Pandemic Lockdown Battles Offer Glimpses of Political Conflicts to Come

Under punitive federalism, localities refuse dictates from above while state and federal officials retaliate.


Across the country, government officials are tightening and reimposing curfews, stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and other restrictions as COVID-19 numbers climb. But with public patience over lockdowns wearing thin, many individuals and local authorities openly reject rules that drive people to poverty and despair. County sheriffs in California, New York, North Dakota, Oregon and elsewhere say they'll have nothing to do with enforcement efforts and spar with governors who resent such independence.

It's the rebellious spirit of the earlier sanctuary city and Second Amendment sanctuary movements, amplified by the pressures of the pandemic into an eruption of what some legal scholars call "punitive federalism." Get used to it, because our politically polarized era offers fresh soil for such dictates and defiance.

California's revolt is especially widespread. "All told, over a third of Californians live in a county with a sheriff promising not to enforce the governor's stay-at-home order," Reason's Christian Britschgi pointed out this week. Ironically, when Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to withhold funds from jurisdictions that ignore his dictates, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco snapped back that the governor was behaving just like President Trump, who California's elected officials have criticized for using money in an effort to extract compliance.

"These more recent conflicts represent more than 'uncooperative federalism,'" Richard Schragger of the University of Virginia School of Law wrote earlier this year. "What has emerged instead is something that could be called 'punitive federalism'—a regime in which the periphery disagrees with or attempts to work around the center and the center seeks to punish those who do so, not just rein them in."

But Schragger referred not to battles over pandemic lockdowns, but to conflicts between state governments imposing restrictions on firearms and self-defense rights and localities that refuse to enforce them. He saw the inspiration for such revolts in earlier resistance by sanctuary cities against federal immigration rules.

"The Second Amendment sanctuaries movement borrows from the language and rhetoric of the immigrants' rights movement," he added. "Insofar as the enforcement of state and federal law often depends on the cooperation of local officials, the movement also deploys some of the same strategies: passive non-cooperation, indirect resistance, and rhetorical disobedience."

In both cases, localities resisted rules imposed further up the political food chain that conflicted with dominant local values.

Sure enough, tensions in California predate the pandemic and reflect serious conflicts between those who control the state's government and some localities heavily populated by those with strongly divergent views. In rural northern California "the sweeping pandemic edicts out of Sacramento are the latest in a long line of grievances about California's liberal policies, from new gas taxes, to minimum wage hikes, to environmental restrictions, to gun control," the Sacramento Bee noted in October, before the latest round of rules and resistance.

The pandemic, with its potentially dire consequences for bankrupted business owners, idled workers, isolated families, and sidelined students has brought such long-simmering tensions among America's mutually loathing political factions to a head.

"The COVID-19 pandemic will be 2020's defining federalism event," Greg Goelzhauser of Utah State University and David M Konisky of Indiana University observed this past summer in Publius: The Journal of Federalism. "Moreover, the pandemic has reinforced the themes of polarization and punitiveness governing contemporary intergovernmental conflict. The partisan divide continues to permeate most dimensions of American federalism."

Like Schragger, Goelzhauser and Konisky describe the cycle of resistance and retaliation among different levels of government as "punitive federalism." But they focus on recent federal vs. state battles over pandemic responses, immigration, environmental rules, and other issues and wonder "whether punitive federalism is a short-term phenomenon idiosyncratic to the Trump administration or a more lasting feature of American politics."

Still, they allow that "this type of retaliatory behavior may have been prevalent in past presidential administrations." Frankly, it's obvious from the history of sanctuary cities and Second Amendment sanctuaries—as well as earlier battles over drug and gun laws— that "punitive federalism" isn't new, it's just becoming more widespread.

That such conflicts are very likely to be a "more lasting feature of American politics" is suggested by the deep polarization of American politics and the fact that Americans approached the recently concluded presidential election unwilling to accept a loss.

"Our data shows that partisans are quite open to their preferred presidential candidate rejecting the legitimacy of the election if they claim credible evidence of illegal voting or foreign interference," the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group reported in August.

