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MODERATOR:  Good morning.  My name is Olga Bashbush.  I am the Acting Deputy Director of the Washington Foreign Press Center.  I want to welcome you today for this on-the-record Zoom briefing on The Role of Federalism in the U.S. Electoral Process.

This briefing is being livestreamed on the Foreign Press Center’s website, which is  We will produce a transcript and video after the briefing and post them on our website.  If you publish a story as a result of this briefing, please share your story with us by sending an email to

Just a couple of things to keep in mind while using Zoom:  We have muted all the participants.  Please ensure that you have clicked on the participant list, hovered over your account, and changed your account to reflect your name and news outlet.  This will help us during the question and answer portion of the briefing.

Our briefer, Mr. Akram Elias, will give short opening remarks, then we will open it up for questions.  If you have a question, please go to the chat box.  There is a feature that allows you to virtually raise your hand.  At that time, we will unmute you and turn on your video so that you can ask your question.

And with that, I’m honored to introduce Mr. Akram Elias, co-founder and president of Capital Communications Group, Inc.  Mr. Elias has 35-plus years of professional experience in the field of international relations, public diplomacy, cultural intelligence, strategic language services, and communication strategies.  Mr. Elias has a profound knowledge of the American system and structure of government.  He will provide a brief history of the American form of federalism, put our system into context, and explain how it affects Americans’ daily lives and, most importantly, their vote.

Mr. Elias is also a frequent briefer with the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program.  A link to his impressive biography was included in the media advisory we sent you.  And with that, I will pass it on to Mr. Elias.  Thank you for joining us today and helping us relaunch our U.S. elections 2020 programming.  Mr. Elias.

MR ELIAS:  Thank you, Olga.  I appreciate it, and good morning, afternoon, evening to all of you joining us from around the world.  It is indeed a great pleasure and an honor to be with you, and please feel free to call me Akram.  That’s my first name.  We tend to be less formal and quickly move to using first names, so feel free to do so when it comes to the Q&A part.

I’d like to take a few moments in the beginning to share with you some foundational concepts regarding how federalism operates in the United States and, most importantly, how that impacts elections in this country.  And first, one fundamental thing I’d like to share with you – and I ask you kindly to keep it always in the back of your minds – in the United States, there exist no national, central government.  This is fundamental to always keep in the back of your minds.  So the U.S. Government is not a national, central government.  It is referred to in this country as being one thing and one thing only:  It is a federal entity created by the states and the peoples of the states, and as you may know, we do have 50 states today in this country.  So the U.S. Government is a federal entity created by the states and the peoples of the states – originally 13, today 50 – in order to help the states manage the affairs of their union.

So this is a union of states, and keep in mind that the states and the peoples of the states manage the affairs of their union through a congress of states that is convened every two years in the federal capital of the United States, Washington D.C.  So Congress is not a national parliament.  There is no national parliament for the United States.  “Congress” in English means conference.  Instead of being a congress of teachers, a congress of engineers, a congress of workers, of farmers, this is a congress of the United States – congress of states – so the states could meet through the congress to manage the affairs of their union.  So this fundamental concept I kindly ask you, again, to keep it in the back of your minds as I proceed.

And I’d like to share my screen with you using some slides to help me as I present to you those fundamentals.  And at this stage, let me go there, and I want to (inaudible) from you if – or at least somebody can tell me whether you see that first slide on the screen.

MODERATOR:  We do, Mr. Elias.  It is on there.

MR ELIAS:  Perfect.  So now I can move.  So let me describe very quickly a little bit this non-centralized system.

So the U.S. Government it is a federal entity.  If you’re looking at your screen here on the left-hand side, the U.S. Government is a federal entity created and managed by the states to enable the states to govern fundamentally four sovereign domains.  I call these the sovereign powers of the U.S. Government.  By “sovereign” I mean no state by itself can make laws or policies in any one of those sovereign areas.  These sovereign policy areas must be governed – these are key words – must be governed by the 50 states always together, never separately, and only federally, meaning using U.S. Government – or federal, meaning – institutions.

And the four are, in order of importance – first is the defense policy of the United States.  That is the number one responsibility of the congress of the states every two years.  It is to establish policy and funding for the defense of their union.

