Our president doesn’t have dictatorial powers, even in a national emergency. The president doesn’t have authority to shut down your local gin joint. Your state governor does have this power, in extraordinary circumstances. That so many governors have done so, often responding to popular demand for shutdowns, demonstrates America’s genuine practice of federalism — a system that is allowing us to respond to this crisis even faster than the states of Europe that have a more monarchical or centralized system of authority for a crisis. One of the reasons federalism can act faster is that it allows decentralization. It is less politically risky to impose measures in one state than on an entire nation. You can respond where the hotspots are, rather than imposing costs evenly across an undifferentiated mass of the nation where the overall average risk may be low.
We are still very much in the thick of this crisis, and real perspective on our government’s performance is impossible. But at this stage, at least, it seems that many key officials are doing many important things right yet also that they have to work around some serious decisional dysfunction at the top. That, more than any particular misjudgment and more than the sheer fact of disruption in our lives, is what appears to require attention, criticism, and correction. Until that improves, the response we mount will not be as well organized or clearly articulated as it could be. But we can be grateful that in our society not everything has to be coordinated from above. And we can be grateful for the countless men and women, in every corner of our country and in every facet of its life, who are rising to this grave and sudden challenge with compassion, creativity, and courage.
Democratic freedom does not carry its undertakings through as perfectly as an intelligent despotism would; it often abandons them before it has reaped the profit, or embarks on perilous ones; but in the long run it
produces more; each thing is less well done, but more things are done. Under its sway it is not especially the things accomplished by the public administration that are great, but rather those routine things done without its help and beyond its sphere. Democracy does not provide a people with the most skillful of governments, but it does that which the most skillful government often cannot do: it spreads throughout the body social a restless activity, superabundant force, and energy never found elsewhere, which, however little favored by circumstance, can do wonders. Those are its true advantages
—Democracy in America, Lawrence/Mayer ed., 244.