Can Self-Government Survive the Next Convulsion?
We used to have all kinds of plans for surviving disaster. Have we just given up?
Originally published June 18, 2021
As Washington ponders how close it came to a coup on January 6 and the nation unmasks from a pandemic that’s left over 600,000 dead, here’s a question worth asking: How prepared is our country for the next convulsion?
During the nuclear war-spooked 1950s and 1960s, Washington supplied all kinds of answers, designed to get us through the “day after”—bomb shelters, civil defense, line-of-succession laws, remote bunkers for Washington’s political elite. These hedges even had a name: continuity of government, or COG.
With Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack, the killing of John F. Kennedy, the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan, and the attacks of September 11, we even had a chance to take some of these plans out for a spin. Such excursions, however, were viewed as “lesser included threats” that were lesser versions of the truly Big One, the all-out nuclear attack.
Therein lies a problem: What if the next convulsion isn’t a lesser included threat to an atomic apocalypse but something quite different?
We got a peek at this possibility with the pandemic. Covid-19 has taken just two Congressmen’s lives. But what if it had killed a majority of members? Or had just kept Congress from convening? For the suspicious, there’s evidence that the Chinese military has in fact given thought to designing diseases to disable us. If it were to do so, could we cope?
A totally different deadly disaster is projected in a fictional video clip titled “Slaughterbots.” It portrays precision-guided mini-drone assassinations of Congressmen and other Washington officials. Even the video’s critics concede that such high-tech assassinations are plausible.
Their advice: Get over it. But would we? Such assaults would be immediate, visible, and likely to shock the public. But, unlike all-out nuclear attacks, they wouldn’t inflict massive, short-term destruction: Daily life would continue to function unimpeded for weeks or even months. Rather than physically threatening the entire nation, these strikes would target political and economic power centered in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and the Bay area. The goal would be not to decimate the United States but to disable it.
The Benefits of Dispersal
Worried? What about distributing financial and political power away from the coasts and DC? Well, Harry Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and others tried. They had ambitious plans. There were multiple remote presidential bunkers built, efforts to create field offices for all of Washington’s major agencies, and remote stockpiling of “critical” goods, not to mention the development of super-secure emergency communications systems.
With the end of the Cold War, though, our nuclear fears receded—and, with them, our efforts to “prevail” over the threat that was once at the top of our minds. Even after 9/11, continuity of government concerns, focused mainly on presidential succession, were relatively short-lived. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who organized a post-9/11 COG commission, theorized that Congressmen simply couldn’t get their heads around the prospect of dying.
If so, merely creating another commission or demanding hearings or legislation is unlikely to be enough to arm us against the future. This prospect suggests that we would do better to tackle the problem outside Washington, from the bottom up.
We have collegiate debate contests every year, so we could start by focusing next year’s topic on how best to assure self-government’s survival against future acts of God, as well as adversaries foreign and domestic. Next, we could have lawyers and state administrators work on the topic at their National Association of Bar Executives and National Governors Association meetings.
How might that help? Governors have the constitutional authority to make temporary appointments to U.S. Senate vacancies. State legislatures have authority to propose and ratify amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including amendments related to emergency successions (e.g., the Twentieth and Twenty-fifty Amendments). Finally, governors and state officials are the people who would best know how to adjust local laws, institutions, and political practices to preempt popular demands for “temporary” extralegal martial rule in the case of a major hit on Washington.
Encouraging adjustments like these should poll well with the public, which has grown distrustful of Washington and its increasingly cozy relationship with large corporate players. Trump tried to break up the power of certain federal agencies in Washington by sending their employees out to the regions they serve. The initiative was disrupted by the administration’s ambient noise; but we could well try it again, with all of Washington’s departments and major regulatory agencies.
The country’s virtual office experience with Covid-19 actually increased productivity along with reducing life-draining traffic commutes. Congress and the President could make department heads spend more of their time in their field offices than in Washington. This would bring them and their staffs into direct contact with the people they’re supposed to serve, the local officials and citizens who mostly live far away from Washington and the coasts.
If these moves are combined with antitrust efforts to redistribute the assets of America’s largest online and financial giants, the concentration of megacorporate headquarters on the East and West Coasts, along with their workers and wealth, might abate, increasing America’s resiliency against possible attacks. These break-ups might also help spread wealth and power to the relatively dispossessed in flyover country.
Testing the Proposition
To signal support for this approach, Presidents can stop giving their State of the Union speeches in person. The current practice concentrates nearly all of the federal government’s elected officials, top administrators, and Supreme Court justices in a single room, presenting an almost irresistible target. From Jefferson to Wilson, the message was simply sent to Congress and published. We should revive that practice.
The Biden Administration can also scrub the Green New Deal. The plan is meant to shift America to a more electrified future, using federal largesse to make a centralized grid system “smarter” and “cleaner.” The new system would override both market signals and local deregulatory experimentation through centralized funding, mandates, and subsidies. Will the command-and-control arrangement create a more distributed electrical system, more resistant to acts of God (like naturally induced electro-magnetic pulses, bad weather, and earthquakes) and terrorist and foreign attacks (missiles, drones, and cyberhacks)? Or will it be more vulnerable to such threats?
As for state, county, and municipal governments, they should get a wire-brushing: They’re increasingly part of a growing but shallow administrative state that has us filling out ever more forms to secure permits, licenses, waivers, and other state and federal cost-shared dispensations—but doesn’t solve problems.
If federal or state governments stopped functioning, how well would county and municipal governments work? We could actually experiment to find out. Unplug the computers for a week. Randomly hold county and municipal board meetings outside city and county meeting halls. Conduct unannounced board meetings without the presence of managerial staff.
Is this an argument for the federal government’s simply letting go? No. It would make sense to assert more federal control over the chaotic patchwork of state public health service systems that did such a mixed job of tracing and tracking the national coronavirus pandemic. It would make similar sense to create clear standards for the conduct of federal elections. The objective, though, would be the same as the rationale for breaking up financial and political capital and distributing it geographically: Block and retard assaults and seditious acts that might undo self-government.
As for our national security, the Pentagon, intelligence community, and State Department would do well to flee Washington: This migration would make it harder for our enemies to unplug our common defense. It also would put an operational premium on developing something that our country and economy sorely need: much more secure public communications systems, like 5G, quantum computing, and robust encryption systems.
Done right, dispersing our national security leadership away from Washington would also afford us a strategic edge over China and Russia, two states whose command leadership is even more concentrated than our own, in a handful of cities. While distributing America’s financial and political capital would increase our physical and civic resiliency, making both more difficult to target, the opposite would be the case for China and Russia. Their grip is authoritarian; real decentralization risks eviscerating it.
Everything our government should do would be in defense of our Constitution, which is dedicated to the principle of self-rule. If it is strengthened, America will not only be more likely to survive the next convulsion but also to arrest and reverse the erosion of civic trust that has come to mark the nation’s devolution into separate countries, one on the East and West Coasts and one in the heartland in between.
Henry Sokolski, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2d ed., 2019). He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993.
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