As I write, not only does President Donald Trump's team continue to contest results that show by any reasonable measure that he lost, but only 24 percent of Republicans trust the outcome (compared to 95 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents) in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll conducted from December 1-6.

Republicans convinced that the election was stolen from their guy are unlikely to abide by the dictates of the new Biden administration. And Democrats who already shared a mutual hatred with Republicans are almost certain to clash with Republican officials at the state and local level.

Additionally, there's plenty for people to battle over in a politically polarized country in which partisan identity has come to infect almost every aspect of life.

"What if polarization is less like a fence getting taller over time and more like an oil spill that spreads from its source to gradually taint more and more previously 'apolitical' attitudes, opinions, and preferences?" wrote Pennsylvania State University's Daniel DellaPosta in a study published in June in American Sociological Review. He points out that even lifestyle choices have taken on political overtones.

Even worse, government in our country claims near-absolute authority to intervene in almost all matters, as we've seen during the pandemic. That leaves little in life immune to dictates, revolt, and retaliation.

So, get accustomed to orders issued from on high that are then ignored by dissenting individuals and localities. And prepare for the resulting battles and attempted punishments. That sort of punitive federalism is likely to be a common sight in the years to come.

NEXT: California's Health Secretary Concedes There Is No Empirical Basis for the State's Ban on Outdoor Dining

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  1. I’m ok moving to a confederation where California and New York have no say over anything except what happens inside their borders.

    1. Remember our national motto.
      Out of many, one California.
      (E pluribus unum Californium)

      1. Californium sounds like a radioactive element that needs to be treated like nuclear waste.

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      2. E pluribus unum Lunaticus. You can check it out on the site lunaticus. com


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    2. I hear Texit is getting some steam behind it.

      1. I’m hoping for FLexit.

        Best name too

        1. Uh oh….LC, Nardz, Jesse et. al. time to oil up yer gear and fight for the Trumpocracy!

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      2. I was hoping Trump’s victory on Election Day would hold up so California, Oregon and Washington would secede and form Leftopia.

        Instead Texas is going to bolt.

        1. I’d be perfectly happy living in the Republic of Texas. Our federal government is growing like a cancer, and extreme partisanship is killing us.

          We have enough moderates and liberals in Texas to prevent it from becoming, I don’t know, Alabama.

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    4. Or perhaps breaking up California and New York into additional states so the people within those areas can run their affairs as they see fit. Same with the rest of Oregon breaking off from Portland and Eugene, eastern Washington from the Seattle-Tacoma area, and the areas outside of Colorado’s Front Range and liberal elite ski towns.

      Note: I’m okay with this happening in red states, too. El Paso, Houston, and the Dallas-San Antonio corridor, for example, should feel free to run their affairs separate from the rest of Texas. The Jackson area in Wyoming should feel free to run their area like the elite neo-yuppie haven that it’s become without . Boise, Moscow, SLC, and Park City should be able to run their affairs separate from the rest of Idaho and Utah. Montgomery and Birmingham should be able to break off from Alabama, and Atlanta from the rest Georgia. The southern half of Florida should break apart from the northern area and panhandle.

      The country might become a little less polarized if states are permitted to break up along current political lines so their residents don’t feel disenfranchised by the current, existing state majorities. We need more states, not fewer.

      1. *Wyoming should feel free to run their area like the elite neo-yuppie haven that it’s become without the rest of the state controlling their affairs.

      2. PLS do! We need more Democrat Senators to counter the right-wing, rural retards in Congress right now.

        1. Why do you think they wouldn’t balance each other out? The US went on for decades splitting up new territories between free and slave ones. Things only started breaking down when “popular sovereignty” was introduced.

          If the Democrats had continued to follow the Missouri Compromise, had the Republicans allowed the line to be extended to the Pacific, and had Douglas not tried to split the baby by appealing to democracy with the “popular sovereignty” idea, the Civil War might never have happened. The South still may have seceded, but the odds of a war breaking out over the slavery issue would have been slimmer.

