Editor’s note: Governing’s Editor-at-Large and historian Clay Jenkinson, a resident of North Dakota, observed a protest last month against government pandemic restrictions. The small gathering may have accomplished little, but it shares precedence with other protests that have taken place throughout our history, and would have been thought by our greatest revolutionary as something essentially healthy, even virtuous for American democracy.
It was inevitable that the nationwide anti-shelter-in-place protests would attract willing participants in North Dakota. From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large percentage of North Dakotans scoffed it off as a media-driven national panic that was shutting down the American economy for no good reason. After all, they said, flu kills tens of thousands of Americans per year and this was nothing but a slightly more virulent strain of flu. You don’t close the U.S. highway system merely because 38,000 people die in automobile accidents every year.
Besides, North Dakota is an isolated, rural state with one of the lowest population densities in the United States. Any one-size-fits-all set of national protocols for dealing with the coronavirus would unfairly punish a healthy state by lumping it with the hot spots of New York, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, and L.A. Suddenly, in the last three months, the Tenth Amendment became the mantra of many North Dakotans, who responded to the national panic with a kind of smugness that this is the sort of thing that pampered urban and coastal people get all twisted up about.
North Dakota is a paradox. It is a state known for practical, no nonsense, resourceful, self-reliant people. Most North Dakotans have an agrarian origin story somewhere in their family, though the family farm has receded into the background in the last 25 years. North Dakotans are, on the whole, skeptical about things that originate or congregate on the two faraway coasts of America. They are also skeptical of the work of the national government.
In the last couple of decades, they seem to have forgotten how much of the state’s prosperity, and even survival, has depended on the national government, from the transcontinental railroads and the Homestead Act to the U.S. Air Force bases at Grand Forks and Minot, not to mention the U.S. Farm Program, which has brought billions of dollars to the state and, since World War II, kept it afloat. North Dakotans don’t like to be reminded of their historic dependence on the government in Washington, D.C., because the dominant myth of the state is that it has earned its stability and prosperity the old-fashioned way, by dint of discipline and hard work.
On April 21, my daughter (25, home from England for the duration) and I decided to drive over to the state capital to see the protest for ourselves. We carried with us the conviction that only idiots who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them” would endanger themselves and others by participating in a public rally during the worst plague of the last hundred years.
It seemed to us that these were people who were mistaking essential public health measures for tyranny, that any responsible government — state, local, or national — would direct people to shelter in place as much as possible and maintain very careful social distance if they needed to venture out for groceries or medicines. In fact, we believed that the state had not taken sufficiently draconian measures to protect its 750,000 citizens from the pandemic.
Everything we read or heard on responsible news programs delivered the same message: the only way to get on top of the coronavirus pandemic was to shut down as much of the economy and the social life of America as possible until the first wave came under control, and then to move as quickly as possible to develop a vaccine for the inevitable second and third waves. Why anyone would protest a public safety directive whose purpose was to prevent the spread of a deadly plague was beyond our imaginations. This was not the Patriot Act or a call for a national retina-scan ID. It was the same kind of directive that requires evacuation or creates a curfew during a hurricane.
We arrived at the 160-acre capital complex at 9:35 a.m. for a rally that was supposed to start at 10. When we got there, no more than a dozen people were on site. By the time we left about an hour later, maybe as many as 75 were wandering around the capital grounds. There were almost as many American flags as there were protesters. We had hoped for a bigger showing, a local happening, something to write home about.
The turnout was just this side of pathetic. The strong wind may have been a factor. It has also been rumored that because the protesters had not secured a permit to rally on the capital grounds, the national guard or the state highway patrol might have assembled in riot gear. As it turned out, a member of the capital grounds crew mowed his way through the rally area, perhaps under instruction, but he soon focused his grass cutting at the far southern end of the grounds away from the madding crowd.
A white pickup at the curb had been fitted with plywood, painted white, on which the words “Re-OPEN NOW and 2 million NOW 60,000?” had been carefully painted in black. Two women wearing American flag jackets wore white masks carefully cut away to expose their noses and mouths. A lonely local TV news reporter (with Florida plates on her car) interviewed them for a few minutes. Nearby, a big blue pickup in the parking lot had a brown sign attached to its grill saying, “The only Solution is a VACCINE and TRACKING CHIP? GO BACK to the DRAWING BOARD.”
