America’s Leadership Failures Worsened Pandemic’s Toll

Photo via White House

By Guest Post

August 4, 2020

Guest op-ed from Jim Chrisinger, a retired public servant from Ankeny

We focus so much on political campaigns that we lose sight of their purpose: the opportunity to govern. Governance often plays like an afterthought and most of us don’t see that much of a difference in our lives after an election. Not so this time.

Rarely have the consequences of bad governance revealed themselves so clearly.

When we look around the world at the death and economic destruction wrought by the pandemic, what divided the governments that did well from those that did not came down to three things: leadership, government capacity, and trust. Note that the difference was not democracy versus authoritarian; there were countries that did well, and not, in both camps.

The U.S. has horrible outcomes because it has failed in all three areas.

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Leadership: Leaders set clear goals, identify the best strategies, marshal the resources needed, coordinate implementation, and continuously check and adjust. Leaders believe in science. President Trump and many, but not all, GOP governors did none of these things. Compare us with South Korea, where political leaders deferred to the leader of their CDC. Science and fact-based expertise was basically given the authority to act. South Korea’s death rate is six per one million people; ours is 480.

Capacity: Because of decades of “starve the beast” cuts to our public health systems, we had neither the quantity nor quality of public health infrastructure to respond, even though public health experts repeatedly warned us that a pandemic would eventually arrive. The last administration did leave a detailed handbook for responding to a pandemic, but this administration ignored it.

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Trust: America was created by people rebelling against an oppressive government. Our individualism is deeply rooted. But before Vietnam, Watergate, and the rise of an anti-government right, Americans generally believed that government could be trusted and its expertise was respected. Now, not only do many reflexively abhor government, but we too often don’t trust each other, either. The countries that have done well in the pandemic, like Germany, have trust in their governments and their expertise and act like they care about each other.

Trust has been a casualty of our partisan and asymmetrical argument over the size and role of government. The right’s continuous and vitriolic denigration of government has finally come home to roost. Hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign ads and speeches bashing government have achieved their goal. President Trump and his GOP enablers are just the latest and most damaging vandals in this crusade.

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When we were working to make Iowa state government more effective and efficient in the 2000s, one of my colleagues was making the case to a Republican state senator from Eastern Iowa. He cut off my colleague, saying, “I don’t want to make government work better, that would make it harder to cut.”

Governance matters. Just ask the families of the tens of thousands of Americans now unnecessarily dying.


By Jim Chrisinger, a retired public servant from Ankeny
Posted 8/3/20

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