      3. Keep splitting that down to the individual level and we might have a libertarian idea here.

        1. There’s never going to be a long-lasting society of Sovereign Citizens.

      4. An intelligent comment that helps to fix the biggest problem that we have at the federal level – which is the complete inability for the Constitution to address representation of the individual citizen over time.

        The very first proposed amendment would have fixed that (and we’d now have a House of Representatives of about 4000-6000 critters if it had been ratified by the states but it failed to be ratified because of a typo).

        We spent the entire 19th century dicking around trying to keep the Senate and the House in a rough balance even though the effect was to decrease individual representation from 35,000 per critter to 200,000 per critter.

        Since 1913, we haven’t even pretended. No new states admitted to Senate and no additional representation in the House (despite a 3x increase in population, expanding suffrage to women, blacks, Indians, 18yo).

        So the US now has the 2nd least representative legislature in the world (and India is constrained solely because its legislature size is fixed in their constitution). Stunning considering that we created modern representative government as the corollary of consent of the governed.

        The politics shit means that House can’t expand unless Senate does do. So let’s let Senate expand so that states themselves are meaningful governance entities not just lines from a 200 year old map

        1. I’d say a Congress of 4,000 is way too much, but I’d certainly be fine with double, maybe triple, the current number, counting both Reps and Senators.

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  2. If these lockdowns have done nothing else, they have at least made clear how despotic all politicians and government bureaucrats are. With a divided government and all those proggies trying to shove the Green New Socialism down everybody’s throats, Biden having clarity only a few minutes a day, and Kamala chomping at the bit to depose Biden, the next four years are only going to increase this distrust of government and the media.

    I think there is an even chance that the media will self-destruct in a civil war after their ever more desperately blatant excuses for the Democrats finally get so sordid that some recognize the opportunity to start telling the truth, and the tech giants finally get some spine as their favorite little socialist party comes after them with anti-trust lawsuits.

    1. “If these lockdowns have done nothing else, they have at least made clear how despotic all politicians and government bureaucrats are. ”

      Maybe you have been led to believe that the lockdowns are bad everywhere, but they’re not. Some local governments have been much better than others.

      I think the lesson is, don’t trust what they say…look at what they do. Don’t believe the officials who say this will go away if we just wear a mask for 100 more days or get the vaccine. If they haven’t loosened restrictions yet, they never will.

    2. If these lockdowns have done nothing else, they have at least made clear how despotic all politicians and government bureaucrats are.

      Especially at the local level. Credit where credit’s due, Trump has dealt with this pandemic with high deference to federalism.

      1. But isn’t he a dictator?

      2. Yeah, that’s pretty much my favorite thing about Trump. Even without the principle fo federalism, the US is too big to have a single policy for something like this. It was dumb for all the states to take action when they did. They should have waited until there was an actual emergency happening to declare emergencies (and they never should have even considered “lockdown” because it’s fucking evil). It would have been even dumber if someone had tried to impose a national policy.

        1. They all should have passed no laws, made no mandates or rules. The whole stinking pile is unconstitutional.

          1. Yes, I agree with that completely.

    3. It’s not just that, it’s how hyper-risk averse Gen-Xers and Millennials have become, their increasing deference to “experts” even in the face of those experts’ own data contradicting their recommendations, and willingness to emotionally manipulate and destroy the lives of people who won’t go along with the fear porn.

      1. ^This * 1000

      2. There’s something else as well, at least among many people I know: a complete inability to even countenance the idea that people could be left alone to determine their own level of risk and then proceed accordingly. At a recent family gathering, when I said people should have been left to decide for themselves the amount of risk they could tolerate, what I kept getting from everyone was some variation of “How would that even work?” When I said, “If you think the risk is too high, stay home. If not, go about your business,” I just got hostile disbelief in response. No one could even picture what I was talking about. Yes, politicians are hypocritical despots; yes, many younger people are risk-averse quislings; but also, for many people the very idea of allowing personal liberty in such matters is simply unthinkable. I don’t see how you can get rid of the despots under these conditions.