Second is monetary policy, not economic policy.  Please keep in mind when it comes to economic policy, that is fundamentally managed at the state level.  Monetary policy meaning the governance of the common currency, the dollar – that is why we have a Federal Reserve that governs the dollar but there is no federal department of economy, no federal department of planning, no federal department of industry, no federal department of development, because these economic development arenas are fundamentally under state controls.

The third fundamental sovereign power that the 50 states must govern always together, never separately and only federally, is their foreign affairs, and by that I mean all types of formal relations that may exist between the union of the states as one body, as one entity, and the rest of the world, going out to the world or coming in from the world.  So that includes, obviously, foreign policy, international trade agreements, things like immigration, border control – excuse me – duties, tariffs, et cetera.

And the last sovereign domain is the regulation of trade or commerce between the 50 states.  So we call that interstate commerce.  We want to have free trade within the union.

And now, my dear friends, every other policy domain outside these four sovereign areas – okay, everything else – education, health care, economic development, internal security, energy, it doesn’t matter – everything else falls immediately, automatically under the powers of the 50 states.

So that comes now to your right side of the screen, the state powers, and this is based on the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The 10th Amendment is, in fact, Article 10 of what we call the Bill of Rights.  So it basically says, as you can see, all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by the states, are reserved directly to the states.  So the states and the people of the states may decide to basically do other things together using the federal government, but what they must do first and foremost is govern those sovereign arenas.

Now, why do the states do share powers?  I’m sure you’ve heard about things like Obamacare, you’ve heard about education, every – in fact, today I can tell you that the 50 states collaborate, cooperate federally in every policy domain you can imagine.  So why do they do that?  Why is that so important?

And now we look at the bottom part of the screen, to the left-hand side.  Here’s one thing very important.  In this country, things like civil rights – you may recall the ugly history of the United States, slavery, that horrible cancer that led to a civil war to extract it; more than 600,000 Americans died between 1861 and ’65.  Slavery was abolished, but even after that the cancer basically metastasized – using here a medical expression – and spread in a different form – we called it segregation – in several parts of the states for another 99 years until 1964.  Because civil rights are not one of the four sovereign domain areas, each state prior to 1964 basically legislated, regulated civil rights on its own.  So some states fought discrimination; other states institutionalized, legalized segregation – institutionalized discrimination on the basis of race.

So in 1964, the congress of the states passed federal civil rights law, U.S. federal – U.S. civil rights law basically stating that we agree that there should be no discrimination on the basis of race.  So civil rights legislation was adopted federally.  That means, if you look now at the right side of the screen, the bottom part, right – so how do these states handle those rights?  Those rights become minimum mandatory.  So each state now can give more rights, can give additional rights, can give greater protections, but can no longer lower those.  So that is the new minimum threshold and that is important to help the country move forward without centralization in an area such as individual rights.

The second very important area for why they choose to collaborate federally is to provide minimum access to every citizen of this country across the 50 states.  I’m giving as an example here the Americans with Disabilities Act.  So the Americans with Disabilities Act, again, each state regulated access; how do people with disability – let’s say somebody on a wheelchair – what were really their minimum access to access public buildings, office space, parking, bathrooms, et cetera?

Well, in 1990, the 50 states through their Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act to basically say this is the minimum access that we agree to impose on ourselves.  So each state, then, imposes it within its own territory.  Again, states can now provide greater access but no longer lower access.

And a third fundamental reason for federal collaboration is to establish minimum standards.  Take, for example, the environment.  If we want to have environmental protection, if we want to have food safety, all these things fall under the domains of the 50 states.  But shouldn’t there be some minimum standards?  So the 50 states constantly through Congress after Congress pass federal laws saying this is the minimum protection we’re going to impose on ourselves.  Again, states can now raise the protection.  For example, in a state like California, they decided, for example, to combat global warming, that all industries that produce greenhouse gases within the state of California must reduce, must reduce their emissions by an additional 10 percent.  In other words, it’s a stricter standard: 10 percent on top of what the federal minimum standard is.  And when a state raises the standard, state law is supreme in that state, because federal law is not national, central.  It means in the area of collaboration, minimum standard.

