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February 25, 2021

Reopen Democracy Post the Pandemic

Government by decree cannot become the new normal.

There are things we tolerate during an emergency which we wouldn’t think of tolerating in normal times. Who would’ve dreamed 12 months ago that states could bar visitors from out of state, that governors could close stores and restaurants by decree, that anyone could tell us whom we can and cannot have to dinner?

The hospitals were filling up fast and the death rate was high; doctors didn’t yet know how to treat the new disease; we haven’t had a pandemic since the Spanish Flu. Our legislatures are ponderous and fractious and not designed for fast action even when it’s clearly needed. Although there have certainly been cases of overreach, swift executive action was justified.

There is legitimate disagreement after the fact on how helpful shutdowns and mandates were.  The virus was kept under good control here in Vermont where the rules were strict even at the cost of our tourist business. New York had some of the strictest early mandates – and was the most severely affected state on a population-adjusted basis in the first round of the pandemic. Texas stayed open in the second round and California shut down tight; both states had about the same experience this winter. Any analysis is complicated because what was mandated and what people did are different: not all Californians stayed home because they were told to; not all Texans went to discos because they were allowed to.

What we didn’t know last spring justified unprecedented executive action; that can’t be judged by hindsight. We will work to bring the economy back and build a new and different tomorrow.

But that new tomorrow must not include further suspension of democracy every time the wheels of constitutional government grind slow.

“Let’s declare climate change to be a national health emergency. Then Biden won’t be hampered by Congress in addressing it.”  People who are otherwise reasonable say this. They are saying they want a dictatorship because they can’t get what they want in a democracy.

“Let’s declare racism a national health emergency.” Same idea. Our constitution stands in the way of banning free speech, even hurtful free speech. Voters don’t want preferences for any ethnic group, not even in California where a pro-preferences referendum was voted down by the same voters who crumped Trump in that state. No problem; declare an emergency. Racism must be addressed – democratically.

It’s incredible to me that many of those who are in favor of unfettered “emergency” executive power are among those who are most appalled at the threat the last President was to democracy as he tried to cling to power. Ruling by emergency decree is a time-tested way of imposing dictatorship. It is quite possible that the next president will again be someone you disagree with. Why would you want to give him or her unlimited power?

Yes, we need to elect a congress and state legislatures which do their job of passing laws (and budgets) on a timely basis. No, we must not let “emergency rule” crush democracy just because democracy is inconvenient.

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