    4. So you’ve completely missed the history of totalitarian nations and how they develop…

      1. Go on, explain…..

    5. Harris is in no hurry to depose Biden. As long as he’s the front man and they can roll him out an hour a day or so to spout platitudes it will be easier to implement their agenda with a sheen of moderateness.

    6. I will disagree with you. You will notice that conservatives have more of a live and let live policy. Republican states have resisted lockdowns and haven’t tried to force values down other peoples throats the way the Democrat leftist states have

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  4. >>that show by any reasonable measure that he lost
    >>Under punitive federalism

    you cheer fraud and advocate for punitive federalism.

  5. “Frankly, it’s obvious from the history of sanctuary cities and Second Amendment sanctuaries—as well as earlier battles over drug and gun laws— that “punitive federalism” isn’t new, it’s just becoming more widespread.”

    Yep. And I, for one, welcome it.


    The vaccine makers have started testing children to make teacher’s unions feel safer. These people are evil. My kids are never ever going to public school.

      1. I think the rate of membership is lower than in other states but I feel like the covid craziness is still high from what I hear. Kids wear masks. arbitrary rules about social distancing, etc

      2. “ How big is your union?”

        You go first. How big is yours?

  7. the political conflict to come is the lockdowners and gov workers looking to keep their budgets afloat after they crushed and destroyed the business’s of the people they depend on to fund the system.

    1. Parasites find host dead on the sidewalk.

      “Why did we stop feeding it?” one asks.

      “We were all going to die if we didn’t” the one with the good hair and tailored face mask chimes in. “Someone take out a loan in it’s name to provide it some stimulus, maybe it’ll wake up.”

    2. They’ll just do what the did here in Nashville Davidson County. Our mayor, Little Person Cooper, just raised property tax 34%. Here’s the crazy part. He asked for 33% & the council gave him 34%. I’m still trying to figure out that fuckery. I hope Councilman Bob Mendes gets ass cancer.

  8. Republicans convinced that the election was stolen from their guy are unlikely to abide by the dictates of the new Biden administration.

    I doubt this. It will be irrelevant to anyone ballsy enough to reject DC central planning whether those bureaucrats were duly elected or not. Hell, the very same thing played out after the 2016 election and those very same people who rejected the winner as a foreign puppet also later pleaded with him to order in illegal federal mask mandate.

    1. Trump didn’t dictate enough, I gather.

  9. maybe that could be the silver lining….. if the end result is more decentralizing of power. if edicts from on high are ignored long enough, eventually the delusion that those on high have any authority will begin to fade. i think we are there with marijuana. next, everything else.

    1. I would like to believe that. I sincerely never want to hear from or deal with the feds ever again. Trillions wasted on wars and welfare is too much.

      But we all know who we’re dealing with here. I don’t think democrats are looking to relinquish power based on the cronies they are nominating or the threats made to use executive orders, add states and pack the court.

      1. The progressive demands his shackles be lifted as he enslaves you.

      2. So we must change our focus. Soros got the Secretaries of State and DAs. We must in turn focus on the sheriffs. If the sheriffs don’t arrest, the people writing idiotic laws have no power. Is it an optimal situation? No. Should this much power rest with individuals making arbitrary decisions? No. But you play the cards you are dealt. Instead of dividing up states and adding to the Senate, just make ours a nation of hundreds of semi-sovereign counties.

        1. The problem is that in some areas, the counties are a mix of demographics. Arapahoe County in Colorado, for instance, includes small, more conservative towns out on the high plains, but it’s dominated by Aurora, which is mostly Democrat now after 2 decades of white flight to Douglas County.

  10. Refusing dictates from above? Seems like the Dems have been ripping Trump for not handing down enough dictates from above.

  11. Governance hinges on compliance. State and local governments resisting the Borg collective of the federal government isn’t a bad thing. With the present makeup of the Supreme Court, it could lead to some trimming of federal overreach (looking at you, Gorsuch).