Someone inevitably set up two big speaker columns on stout tripods. During the time we were there we heard The Score’s anthem “Revolution” a dozen or more times. The wind wafted the words, “O O O can you hear the drummin, there’s a revolution comin,” over and over again across the capital lawn. It’s a compelling song, but we could not be quite sure what revolution these folks had in mind. Opening up Applebee’s and Hobby Lobby for business did not seem sufficiently bloodthirsty to require a revolutionary anthem.
The legalize recreational marijuana folks were there with hand-painted signs of green on white. The small but fierce anti-vaccination crowd (of about 10 people) was also present, of course. Someone in the crowd shouted something about George Washington crossing the Delaware. The point of that historical note was unclear.
It was on the whole a subdued cluster (the word "crowd" is too big) of people.
At some point the protesters gathered on the capitol steps. A man with a bushy black beard and moustache shouted, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” He was quoting the famous sentence, sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin, sometimes to Thomas Jefferson, pretty wildly out of context. It’s a favorite maxim of libertarians, the alt-right, the Tea Party, and the Liberty Caucus. But if the global pandemic has taught us anything so far, it is that nations with strong central governments that have developed a strong and clear response (South Korea, Germany, Japan) have gotten on top of the COVID-19 virus quickly and effectively.
Meanwhile, the United States has responded unevenly and with a tardiness that has seemed like denial or indifference, and the messaging from the top of the national government has been dangerously imprecise and muddled. America’s response has been tragically inefficient and half-hearted. Unless you think our government has been itching to move in the direction of autocracy or martial law and the pandemic has given it the chance it needs to strip away what’s left of our liberty, you might wish the national government had exhibited stronger central authority in this unprecedented moment of our history. If this is tyranny, it is just about as inept tyranny as one could imagine.
If you follow the “incipient tyranny” argument backwards through American history, you have to suppose that the same people would have denounced Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Social Security, the integration of the U.S. military, Brown v. Board of Education, Medicare, the Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the War on Poverty, affirmative action and much more. Like it or not, we have grown accustomed to a relatively strong national government, especially in times of crisis. Every Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi River flood, tornado or nuclear meltdown brings on a potent federal response. Why? Because no single state has the resources to handle events of this magnitude.
The initial $2 trillion economic rescue package of March 27, 2020, will before long prove to have been a drop in the bucket of the kind of government aid the country is going to need to get through this. Moreover, a global pandemic is a catastrophe that has no concept of state or national boundaries, no concern over the delicate balance of federal and state sovereignties embodied in the Constitution of the United States and the Tenth Amendment. Sometimes a nation has to behave like a nation: World War II, for example, or the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the 2008 Great Recession or the Oklahoma City bombings of April 19, 1995.
It would have been fascinating to sit down with the man in Bismarck who uttered Franklin’s famous words and listen to his concerns about government intrusion in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I would hope he would say something like this: that he understands why an unprecedented crisis of this magnitude might call forth the full authority of the national government, and he is not necessarily condemning that out of hand, but history teaches us that new powers taken on by government during times of crisis are seldom relinquished when the trouble is over; that while he understands the need for a clear and consistent national response to the pandemic, a one-size-fits-all approach is probably not the most efficient or fair way to address the problem; that the “laboratory of democracy” function of our divided sovereignty may permit different states or regions, or even different parts of states, to address the pandemic responsibly but employing somewhat different ways and means; and that government gigantism inevitably brings with it great possibilities of corruption, inefficiency, bloat, and waste, while more localized responses are more likely to be proportional and carefully administered; that while we might be able to get on top of the pandemic by digitally monitoring every American with a cellphone or smartphone, that level of surveillance raises really important issues with respect to privacy.
While we sat in our car observing the protest rally, we found ourselves laughing at and then with and even for the protesters. We did not agree with them, not even slightly. But we also do not agree with one of my closest friends, another observer of the rally, who wrote, “I swear, it was 75 or so of the stupidest people I have ever seen gathered in one place in my entire life. I predict at least three of them will be dead by the Fourth of July.” We did not think that at all. Nor do we expect that any of them will be diagnosed with the virus.
