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Historically Speaking, Part 3: The Bill of Rights and Democracy in the Age of Coronavirus

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:

If you are just joining this series, you can begin reading here.


This is the third part in our series of conversations with Will Bellaimey, a history teacher and creator of the All the Presidents, Man podcast. I asked him to try to help put what has been happening with the Coronavirus into historical context.

Elizabeth Gracen: So, Will, a couple weeks ago we were talking about the debates at the Constitutional Convention, about power between the states and the federal government. And now those debates seem to be in the news all the time.

Will Bellaimey: Totally, all these systems built into the system to prevent any one part of government from being too powerful. I think right now we're seeing all of those pieces come into play, though I think most notably, federalism. For instance, right now as we're talking, President Trump is talking, seems to want to lift restrictions in the states. He sees the economy is crashing, maybe he's not taking seriously what scientists are telling him. Yet, even if he wants to reopen the economy, we don't expect the California governor to lift his restrictions. In fact, you don't even really expect a lot of Republican governors to lift their restrictions because they're the ones who would be blamed for a lot of deaths. I think it's notable that that kind of balancing of state versus national power is a helpful thing in a moment like this. At least, absent clear leadership in Washington.

EG: Has there been a country that has had a good response where you would say, "oh, that's a model that America should follow for this type of situation"?

WB: Well, I think the first one that comes to mind is South Korea. They acted very quickly and with a high level of what we'd call social trust, which is to say that when the government suggests that people do things most people take it seriously. I was just saying to my brother this morning, "So much of government is ultimately just recommendations." Maybe you've been to some places in the world where people just blow past stop signs all the time, and really there's no reason why in the United States we couldn't just start blowing past stop signs. The cops can't guard every stop sign any more than they can guard every beach or public area. But the question is, how do people feel about the person who blows through a stop sign? So social distancing, in some ways, is a stop sign. There's no way to keep every single person in their house, but you tell people to do it and you see if they do it.

EG: So South Koreans trust their government, and we don't trust ours?

WB: Well, trust is a complicated concept. I would say ultimately when we're talking about government, we're talking about several forms of trust. Do we trust the people who are in power? Do we understand why we're supposed to follow them? And how easily are they able to enforce that? In this moment right now, there is a lot of distrust of certain government officials but not of others. I think in general, compared to many places, the United States does have a fair amount of trust in its government; but we don't expect our government to be able to tell us to do certain kinds of things. So part of the adjustment that's going on right now is government being able to say things like, "Stay in your house." We have had moments when that has been completely okay, and they're usually wars.

EG: And aren’t there also some limits on government power here that they don’t have in South Korea?

WB: Right, like when can the government track you? When can the government search you? When can the government tell you where you can and can't assemble? These are all rights that at various times in American history have been really curtailed, but the core idea of the Anti-Federalists in creating the Bill of Rights was that we should write them down so that there's a very specific statement of what the limits on government are. So many of the protections of the Bill of Rights are about protecting suspects in criminal cases and putting specific limitations on what the police can and can't do. Those are specific rules meant to prevent the police from invading the rights of the innocent, but for them to function, they also have to apply to the guilty. And of course, race plays a huge role in who ends up being targeted in our system.

EG: I'm reading a lot about Chinese Americans being targeted by xenophobia at the moment. It seems really calculated politically.

WB: Sure. But of course the moment we're in is following a playbook that was not written by Donald Trump. There's a long history of when there is a disease, wanting to put it on some outside force and/or on people in society we don't like. There's stuff from the bubonic plague of people saying that it was the poor or immigrants. And of course antisemitism has been linked to ideas of unclean Jewish immigrants bringing plague here and there. So there's a long history of that. Japanese internment is a huge example of limitation of movement based on similar xenophobia in a similar moment of crisis. There were people who spoke out against it, but certainly not enough to stop it. That would be a president that in many ways was seen as fairly respectful of people's rights in some ways.

EG: And in terms of the economic crisis. Do you see this as a moment similar to the Great Depression?

WB: If the economy collapses, we turn to government and we ask for government to take big action. I mean the New Deal is the biggest form of government intervention in the economy in modern history, and that came out of an economic collapse. I think it often reveals people's desire; we want action, and government usually has the most capacity to deliver it and also has the most trust in terms of the democratic legitimacy that comes from elections.

EG: Do you think it’s possible that our democracy is in danger of collapsing?

WB: Well, there is a conversation right now about democratic countries versus undemocratic countries and how they're able to mobilize both emergency forces and resources and economic resources. Often in moments of crisis, there's more turn toward authoritarianism because you just want someone to get something done. Think about the last few days where the Republicans and Democrats have been bickering over the stimulus. I feel like everybody has been watching that like, "Guys, you better get it together pretty quick."

EG: Do you think this crisis will help Democrats get more of their ideas passed?