The Mangle of Federalism

Remedios Varo, “Tres Destinos” (1956)

[These are some loose comments for a roundtable on “What have the COVID-19 crises taught us about federalism and multilevel governance?: Future Research Agendas”, Southern Political Science Association Conference, 2022]

To cut to the chase: COVID-19 presents a paradox for how we think about how the structure of regional authority shapes the ability of governments and societies to contend with global crises.

On the one hand, anyone looking for a simple relationship between federalism (or decentralization, or regional authority) and the most important pandemic outcomes will be grossly unsatisfied. Whether one uses a binary measure of federalism, the components of the Regional Authority Index, or any number of other efforts to distill the essence of how governing authority is territorially divided — you will not find a coherent relationship to the pandemic outcomes we care about, be they cases, deaths, or hospitalizations. Nor have configurations of regional authority been associated with a common policy of stringency or containment for the virus. Even in federations where public health authority is highly decentralized, such as Australia, subnational governments managed to coordinate an aggressive campaign against the virus. Unitary systems did not always fare better.

But the fact that we cannot draw clean conclusions in this way says more about the social scientific impulse to reduce human creations like federalism to a set of a static figures that can be arrayed along an X-axis than it does about what it is going on. Rather than thinking about federalism as a black-boxed variable that has a predictable structural effect on pandemic outcomes, we should think about the structure of regional authority as a heterogeneous assemblage, or mangle, of institutional routines and political repertoires which can be combined in novel and even unexpected ways. What matters, ultimately, is not just the structures, but how human beings clothed with authority use and outfit them, make them speak, and so on.

First, consider that a decentralized public health system — if it is well-funded and buffered by broader non-pharmaceutical and social-policy interventions that control infections — need not be decimated by a pandemic. If one wants evidence of this, look to Australia. Yet if, support for public health and emergency preparedness craters, as it has in the United States since the early 2000s, a pandemic will create unprecedented resource and coordination challenges, especially if other institutions in society fail to support significant health interventions.

Federal Public Health Emergency Preparedness Funding Per Capita, Fiscal Years 2002‐2016 (source:

Second, highly decentralized, pro-cyclical revenue structures need not consign subnational governments to the perilous tradeoff between meeting service demands and protecting public health — provided that subnational officials have confidence that the federal government can credibly commit to providing adequate levels of emergency relief. In other words, what might matter for pandemic outcomes in fiscally decentralized federations is not just the amount of aid subnational governments receive, but also whether that aid is provided in a way that encourages them to sustain nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) for an appropriate amount of time. As Mariely Lopez-Santana and I have written, it is worth considering how much larger the federal transfers to state and local governments have been during COVID-19 when compared to the Great Recession. Yet the largest share of that aid came not in 2020, but in 2021, more than a year after the pandemic began.


What’s more, the earliest U.S. aid package — the CARES Act — was not general-purpose insulation for subnational revenues but targeted aid for public-health needs. Facing the prospect of a revenue cliff — and with Congress at loggerheads over the shape of the sequel to CARES — most state and local governments relaxed their strongest NPIs in the summer and fall of 2020, even as the risk of contagion increased (see below).

The COVID-19 stringency index and average monthly Risk of Openness for US states, 2020 (source: Laura Hallas, Ariq Hatibie, Saptarshi Majumdar, Monika Pyarali, Thomas Hale. “Variation in US states’ responses to COVID-19 2.0.” Blavatnik School of Government Working Paper.)

It stands to reason that — even in the face of significant fiscal stimulus payments from the American Rescue Plan Act, state and local governments that have endured years of austerity should have difficulty coming to an agreement on how to spend funds. Indeed, if anything, we should expect the receipt of a one-time payment to generate more conflict and contests for power. For that matter, why should it be a surprise that the governments that illustrate American fiscal inequalities most grossly — the property-tax dependent school districts— have become the site of intense political conflict as the Omicron wave has surged, especially given the U.S.’s failure to enact comprehensive child care legislation, and the enduring fact that schools continue to perform the social-service functions that decades of neoliberal rule have elsewhere choked off?

State and Local Plan Relief Fund Plan Adoptions as of July, 2021 (source: GAO)

Third, what matters is not merely the formal distribution of political power across levels of government, but how officials at those levels operationalize the relationship between governments. Unlike Australian states or Canadian provinces, U.S. state and local officials interact with Congress not through formal multilateral venues but through intergovernmental lobbying in a political arena that is increasingly crowded and competitive. This absence of formal executive federalism arrangements stymied intergovernmental collaboration in 2020, and has been further complicated during the pandemic by highly fluid contests for power within state governments — both through legislative challenges to governors’ ability to unilaterally direct emergency response, and state preemption of local governments’ public health authority. While some have pointed to the nationalization of party politics as the problem, few federal systems with highly nationalized parties have experienced the kind of political fragmentation that has plagued U.S. intergovernmental responses to the pandemic. The reason is that one cannot find a federal system in the OECD where the dominant subnational party in most regional governments was both so committed to contesting the reality of the pandemic and the efficacy of health interventions and so insulated from popular pressure due to a combination of partisan geographic sorting and gerrymandering. Hence, even if federalism provided a window for governors to act in the absence of a federal strategy in 2020, one cannot explain political or policy outcomes of COVID-19 in the US without pointing to how the federal system has been instrumentalized as a tool of minority rule, which now has the imprimatur of a conservative judiciary decades in the making.

What the pandemic should have convinced us of is that we should stop trying to look for the “effect” of federalism as if national authority arrangements were static, operating independently of highly malleable policy and political choices, and isolated from fluid contests for power. This black-box perspective makes it difficult to identify which intergovernmental dynamics serve to support or inhibit crisis response. And muddling the analysis only underwrites blame avoidance in the future, since no “cause” of the failure may seem to matter significantly more than any other.

If federalism is just a fiction that human beings with authority — however arbitrary or capricious — choose to enact, to make and remake, we should concentrate on understanding how they do it and what difference — if any — it makes. For it could, to paraphrase David Graeber, just as easily be made differently.




Associate Professor of Political Science // Marquette University // Coauthor, Obamacare Wars (2016) // Coeditor, APD and the Trump Presidency (2020)

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Philip Rocco

Philip Rocco

Associate Professor of Political Science // Marquette University // Coauthor, Obamacare Wars (2016) // Coeditor, APD and the Trump Presidency (2020)

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