Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds

By John P. Caves III

Many difficult and uncertain things need to go right for our nation to heal and recover its full vigor. They will take long, patient, arduous work. But they can still be done. Only malice or despair can render them impossible.

This piece was first published on

As was said by Abraham Lincoln one hundred and fifty-five years ago, so still it must be said: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…”

Our nation is wounded again. In 1865, there were more than 500,000 dead from civil war. In 2020, there are more than 200,000 dead from disease, plus a small but growing body count from street violence sparked by police shootings. At perhaps no point in between have political passions been so vindictive.

Right now, one big political fight—the presidential election—is nearing its climax. Another, over the Supreme Court, has suddenly resurfaced with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Each has only two possible outcomes: either the Republican or Democratic candidate will be elected President, and the next Justice will be installed by either the incumbent President or the next one. The daggers are drawn, and both duels will soon be settled. That much is unavoidable.

Whether or not the partisan bloodletting is followed by healing depends on the conduct of the winning side in the presidential contest.

Either the victor will indulge malice and vindictiveness, and so ensure that our Republic continues to bleed until it lies dead on the ground; or else, by following Mr. Lincoln’s example, the winner will nurse the Union back into health and stand it once more on its feet.

We cannot expect the latter from the incumbent President. Donald Trump—may he soon recover from his brush with Covid-19—exudes malice. He has shown us as much for four years, and he will not change.

Joe Biden perhaps has the character and temperament to heal the nation. Yet his election, if he is elected, will not in itself be enough to do so. It is not sufficient merely to have a “Good Emperor.” To maintain a republic, there must be no emperors, and thus the fear and contempt that lead people to seek one must be stemmed.

Mr. Biden can do this, or at least begin it. There are four bandages he could apply to staunch the bleeding, none of which are inherently partisan.

He must first set aside those in his party whose “attachment to their country itself, is only so far as it agrees with some of their fleeting projects”—as Edmund Burke derided the radicals of the French Revolution—and instead cultivate thoughtful pride, to replace hollow flag-waving, in the one thing that all Americans have in common: our country. To his credit, he has already begun to do so.

As polarization will not fade overnight, the next act of triage is to make politics less winner-take-all by decentralizing decision-making, when constitutional and practical, to state and local governments. Mr. Biden can begin by simply not wielding federal funds as a weapon for bending cities and states to his will.

Decentralization might be a difficult sell to today’s Democratic Party, given the long history of excuse-making for slavery and segregation with hollow “states’ rights” arguments. Yet federalism, done right, stands on enlightened political ideas. It accommodates regional and cultural differences in a large republic by diffusing power and providing more opportunities for different interests to win a share of it. When all issues hinge on the Presidency and the Supreme Court, the struggles to gain them are harsh and embittered. The more that state and local governments can meaningfully determine policy, in contrast, the more partisans can healthfully expend their energies in another election rather than battle each other in the courts or on the streets.

Indeed, it could help to give each state’s residents space to sort out their disagreements among themselves. A Wisconsin Republican may be more willing to trust a Wisconsin Democrat if he or she doesn’t fear that a Manhattan Democrat is pulling the strings. In local governments, where one party often dominates, greater responsibility for governing may force different wings of a party to pit their ideas against each other, helping to restore intellectual diversity and rebuild the “big-tent parties” whose loss we sorely feel today. There is potential here: when there has been constructive policy innovation in the past decade, it has often been in towns and cities.

Third, the Presidency itself needs to be curtailed. We have seen it unrestrained by any respect for tradition—and it is a fearsome spectacle. Many of the powers a President wields today are not inherent to the executive branch under Article 2 of the Constitution, but have been delegated to it over decades by Congress. Congress should take some of them back.

We have gone so far down that road, though, that to limit the power of the Presidency will require the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the President. Mr. Biden may be reluctant to give it; few people who ascend to high office want to constrain themselves. But Gerald Ford turned away from the imperial presidency to heal the country once, and Joe Biden can do it today.

Fourth, the aspects of our elections that feed extremism—namely primaries and gerrymandering—need to be reformed. Mr. Biden cannot do this himself, but he can encourage it. State governments have it largely within their power to act.

Once our wounds have been bound and, under those bandages, are beginning to heal, then we as a nation can productively debate and act on divisive national issues such as entitlements, inequality, immigration, and representation for Washington, D.C., and the territories—to name but a few. Then, for the love of God, our Republic, the Earth, and posterity, let’s take on the century-shaping issues which we have neglected for far too long: the challenge from China, the national debt, global warming, and the regulation of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

Many difficult and uncertain things need to go right for our nation to heal and recover its full vigor. They will take long, patient, arduous work. But they can still be done. Only malice or despair can render them impossible.

