COVID and the Lack of Political Accountability

In an excellent interview, political scientist makes a very good observation about the political consequences, or lack thereof, of COVID policy (boldface mine):

Those three crises are different, but they all strongly point us to the role of decentralization and state governments in not solving these problems and allowing them to worsen over time. First would be COVID-19. Early on state governments had trouble coordinating on getting PPE equipment to essential workers, and lack of coordination during the economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19 was hugely important. Also, states don’t have a unified unemployment insurance system. They have various underfunded and decentralized forms of welfare state provision, like unemployment insurance or Medicaid. The fact that states were allowed to reject Medicaid expansion, even though the federal government is paying for it through the Affordable Care Act, means that people who are working poor, but may not have children do not have access to Medicaid in these states, which worsens COVID relief, and COVID-based health care.

Finally, with Trump in the White House and governors of different parties in the states, decentralized authority means decentralized accountability. So that means that no one political office or legislature was really responsible for the outcomes of COVID-19. Decentralized authority means that politicians at different levels of government — mayors, governors, presidents — can reasonably point to the other and say, “That crisis going on in your area, it’s this other level of government’s fault!” This makes it extremely difficult for voters — especially in the context of sensationalist national media and the decline of state and local journalism — to hold their politicians accountable. If you’re a Republican, you can say, “It was my dumb Democratic governor’s fault.” If you’re a Democrat, you can say, “It’s Donald Trump’s fault.” It’s really hard to draw lines of accountability there.

It doesn’t help that the public face of the response, the CDC, has far less legal authority–and squandered its moral authority repeatedly–so the capacity for a federal response was limited, though both administrations could have and should have done much more (of course, the Biden administration isn’t over yet).

But the difference in state level responses has been really bad. Not just in terms of mortality and disease, but assessing the response. D.C. (the colonial government, not official Wor-Shing-Tun) has had some very good COVID policies. The Bowser administration also has done some very stupid things. But those good and bad things are different from those in the adjacent states–which, of course, affect COVID prevalence and hospital burdens–so we can’t even have a joint discussion.

For example, my D.C. colleagues test (antigen testing) reasonably often, while that’s a very rare event for both my Maryland and Virginian colleagues, because D.C. gives residents free antigen tests (if you live in D.C., you should go get some!). How we experience keeping elders safe, for instance, becomes a very different experience when it’s trivial (and free!) to test before seeing them. But at the same time, other Bowser policies, such as the removal of masking requirements in early November 2021, when Delta was surging and Omicron arriving, along with her request to return federal workers to the office (Biden, correctly, told her to go pound sand), can only be described as murderous.

But how do we hold Bowser et alia accountable, especially when there is little opposition within the political system to the bad policies (and what constitutes a bad policy is isn’t agreed on)?

The long and short of it is that, except in an inchoate sort of way, “I feel things aren’t good right now”, we’re not going to be able to hold people accountable for their COVID failures.

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1 Response to COVID and the Lack of Political Accountability

  1. And then you’ve got the buck-passing, which has been particularly prevalent in the current “masks off” era. Business say they’re just following municipal guidelines, municipalities say they’re just following state guidelines, states say they’re just following CDC guidelines, and then the CDC says it’s up to states, municipalities, and individual business to set their own guidelines.

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