And last, very important reason – I’m mentioning here the most important reasons for federal collaboration.  Of course, there are a few others.  But the fourth major reason is to collaborate in the budget area using portions of the federal budget to invest in research and development to help build capacity.  Whenever they raise standards, for example, in the area of education, now you need teachers that need to be trained to raise their capacity, their ability to meet these new standards.  So parts of the federal budget are then allocated to the states to help in building that capacity, to doing R&D.  This is where you see a big role of the federal government in investing in the kinds of technologies, the kinds of, in specific areas, constantly aimed at how to advance the economy for all the 50 states forward, and that means that states, through that federal collaboration in the budget area, become more interdependent on one another.

All right, let me move to the other quick aspect.  Here it is decentralization.  So non-centralization governs the relationship between the 50 states and the U.S. Government.  (Inaudible) level of government below the states, it’s called local.  So each state decentralize, decentralize by delegating to local government powers.  And in this case I’m just mentioning some of the key types of local government: counties, cities, districts, towns.  These are different forms, different types of local government.  And fundamentally, local government in the United States, today we have more than 89,000 local governments – 89,000 local governments.  Their fundamental responsibilities are, having been delegated to them by the respective states, they are: School, public school education.  This is why there is no national curriculum for public school education in the United States.

Second, law enforcement.  That is why there is no national police force for the United States and no national ministry of interior or internal affairs with a national, centralized security system.  Law enforcement is fundamentally a state government responsibility.  Of course, the states collaborate federally in law enforcement for the reasons I mentioned earlier, but it is fundamentally their responsibility, but instead of keeping it centralized within each state, each state decentralized and delegated that to their local government.  This is why you hear about, for example, New York City having its own 35,000 to 40,000 police force headed by a commissioner who is appointed by the locally elected government of the City of New York.  And they are funded, their salaries, the budget come primarily from the local budget.  So taxation is also decentralized.

And the third very important responsibility of local government is economic development.  And it is at the local level that you will hear primarily of public-private partnerships between civil society, the business world, and the locally elected government working three-way together to think together how best to develop their locality.

So I mention all this background to you now to bring you to elections.  Therefore, since we have three distinct levels of government because of this noncentralized and decentralized form of government, we have, obviously, noncentralized and decentralized elections.  It goes without saying.  So at the federal level, we have election laws.  These election laws basically govern the eligibility, who is eligible to run for office at the federal level.  For example, if you want to run for – as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the Congress, you need to be 25 years old.  Senate, 30 years old.  Okay, these are federal eligibility requirements.  When the elections, dates, what are limitations, what are the regulations governing the actual practice – excuse me – and execution of the elections?  What about campaign finance laws?  All these are federal.

State governments – because each state is pretty much autonomous within the union, it has its own laws now governing the same areas, plus voter registration, campaign finance at their level, primaries and caucuses.  Primaries and caucuses are governed at the state level.  And then, obviously, because of decentralization within each state – so these 89,000 local governments have their own, now, systems of government elections and regulations as delegated to them by their respective states.

And lastly, you have the role of political parties.  Political parties do play a very important role in establishing the laws and regulations within each state when it comes to elections.  So how are nominations done?  How is it a candidacy?  How does one become a candidate for office?  And that is going to vary from state to state and from party to party, okay.  How about national committees, et cetera?

So now I’ll talk a little bit about federal elections.  At the federal level we have the two big areas I’m going to focus on, the U.S. Congress – the U.S. Congress, as I mentioned, is basically a conference of states for a period of two years.  Once the two-year period ends, the Congress is dissolved.  It’s finished.  The agenda is over.  Come, let’s say, January for example, we have elections coming up now in November, so in January 2021 a new Congress will be convened for another two years with its own agenda.

What is the objective here, is – in the Congress, is to create a system of checks and balances between the rule of the people and the rule of (inaudible) Congress.  We have two types of delegates: representatives and senators.  Representatives are elected proportionally to the size of population.  More people, more representatives.  So California, for example, being the most populous state, has – excuse me – 53 representatives.  A state like Montana has only one.  You have to have a minimum of one.  So the idea is in order to get the majority vote in the House of Representatives, you must have the majority of the people, because representation is based on population.

