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Vigliotti: Far from failing, our institutions are succeeding as designed

As states begin to rescind — or, in some cases, extend — coronavirus quarantine restrictions, another discussion is occurring about which level of government should have the authority to do these things. This has reignited the debate which predates America, about whether the federal or local governments should have more power in governance, and whether America is in danger because her institutions are outdated.

Since President Donald Trump was elected, some on the Left have been declaring the end of democracy is at hand. Currently, they cite as evidence that Michigan canceled a legislative session over threats of violence by quarantine protesters motivated by the president. Others on the Left have declared that only big government can save the United States from coronavirus.

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Despite that apparent paradox between big government and democratic fervor, and beyond wrongful threats of violence, the reality is we are not on the verge of collapse. Neither is it true that our way of life and our republican institutions are failing. Rather, they are succeeding as designed.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that America functions community by community. A small town in Oregon may differ in many respects from a small town in Maryland, and small neighboring towns in the same county may differ in many respects, because unique people, histories, and experiences give rise to different ways of doing things. Nevertheless, there is a sense of being home no matter where you go, because we are united in our way of being Americans and sharing crucial values, practices, and beliefs.

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The Founders understood all of this. They knew individuals were capable of governing locally, and that their communities knew what they needed better than anyone else did. The Founders knew government, at any level, cannot fix or solve everything. In fact, they knew it often did more harm than good.

Therein, the best response to local concerns and circumstances would, naturally, be local. Where government has failed or proved unable in the pandemic, individual Americans, groups, and networks have stepped forward to bridge the gap — from collecting supplies, to 3D printing masks to donating food, and even making friendly calls to those who live alone. There is no limit to the decency and goodness of Americans, and neither can one attempt to list all of those good acts undertaken through our present crisis.

The Founders also understood that those differences among communities, regions, and others, would lead to sectionalism and fracture unity created by the common causes of the Revolution, and the deeper things which bound them together through the trial.

Those things, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, were self-evident truths, moral values deduced through reason — that God has created all men equal with unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These were later codified in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, the passage of which was a condition and litmus for statehood. In other words, it was a kind of assimilation for states.

Based on those guiding truths are certain functions of government that are necessary at the federal level — common currency, national defense, outlawing slavery, drug policy and civil rights, among others. Some are commonsense solutions to local problems (imagine having to exchange currency to go to a movie in Gettysburg), and others are of a vital nature, such as coronavirus response.

But just because local government — state, county, or municipal — may handle local concerns best, doesn’t mean those absolute moral values, first principles, self-evident truths, were always practiced in states through history.

State and county governments are capable of overreach, such as in pandemic restrictions which have violated constitutional rights in Michigan. Attorney General William Barr has vowed to investigate such extremes, and in so doing, the federal government takes the side of individual American citizens over those local differences (contrast Michigan with Florida, for example).

Despite what some on the Left claim, the problem is not the institutions. The problem rests in those who are charged with temporary custody of them. Therein federalism — that mix and balance of local and national elected governance established to account for human imperfection — remains functional and crucial. Overreach in one part can be countered by another. The American system is working.

Even when it comes to the previously depleted national stockpile of medical supplies and equipment, and even though Trump has vowed to make things right, two things again are clear. It matters who exercises the institution; and the institution — government in any form — cannot and should not attempt, or be expected, to do everything.

The Founders knew firsthand that when we depend on government, which fails, proves incapable, or becomes repressive, we are lost. We are responsible through the vote for the leaders we elect, and what they do with federalism.

Joe Vigliotti, a contributor to The Flip Side and a Taneytown city councilman, writes from Taneytown. His column appears every other Friday. Email him through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.

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