I just do not know where these state governors get the idea that they can “ban” municipal and other local authorities from helping their people. What gives the Texas governor the right to prevent the Lina Hidalgo, the County Judge who oversees Harris County, which includes Texas’ biggest city, Houston, from establishing procedures to improve health and safety in her county? What gives governor DeSantis Florida the right to prevent local school boards from establishing public health practices scientifically proven to minimize the threat of a pandemic virus infecting children when attending school?
Well, as I see it, nothing gives them such rights. Local authorities have every right to defy such orders. We live in a democracy, or so the story goes. I subscribe to the principle that local authority to protect citizens overrides state or even federal authority to set weaker standards or no standards, whether it is auto safety standards, public health practices, or anything else.
Democracy vs. Autocracy
The struggle between local decision-making and “higher authority” is not new. Southern politicians attempted to keep racist Jim Crow practices alive by claiming “states’ rights” to conduct their affairs without federal interference. Neither Jim Crow laws nor practices protected citizens; they persecuted citizens selected by race. On the other hand, as long as governments work in the interests of protecting their citizens in a democratic context, then there is no reason for “outside interference.”
However, if a state government attempts to oppress certain classes of its citizens, then the federal government ought to prevent them from doing so. Right now, Racist Republicans are passing draconian state laws to suppress the voting rights of growing populations of color. Some have rightfully called them Jim Crow 2.0. That is why progressive House Democrats are trying to pass a voting rights bill. As long as white supremacists dominate the Republican Party, it will be anti-democratic. So, you can see that the struggle between democracy and autocracy can go either way in the jurisdictional hierarchy.
An “autocratic attempt” can occur at any level, such as Trump’s attempt, violating numerous democratic norms to overthrow the national election he lost. Citizens must always be vigilant in defending democracy. The ‘feds’ have also abused citizens rights, such as invading their privacy as the NSA does now, surveilling your phone calls and emails today. So, it’s not just a matter of who has the authority; rather it is about who oversteps legitimate governing power by oppressing people. Too many politicians overstep their legitimate power and attempt to dictate compliance to rules they made up themselves, instead of just enforcing laws that were democratically legislated.
When to Rebel
What too many American “individualists” do not understand and refuse to accept is the fact that public health is a matter of societal cooperation and coordination, not individual rights. Context matters. In many contexts, individual rights can prevail without harming others. Not so with pandemics, which call for collective action to protect public health—which, of course, protects the health of all individuals. Since when did you have the right to expose me to a deadly virus as a matter of your presumed Constitutional right to do or not do whatever you want whenever you want regardless of who gets hurt? Well, never. All rights come with responsibilities. Everyone has the responsibility to avoid harming others.
But as a matter of commerce, corporations have been busily training the American people for over a hundred years that they have an absolute right to express themselves (primarily by buying their products) in any way they want to feel better about themselves and their vacuous consumer “lifestyle.” Individualists frame pursuing their lifestyle as a sacred right not to be violated by anyone for any reason, which is completely unreasonable.
Republican governors like Abbott in Texas and Desantis in Florida have taken it upon themselves to disallow school districts and municipalities to require public health practices during a new dangerous surge of a deadly pandemic. They are undaunted by the fact that their states are among the hardest hit by the new Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus. These local/regional public officials have the right; indeed, they have the duty to protect the lives of their constituents during this health crisis. They also have the duty to provide for free and fair elections administered by neutral non-partisan election boards, not partisans officials appointed by a partisan state governor or legislature.
I have not bothered to look up the laws of Texas or Florida that prescribe limits to the authority of governors in relation to local authorities. But that does not really matter anymore, since their autocratic attempts directly threaten the orderly processes of democracy. What matters most is to thwart the autocratic attempt.
What I do know is that for a state governor to personally ban local officials from taking steps to protect the health of their people is not only a direct threat to public health (as the surge of new cases of the Delta variant in Texas and Florida have demonstrated), it is also a direct threat to democracy in America.
To execute the duties their offices properly, local officials may and must rebel against the attempts of these perverse governors to override their authority, thereby establishing an autocracy. A few have begun to do so.
Warnings: Vigilance is the Price of Freedom
You saw it in the Trumpery of a Fake Presidency, which violated every democratic norm of behavior for the executive branch. The thinly veiled racism with violent undertones gave permission to white-supremacist seditious mobs to storm the nation’s Capitol building. We saw growing hate crimes amid surging COVID cases as neo-fascist enablers in the Congress tried to override the results of the most secure election in American history. Hate feeds these autocratic attempts, which will continue. That is why it is so important to heed the warnings of those who understand the ways in which the autocratic attempt has played out in history and threatens us now.
Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who directly experienced the tyranny of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule in Russia. Her book, Surviving Autocracy, and its take on the Trumpist attempt to gain dictatorial power, can give you a good sense of the nature of the danger we face. Timothy Snyder is a renowned American historian who has written a little book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, packed with both deep understanding of the threat of tyranny and how to overcome it. Both these books deserve a careful read.