But we have a second category of delegates called senators.  And why that second category?  Because we’re not the republic of America, we’re not the republic of the people of America; we’re the republic of the United States of America.  It’s a union of states.  So we must have the rule of the states check and balance the rule of the people.  So in the Senate, each state, no matter what the size of its population is – so huge California has two senators, and very small-populated Montana has also two senators.  Fifty states; that gives us a total of 100 senators.

Now, very important:  No federal legislation can be passed by the Congress, nothing in the federal budget can be passed by the Congress and sent to the president to execute unless and until a majority in the House – meaning the majority of the people – and a majority in the Senate – meaning the majority of the states – both must agree, using the same exact language, before that piece of legislation or budget are sent to the president.  This is to force, again, the checks and balances between the majority of the states and the majority of the people.
Which brings us now to the president.  Why is the president elected the way today he – one day, she – why the president is elected the way he is?  Well, it’s the same objective.  We need to create systems of checks and balances between the rule of the people and the rule of the states.  If the people elected directly the president, then big states like California could control basically the presidential elections.  And as a result, the other states would start feeling basically slighted, and this may lead to secessionist movements, forms of rebellions, and we would like to avoid those.

So the checks and balances helps us keep the union together.  So how can we do this balance?  Here is what happens.  Welcome to the Electoral College.  So the people in each state vote – vote – in their state to choose whom they prefer to be president.  So once the majority, let’s say, of Californians voted, like in the last election, 2016, for the president – the majority voted for Secretary Hillary Clinton – the majority of Californians have basically ordered – ordered their state, California, to elect her, which means that California gave her its 55 electoral votes, period.  It doesn’t matter how large or small the majority vote she won.  She could have won by one vote.  She won by more than 2 million votes.  It didn’t matter; California was ordered by its people to elect her, giving her its 55 electoral votes.

So now what happens?  This happens in each one of the 50 states, and the total number of electoral votes in the Electoral College is 538.  So who becomes president is the person who wins not the majority of the total votes of the peoples of the 50 states.  No, that is irrelevant.  It is whoever wins the majority of the electoral votes of the 50 states, and that means 270.  Simple majority – 538 divided in half, plus one.  And if you look now at what happened in 2016, Donald Trump got 306 – he needed 270 to become president – while Secretary Clinton got 232.  You become president of the United States, not of the people, by winning the majority of the states, not the majority of the people.

One last thing I’ll mention and then I will shut up, because there is another very important system of checks and balances at the federal level, and that is – that has to do with the federal courts.  (Inaudible) courts, except to mention that the federal Judicial Branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, is extraordinarily powerful and it checks and balances the president and the Congress, and the idea being we need the rule of law to check and balance the rule of the people, the rule of the states, the majority interest, the national interest, versus individual rights.  And here you have a few statistics about the number of federal courts.

And with this, my dear friends, I thank you and now I am yours and I’ll stop sharing my screen.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much, Mr. Elias.  Now we are going to open it up for questions.  The way that you ask the question is if you go to the participant list, hover over your name, and there is also an option to raise your hand virtually.

I am surprised there are no questions.  This is a very unique system.  Oh, we do.  We have one from Alex from Azerbaijan.  All right.  We are going to unmute you and turn on your video.

QUESTION:  Yes, hello.  Can you see me and hear me?

MODERATOR:  We can, we can.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Okay.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Good morning.

QUESTION:  Great to see you today, and good morning, Mr. Elias.  My name is Alex Raufoglu.  I represent Azerbaijan’s independent news agency, Turan.  My question is about, of course, the election.  There are so many things that can go wrong if the events of the last few years are any indication.  We have disinformation and foreign interference all affected the 2016 elections, and now we have the pandemic, and there are talks about alternative voting methods, such as I’ve heard about mail voting and internet voting, et cetera.  The question is, how should the federal government officials and local leaders confront those challenges and how can we avoid the myriad of problems that could affect the elections?  Thank you very much.