I found myself hearkening to the words of America’s greatest revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson. After most establishment Americans decried Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786, Jefferson almost alone defended the farmers’ protest movement. He recognized that these were good American people — patriots — who were victims both of the economic dislocations that came with the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, and of the coastal indifference of the people of Boston to the plight of the rural folks of the western sectors of Massachusetts. They were not instinctive incendiaries or ruffians, but good Americans — war veterans — who felt their voices were not being heard by the very leaders who had enlisted them to secure America’s independence just a handful of years earlier.
“The people are the only censors of their governors,” Jefferson wrote in January 1787, “and even their errors will tend to keep these [their representatives] to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people, is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers.”
In other words, from a Jeffersonian perspective, there is something essentially healthy, even virtuous, in the kind of protest that unfolded peacefully, even sweetly, on North Dakota’s capital grounds. Are these folks wrong to be concerned about government encroachment on their liberties? Have they not good reason to be skeptical and even suspicious of a national government that provides its greatest benefits to big business, corporate moguls, and people of privilege, a government that lies to the American people with infuriating regularity, that seems more interested in inside-the-beltway partisan bickering than in solving actual problems of the people who live in the vast majority of the nation’s real estate?
President Ronald Reagan may have been playing the demagogue a little, but there is surely a kernel of wisdom in his famous quip of April 12, 1986: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”
The Constitution and the Tenth Amendment were clearly intended by the founders to protect the rights of individuals and the rights of states against a centralized national government, and even people who have come to terms with the vast social, political, economic, and technological changes in America between 1787 and 2020 ought to feel some uneasiness at how much authority has been gathered in Washington in direct violation of the social compact written in 1787 and ratified in 1788. Maybe the folks in their American flag jackets are, in their somewhat imprecise way, a healthy reminder of what we have lost alongside all that we have gained by becoming a Hamiltonian nation with a powerful central government.
Instead of denouncing these disheveled lovers of liberty and finding the comic aspects of their rally delicious, maybe the rest of us should be out there with them at the local equivalent of Hyde Park Corner in London, engaging in a spirited dialogue about the implications of the current crisis for the long-term liberty of the American people. Those who believe their protest is authentic but a little mis-directed might be able to help them explore and refine their concerns; and at the same time, perhaps some of the people who think themselves superior to the protesters might, if they stopped to listen generously, learn something that would alter their point of view somewhat.
Maybe in a somewhat imprecise way the protesters are on to something of vital importance to us all. Their willingness to venture peacefully into the public square on a windy and not very warm Saturday morning on the plains of Dakota may be a greater service to American democracy than the contempt, condescension, and posture of superiority of the ones who stayed home that spring day or treated the protest with derision. The reason Donald Trump is the president of the United States is the recognition by the people on the capital grounds and tens of millions like them that the elites of America have had enough sport putting down the “deplorables,” the “great unwashed,” the yokels and rubes and the millions who get choked up when they hear Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
To his closest friend James Madison, Jefferson wrote, “I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people, which have produced them.” In other words, the impulse that sends a few dozen people to the state capital grounds is essentially wholesome and deserving of at least a modicum of respect.
When in his magnificent first inaugural address Jefferson said, “we are all republicans, we are all federalists,” he was not just trying to unify the country after a bitter election and mollify the million or so people who believed he was too radical (too Frenchified) to serve as president of the United States. Jefferson meant something more significant. He meant that we are all republicans because we all want the smallest and least intrusive government that can hold the country together; and yet we are all federalists because we all want enough government to keep us secure and accomplish the things that any national government must do.
Finding that balance is the whole art of governing if you wish to live in a republic. Jefferson believed — from decades of very hard reading — that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground,” that America would be a great republic only so long as the spirit of liberty was so alive in the people that they would react, and sometimes overreact, whenever they felt that their liberties were being eroded.
As we left the rally and drove home to make lunch, we found ourselves chastened. We hoped nobody at the rally would get sick from the experience. We were very glad we had gone to take a look, and though we seriously disagreed with the protesters’ views, we joined Voltaire in defending to the death their right to express them. And though we did not exactly hear the drummin, the whole experience seemed more redemptive than otherwise.
We recommend that the protesters read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone or Lawrence Wright’s The End of October as well as the Bill of Rights. And, not least, we very much wanted recreational marijuana if we are all going to shelter in place for the next four months.
For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour.