It’s an expression repeated countless times, and for good reason, since it was first uttered by Lord Acton almost two centuries ago: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. With even the sainted Dr. Fauci admitting the pandemic is effectively in the rearview mirror, now reduced to endemic status, the emergency power seized during the outbreak of COVID by state and local officials, particularly governors of the Democrat variety, is proving to be just what the famed British historian labeled it for posterity: an intoxicant they are unwilling to relinquish. It’s as if they have become addicted to, not just power, but a level of control over the lives of their subjects that they could only have dreamed of in “before” times, pre-pandemic.
Indeed, for those chief executives who revealed themselves as control freaks during the dark days of the pandemic, a return to the bad old days when freedom coursed through the veins of everyday Americans may just be a bridge too far. As the country thankfully returns to something approaching 2019-style normalcy, no less than a dozen states, seven with both Democratic governors and legislatures, still have emergency orders in place, according to an exhaustive study just released by Real Clear Investigations (RCI), more than two months since the last mild variant Omicron reached its peak and began a rapid decline.
A trio of Democratic governors exemplifies executive defiance of the imperatives of legislators and public health officials. Nevada’s Steve Sisolak has ignored his state legislature’s attempts to limit his authority and continues to cling to expanded powers to suspend laws and compromise constitutional liberties in the name of protecting public health. Kansas Governor Laura Kelly similarly maintains her emergency powers even as the state’s director of public health openly questioned the need for a continued state of emergency. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation that would have required legislative input into decisions to grant the chief executive broad emergency powers.
Of course, states have varying laws regarding the relative levels of executive and legislative authority. In some states, the governor alone has the power to suspend a state of emergency, while in others the legislature controls the decision. But when the same party controls both the governorship and legislative body, an almost permanent state of emergency can settle in, as it has in the state of Washington, headed by far-left Gov. Jay Inslee and a progressive legislature.
As Nick Murray, analyst and expert on emergency policies at the Maine Policy Institute, told RCI, “Ruling by decree over an extended period during the pandemic is part of a broader move to condense power to the executive branch … You see these things come into play during a crisis and then [remain in place] to give more executive power … It’s a theme that has devolved into bureaucracy.”
This is one of the principal lessons two years of hindsight have allowed us to see. Fortunately, there were some, if not good, at least useful byproducts of the pandemic. Our ability to work remotely heads the list of structural changes likely to have a serious, mostly positive, effect on our lives going forward. Unfortunately, our response to the deadly virus also provided uniquely teachable moments most of us never envisioned as anything more than hypothetical. It provided tangible confirmation of our worst fears which would never have been revealed under any other circumstances.
In addition to the legendary power grabs of state and local officials, foremost among the COVID-related revelations are those surrounding the progressive movement and its virtue-signaling rejection of American foundational values. It was not until leftists were presented with the unique opportunity of the George Floyd affair – in the midst of the pandemic-induced national dark night of the soul – to figuratively put their money where their mouth is in leading a genuinely inclusive national discussion. But instead, they employed innocent-sounding but Marxist-inspired Black Lives Matter to promote a violent uprising – and made us realize just how destructive their movement truly is.
But as toxic as the race war inspired by progressives has been, the public has ultimately regained its senses and recoiled in horror. Such trends ebb and flow, but the thirst for power never wanes, most especially in the hearts and minds of those who believe themselves, and the ever-larger government they yearn to expand, better equipped to determine the welfare of those they govern than the people themselves.
Ronald Reagan once famously, and wisely, proclaimed that “the closest thing to eternal life on earth is a government program.” A look back at the dark days of the pandemic have generated questions along those exact lines, ones we never thought we would have to answer. Should governors be able to unilaterally ban crowds, close businesses, and impose mandates, unchecked by the elected legislature, even as life is organically returning to a state of normalcy? And to what extent must these chief executives and local authorities be compelled to defer to elected lawmakers, public health officials, and the actual will of the people? Who, in the end, do we trust?