MR ELIAS:  Well, thank you very much for this very perceptive question, Alex.  Well, I guess this is what everyone around the country at the state, local, and federal governments are dealing with.  This is not new.  First, let me say this is not new to the United States.  What is really different today compared to – as a student of American history, I look always at the longer spectrum of things.  Can you imagine elections during the Civil War?  Can you imagine elections during the Vietnam era and the turmoil of the ‘60s, where cities were literally burned?  Where I work, Washington, D.C., it really suffered some tremendous turmoil, all kinds of things you can imagine.

What is obviously very different today is that we live in a 24-hour news cycle.  It’s instantaneous and things can be further amplified.  And so increasingly, what is happening in this country – it’s going to take a little time, so this is a rough period – but increasingly, people are being basically advised and they’re realizing that they need to take some distance.  They need to really take some distance a little bit from this instantaneous world so they can process info.  There is a huge difference between data and knowledge, and today we live in this big data environment, so I call it the fog – the fog of information.  Okay, what is true?  What is not true?  What is rumor?  What is fake?  What is real?  Oh my gosh.

Now, practically speaking, the states and the – and at the federal level as well, we have dealt with various forms of conducting the election, including doing things by mail going all the way back to the Civil War era.  So it is not, again, something totally new.  What is definitely different is that we’re dealing with technology, we’re dealing with the ability, as you mentioned, of interference from the outside.  I can tell you since the 2016 election, there are all kinds of measures that have been put into place.  I cannot tell you – I cannot – no way anyone can guarantee that things will be flawless, no, but states working together with the federal government – this is an area where they collaborate.  If you recall, I mentioned the four major reasons for collaboration outside of the sovereign powers is to build capacity.  So there’s been a lot done and more is being done to help build capacity to ensure the integrity of elections.  Are there – COVID-19 is something that is really hugely an unknown factor in how to deal with that, so states are right now experimenting with different ways.  Let me explain how they collaborate.

They collaborate not only through the federal – with the federal (inaudible).  They collaborate directly among themselves.  There is a conference of governors.  There are regional conferences and there is a national conference of – association of governors of the United States.  They have standing committees and subcommittees, including things that focus on elections, so they can exchange best practices, learn from one another.  So we avoid centralization by enabling more creativity, risk taking, so we can constantly experiment.  The idea is that there are 50 laboratories to experiment.  With experimentation you have higher risk.  So that’s a cost we pay to keep things always moving forward through a healthy environment of competition by – excuse me – by experimenting.

So a lot of these things are taking place, but I cannot predict the future and I cannot tell you what may or may not happen, but definitely people, very smart people, are putting their brains and energies together to figure out how they can preserve the integrity of the elections with this added COVID-19 challenge.
QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR ELIAS:  My pleasure.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much for that question.  We will now go to Elena Lentza.  We will be unmuting you and turning on your video so that you can ask your question directly.

QUESTION:  Hello.  Good morning.  Akram, I wanted to ask about the mail-in voting, and especially what can the parties, the political parties, do to make it more difficult or even to help it happen?  Because we know that voting system is majorly regulated by local governments and state governments, but what are the political parties – what are their (inaudible) to interfere in this?  Thank you.

MR ELIAS:  Sure.  No, thank you very much, Elena, and nice to meet you, too.  As you mentioned, it is state – state laws and local laws that really regulate and govern how these elections going to take place, including mail-in elections – absentee ballots as well as mail-in.  Now what parties can do and what parties are doing – and that is, again, being done in different ways across the 50 states – but there’s always the idea of partnership.  When it comes to elections in this country, it is fundamental to have the major stakeholders, the major stakeholders, be part of the process for the —

QUESTION:  Who are these?

MR ELIAS:  The major – firstand foremost is civil society, and that is why in every election, no matter where it takes place, there are observers that come in representing different civil society groups to make sure – they’re there to make sure that the integrity of the election is preserved, that – for the purpose of transparency.  You hear, for example, about the League of Women Voters, which is organized in all 50 states.  This is – they are the women who want to make sure that basically elections take place that way.

Second, part of civil society is that each and every citizen in this country is encouraged to, and is invited also, to play the role of a judge, an election judge.  For example, I was invited – I got a invitation from my local area saying would you like to be and volunteer your time to be an election judge, just to give ordinary citizens – not just organized civil society groups – ordinary citizens to play that role of a judge in order to make sure it’s done.

