federal system per se but to party polarization and presidential and gubernatorial preferences that
frustrated federalism’s capacity to respond more effectively. The U.S. response is examined in terms
of four models: coercive or regulatory federalism, nationalist cooperative federalism, non-
centralized cooperative federalism, and dual federalism–finding that state-led dual federalism was
the predominant response. The crisis also raised questions about interpretations of “federal
inaction” because party divisions led some to regard the federal government’s response as inade-
quate while others viewed it as appropriate.
COVID-19, federalism, governors, polarization, police power
Despite ranking first among 195 countries on
the 2019 Global Health Security Index, the
U.S. COVID-19 response is widely seen as a
failure (Leonhardt 2020), with 16.3 million
infections by December 15, 2020, and low pub-
lic approvals of pandemic management by the
federal (23 percent approval), state (44 per-
cent), and local governments (48 percent) by
August 2020 (Associated Press-NORC 2020).
By November, a third COVID-19 wave brought
the most cases and deaths. Among federal
countries, only Belgium (158.1 COVID-19
deaths per 100,000 population), Spain (102.8),
Bosnia and Herzegovina (102.0), and Argen-
tina (92.2) performed worse than the United
States (91.8).
Regarding states filling vacuums created by
federal inaction, we examine U.S. pandemic
responses through four prominent models of
American federalism: coercive or regulatory
federalism, which highlights federal rules
imposed on states and localities; nationalist
cooperative federalism, which values state
compliance with federal directives; non-
centralized cooperative federalism, which
emphasizes reciprocal federal-state-local coop-
eration; and dual federalism, which denotes
separate federal and state spheres of authority.
The responses do not fit one model neatly. The
federal government responded vigorously in
some respects but, due to constitutional
Meyner Center, Lafayette College, Easton, PA, USA
Department of Political Science, Widener University,
Chester, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
John Kincaid, Meyner Center, Lafayette College, Easton,
State and Local GovernmentReview
2020, Vol. 52(4) 298-308
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0160323X20986842

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