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

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:


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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.