    1. Compliance hinges on laws and measures that make sense. It is the cardinal rule of rules. When the edicts are arbitrary if not stupid, then people are not going to blindly follow. Kinda like the fear porn in treating covid as the new black death.

      1. While driving around this afternoon I stumbled across my state governor giving a speech on the radio. She went on and on about how COVID in on the bus behind you, it’s on the sidewalk beside you, it’s in the grocery store, it’s on that chair, its…. EVERYWHERE!11!1!one!11!

        1. Hell, that’s great news–it means the actual rate of community spread is quite small, given where most of the outbreaks are!

        2. And yet you were happy the candidate promising that view of government one and remain steadfast in not condemning him at all unless backed into a corner. Weird.

          1. What makes you think he was happy about that? He actually said right here that he thought Trump was the lesser of the two evils we were presented with.

        3. …but somehow we can stop it?

          How much better would life have been if we went with what we knew in March — it was far too late to stop the virus.

        4. I thought it was hilarious when Governor Gavin Newsom drove from Sacramento to Campbell to push his hotels for the homeless program, finishing with a warning to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel.

      2. You can’t really effectively enforce laws that most people wouldn’t obey anyway.

  12. Everyone ignores the government as best they can, especially when they’re being assholes. I for sure don’t respond to assholes unless they get really violent. Otherwise, I ignore them and work with people who are collaborative in nature.

    1. If you’ve you not read it, please check out Harry Browne’s book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World”.

  13. “The Second Amendment sanctuaries movement borrows from the language and rhetoric of the immigrants’ rights movement,” he added.

    Oops! Cultural appropriation!

  14. “Republicans convinced that the election was stolen from their guy are unlikely to abide by the dictates of the new Biden administration.”

    Which it increasingly looks like it will be taking its dictates from China.

    1. Haha! Just like the media. Just like education. Everything the Democrats capture turns to shit because they don’t understand its value consisted in providing something useful, not pushing an unworkable Democrat program. The Democrats just spent four years giving us a template for how to fuck with a leader whose legitimacy you question. Of course we’re going to follow those templates, just like the Second Amendment people following the Sanctuary City templates.

      1. They will get, to quote the film Joker, what they “fucking deserve”.

  15. Even worse, government in our country claims near-absolute authority to intervene in almost all matters, as we’ve seen during the pandemic.

    You may be able to talk some of the people into believing an all encompassing government is bad, but most of them aren’t going to buy it. Where else is free shit going to come from, Santa Claus?

  16. Let’s play a word/phrase association game, OK? I’ll say a phrase and then I will give the association:

    Boston Massacre
    1st Amendment

    No caveats exist in the freedom to assemble or associate, which includes commerce. Freedom to assemble is the prerequisite right to all others; you can’t have ‘free speech’ without the freedom to assemble, establishment of religion or even have a get-together on the Commons, in Boston.

  17. Not everything needs to be locked down. Nursing homes, yes. For some reason, meat-packing facilities have taken a toll. But outdoor construction-related companies with minimal customer interface don’t. Like, we have a safe working environment. There is no need to stop. It seems some people are just trying to crash the economy out of fear. Take precautions, keep your distance and carry on.

  18. Neither this article nor the cited survey bother to define “democracy” or acknowledge that the Constitution and the Declaration do not contain the word “democracy” or any reference to such form of government, which the founders were vehemently determined to avoid. It’s pathetic that our public schools do not teach about the critical difference between a democracy and a representative republic. Thus, everyone here is debating about a false premise. Pure ignorance is rampant due to public schooling.

  19. If I may nitpick for a moment, it is true that some Republicans will refuse to accept the outcome of the election based on claims of voter fraud. It is also true that many Democrats refused to accept the outcome of the 2016 election based on claims of Russian interference.

    I just want us to be clear that both parties play this game.

  20. I think political issues are going to get worst, especially thru the month of January 2021. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. In the meantime, we are focusing on our business and how we can make people’s homes more livable and more valuable. Scott @

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