And thirdly, and third very important stakeholder, are the political parties.  So the parties have their own representatives there also, and that’s the idea.  You involve the major stakeholders so it becomes much more difficult for people to say there were irregularities.  People would see the irregularities if they all participated.  And it’s the same thing that is taking place now, so when these – mail-in comes in, how are they going to be counted?  Who’s going to oversee that?  How do you ensure the integrity and security of the place they’re being collected, et cetera, of the (inaudible)?


MODERATOR:  And I would like to echo what Mr. Elias said.  I have been a volunteer for the last six years here in Virginia.  I’m just a regular election worker, and that means that we receive training, and it’s regular everyday citizens that are at each polling station.  I was also an election worker during the 2016 election, and I again echo what Mr. Elias said:  We had a representative from the Republican Party, a representative from the Democratic Party, there was a representative from the Green Party, and there was a member of civil society that were there with us the entire Election Day and observed the entire election in my polling station.  And when it was time to – when voting ended and we were turning off the voting machines and we were counting the votes, I had four people watching me close the voting machine with a fellow volunteer.

So everything is very secure, everything is observed, and all the volunteers receive training, at least in Northern Virginia.  If there is ever any question, election workers can call a central telephone line and they will give – get specific instructions if there’s some sort of issue with the voting machine.  But everything that Mr. Elias said is – I can confirm that because I lived it and I participated, and I also want to mention that mail-in voting has gone on for many years.  I have been with the State Department now 16 years, and 10 of those years I was overseas, so I have voted in all of the elections via mail, so that is something that is very common.
Are there any other questions?

QUESTION:  I have a follow-up – follow-up question about, again, the mail-in voting and the absentee voting.  There is a little – I don’t know, in the news, people that think that there will be neutralization of the voting, of the absentee voting or mail-in, so what are we talking here about?  And again, are the political parties involved in the neutralization of this?

MR ELIAS:  Let’s see if I got it correctly.  What you’re hearing about are basically people expressing loud, basically, concerns or skepticisms or worries, and that is quite human.  There are people, whenever you’re faced with an unknown – first, most people don’t pay attention to history, so they think what is happening today, this is it and this is the end of the world, and God, we’re seeing problems like never seen before.  All what it takes is for people to take a step back a little bit and look at history and see that these are recurring phenomena in humanity, no matter what country, where it is.  In other words, whenever a human being faces the unknown or uncertainty, anxiety comes in, fears, and then ignorance plays into this mix.

And then when you have freedom of speech, people can express themselves obviously more openly about their fears, their anxieties, so people may say the vote may be neutralized here, the vote may be compromised there, et cetera, that is if I’m getting correctly your question.  So that is quite normal to happen, and what you’re seeing are educational efforts, people who are trying to basically come back and say, well, wait a second, let’s dissect this issue, one, two, three, four, five.

So let’s put things back into perspective.  Let us, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, way back when the country faced – I guess this – I’m using that as an analogy because with COVID-19, what is happening in the country today with the anxieties, not only about health but also the economy and the future outlooks, how long this thing is going to last, et cetera.  So I’m comparing it a little bit to the ’30s because of the Great Depression, and so many people became unemployed and fell into severe poverty, and the main idea was – by FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt – appealing to the American spirit, to the people, by telling them, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

So what is happening right now in this country, our efforts, grassroots across the country, trying to say, okay, let’s not let fear control us, let’s dissect the problem, let’s approach it scientifically and rationally and mitigate, let’s not reject – totally reject when people express their fears, even if those fears may sound to you as irrational or not well founded, it is very bad to dismiss. Because perceptions, as we all know, are reality for the people who hold those perceptions, so there is a difference between perception and fact.  Facts are reality, but so are perceptions.  So it’s important not to dismiss, but to engage in conversations and in mitigating those potential threats.
QUESTION:  Thank you.
MR ELIAS:  You’re welcome.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Claude, please, go ahead.  We are going to unmute you and turn on your video.

QUESTION:  Can you hear?

MODERATOR:  We can hear you.

QUESTION:  Can you hear me now?