Let us not give into that temptation. Let us not, on our watch, accept our Republic degenerating into a dictatorship; let us not, in the world, accept freedom taking second place to despotism; let us not, through inaction, accept the map of the United States being redrawn by rising sea levels; and let us not resign our grandchildren to automated social control and winters without snow.

Let us, through forgiveness, hard work, and dignity, “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Fund States to Ensure America Recovers from Coronavirus, Then Help Them Fund Themselves

By John Caves

In the struggle against Covid-19, the states have possession of the field. State governments led by both parties have made, and will continue to make, the toughest decisions about how to contain the virus.

(An earlier version of this piece was first published at

As the war against Covid-19 rages in empty streets and crowded hospitals, a battle over the authority and resources to wage it has broken out in the halls of government between the federal government and the states.

President Donald Trump opened the engagement by claiming “total” authority to reopen states, only to retreat under heavy fire from both parties. He then attempted a flanking movement by egging on protests against state governments, followed by a bait-and-switch by encouraging and then undermining the governor of Georgia’s own decision to reopen.

Mr. Trump was soon reinforced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who responded to a funding request from the National Governors Association by advising states “to use the bankruptcy route.” Drawing fire in turn, Mr. McConnell gave ground, saying there “probably will be another state and local funding bill” soon.

The outcome of the political battle is yet to be seen. But in the struggle against Covid-19, the states have possession of the field. State governments led by both parties have made, and will continue to make, the toughest decisions about how to contain the virus. They took initiative on social distancing when the federal government was slow to act. And they can shield their residents from certain misguided federal impulses, such as premature reopening or ill-judged medical advice.

This is possible because the states’ reserved powers under the Constitution enable them to function as an unofficial fourth branch of government at the national level. In this way, they don’t only make the Union more resilient in a crisis, but help to guarantee its long-term liberty and vitality through separation of powers.

The states’ tenacious response to the coronavirus has a big price tag, however. Emergency expenditures have depleted state budgets just as the revenues supporting next year’s budgets have dried up. Whereas the federal government largely funds itself with relatively stable (for now) income tax and debt, states rely mainly on sales taxes and have limited capacity to borrow. Sales taxes and related levies on goods and services have been battered by Covid-19: people are buying less, and prices of taxable commodities such as oil have collapsed.

State governments cannot carry out their vital role if they are bankrupt. If America is to emerge resurgent from this pandemic, it must get its states back on their feet.

The first step is for Congress to reconsider its resistance to the National Governors Association request for $500 billion for the states, with no strings attached. The two governors who sent the request — Republican Larry Hogan of Maryland and Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York — have worked hard against Covid-19. They should be taken seriously when they say the absence of such funds will hamper “public health, the economic recovery, and — in turn — our collective effort to get people back to work.”

But in the long run there will need to be a different fiscal cure. While it is right for the federal government to mobilize resources in times of crisis, it is unhealthy for states to rely heavily on Washington for funding in normal times. The expectation it engenders could incentivize states to habitually spend far beyond their means, the object of Senator McConnell’s ill-timed but somewhat justified concern. More importantly, overreliance could enable a dictatorial-minded president to assert “total authority” by threatening to withhold cash, and we would lose one more restraint on power.

Our states are already worryingly dependent on federal money: it amounts to roughly a quarter of state revenues, much of that tied to healthcare. Let Covid-19 be the impetus to rebalance this. One way is to reduce the federal income tax rate to give states an opportunity, if they choose, to increase theirs. At the same time, give states more responsibility for entitlement programs such as Medicaid that are now run at the federal level but overlap with the role of state governments.

The states would have more work to do, but more of their own resources with which to do it. The federal government could focus on things only it can do such as defense and diplomacy, including working with other countries to contain epidemics before they reach our shores.

There will be a conflicting impulse to give the federal government sweeping power over public health, which we now know entails control over many aspects of life. This impulse relies on an assumption that the federal government is always wise and virtuous. It is not. States are not either; some will make poor decisions in response to Covid-19. But, as a whole, they constantly learn best-practices from each other and find solutions that fit regional needs.

More centralization would be dangerous. Our Union has already concentrated a lot of power in Washington over the past century. As a result, every presidential election now feels like a one-shot, winner-take-all struggle for the only prize that matters: the one at the top.

I suspect that’s contributing to the corrosive polarization we all lament. Instead, let’s heal our country by reinvigorating our states.