By Tom Baxter
If this were a normal year, Monday would have been the day people marched peacefully in Atlanta’s annual King Day parade. There was a mostly virtual King Day service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, but no parade.
This week in a normal year, legislators across the country would be getting committee assignments and their first look at the calendars for this year’s sessions. This year the calendars have a lot of wait-and-see in them. National Guard units have been called out to protect the capitols in at least 21 states. Police are on alert from Montgomery to Montpelier.
In Georgia and other states, there’s a lot to do this year: efforts to get state economies back after a year of the pandemic, and the draw of new political maps for the next decade. Exactly when it’s going to get done seems to be a vague topic, across the country.
In a normal four-year cycle, Wednesday would be the day “Simple Gifts” is played to begin the proceedings on the Capitol steps in Washington, as hundreds of thousands shiver in cold and excitement all down the National Mall, awaiting the inauguration. I wasn’t really prepared for the impact of this national ritual when I attended my first one in 1993. When the cannon go off and the departing president leaves peacefully in a helicopter, you really do get a visceral sense of what a magnificent achievement the peaceful exchange of political power is.
Not this year. There will be a skeletal version of the inauguration ceremony on the Capitol steps, along with virtual representations of the concerts, receptions and balls which accompany a traditional inauguration. But the ex-president will already have left the building. To borrow the words of the old song, we have not yet come down where we ought to be.
These are all elements of a national paralysis which hopefully will pass it lowest stage this week. Last week’s riot at the Capitol was the gathering point for the nation’s political tensions, and it’s anybody’s guess whether there will be more violence this week. But the underlying, persistent reason for the paralysis is COVID-19 and our faltering attempts to deal with it.
It would have been shocking to learn last March that the U.S. death rate would rise to over 4,000 in a day. It wasn’t so shocking when it happened because we got there by degrees. But the impact on families and the economy is no less severe. State capitols are surrounded by police barriers and military vehicles this week because of the battle over the presidency and the rise of political extremism. But they have also become the pest houses of democracy. Ballotpedia currently lists 120 COVID-19 cases so far in legislatures around the country, with six deaths. That number is sure to go up, and considering those cases where legislators have been caught hiding their diagnosis from their peers, it’s likely to be lower than the real number.
At ground level, the most important thing about this week is that it marks the beginning of a new and more vigorous approach to combating the disease, which has stubbornly resisted every attempt to just wish it away. Joe Biden’s promise to get 100 million people vaccinated in his first 100 days may not be doable, but the simple fact that he’s set a goal marks a new phase in the vaccination campaign.
This week also marks an important period in the history of state-federal relations. Donald Trump spent a lot of time feuding with governors, and not only Democrats, as we know in Georgia. He departs having stirred up a lot of questions that will take a long time answering.
Are other states going to continue down the road of Texas and challenge the election results in other states? Is there going to be a push for some form of nationalized elections? Is the decentralized public health system adequate for a challenge on the scale of COVID-19? Should states with stricter standards have the right to restrict residents of neighboring states from visiting? How much federal assistance can the states expect as they attempt to steady themselves?
This may be the week we begin a long, serious discussion about all these issues.