MODERATOR:  Yes, sir.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Hi, and thank you for doing this.  My question to you is:  Federalism, when it works, it’s fine.  When it doesn’t, it might be a little bit dangerous, and I’m talking about the pandemic.  The United States doesn’t have a national strategy, and why Europe is doing better than we do?  It’s because there is a – national strategies.  Government said do this, do that.  With all the states, you have this patchwork of policies.  Some states wear masks, some don’t, and so how do you see – how can – in a period of crisis, how can we use federalism in a productive way, in a positive way?

MR ELIAS:  Well, thank you very much for this – yet another very perceptive question, Claude.  I appreciate it.  It’s – well, let me give you – of course, I’m giving you my perspective.  You can hear different perspectives, obviously, by speaking to other American experts in American Government.

My perspective is always the following:  Whenever a choice is made, there are benefits and there are costs.  In other words, an ideal choice doesn’t exist in the world in which we live.  I am very much of a realist, while an optimist.  In other words, I can – I believe that we can change the reality, but we cannot basically ignore reality.  So we have to start with that.  So the choice that we made with federalism, the benefits of it are tremendous, and they have proven – they have proven, over 200 – more than 200 – we’re approaching 250 years, by the way.  That is, in 2026, so in about five and a half years, we’ll be 250 years of this experiment, if you want, that started back in 1776.

So the great benefits are the idea that we have 50 laboratories, there is risk-taking, as I mentioned earlier, but that keeps the economy – keeps the country moving forward.  In other words, whenever there is a major setback, you typically see the United States coming out of the setback much more quickly as a result of this experimentation.  The costs we pay is that when it comes to that federal collaboration, federal collaboration to establish something like a nationwide strategy dealing with something like COVID takes longer to put together while experimentation is taking place.  So there is a cost that is incurred whenever you have gaps like these.

Now, one thing definitely was missed – and I can tell you as an expert watching the system – was missed in this country, is that we did not learn from what happened several many years ago with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services have looked at – put a lot of studies and a lot of money was put up, collaboration in anticipation for prevention purposes – okay – were put in in case of, for example, what if there was a biochemical attack or a big incident in this country?  How do you deal with something like that – or a bacterial thing?  Nobody was thinking specific – necessarily of COVID, although experts were predicting that something like that COVID-19 was going to happen.  It was a matter of when, because that is, again, the cycle of humanity.

So all these studies were done.  Unfortunately, things were not put in place to really carry through on those, and that took place over both Republican and Democratic administrations because priorities were diverted to something else.  And so I think there’s a huge lesson here that, moving forward, once this thing is into place, they’re going to put it together.

But short answer is:  It is a shortcoming right now, and you’re feeling it that way, and the United States may not be doing or faring as well as some others are, but that is part of that institutional cost.
But when it comes to post-COVID, this federalism is going to give it the energy and the dynamism to move forward.  Because once you are – once you deal with the health matter – in other words, once a vaccine is developed and once the – and it seems like now, with all this experimentation – and again, the competition here is quite helpful in this regard.  But once this vaccine which appears to be – we’re headed towards it by early next year, at the latest March, they’re saying – and once you’re able to vaccinate at a mass and global level, you’re dealing now with the post-COVID-19 economic recovery.  How are people going back to work?  What is going to happen?  This is where federalism in the United States is going to show its tremendous positive ability, because you’re going to have – 50 economies are going to turn themselves in at a different pace and have different ways, and they’re learning from one another.  And that will help the country in that phase recover much more quickly.  That is a prediction I can make.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR ELIAS:  My pleasure.

MODERATOR:  Are there any final questions for Mr. Elias?

(No response.)

MODERATOR:  All right.  I guess there aren’t, so in conclusion, Mr. Elias, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today.  To our participants, a transcript and a video will be posted to our website,, this afternoon.  If you publish a story as a result of this briefing, please share your story with us by sending an email to
I also want to encourage you to join us tomorrow, August the 6th, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, for our briefing on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment ratification in the United States that granted women the right to vote.  Our briefer tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. will be Notre Dame professor Christina Wolbrecht.  If you are interested in participating in tomorrow’s briefing, please send an RSVP email to

Thank you all, and good afternoon.

MR ELIAS:  Thank you, Olga.  Thank you all, also.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Mr. Elias.

MR ELIAS:  My pleasure.  Thank you.  Bye bye.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future