Recalling an idiom that clearly signals my age (OK, Boomer), I awoke suddenly this morning with the thought: “the cavalry is NOT coming.”

It was a deeply foreboding recognition that one of the foundational notions of my experience as an American has been shattered. I will get over it—and we will get through this, but we will not be the same.

“Here comes the cavalry” was the rallying cry of many real-life episodes in our national history and in plenty of Hollywood productions depicting the early years of our country. The cavalry were the U.S. military men who arrived on horseback, which was back then the fastest way to deploy the men-in-uniform to whatever outpost across our expanding territories needed their help. In later years, it became shorthand for a declaration of hope that help was on the way—citizens in whatever predicament just needed to ‘hang on’ until the cavalry arrived to take care of the situation.

Never mind the fact that our federal system of government has always been designed to set out responsibilities for some things at the national level, some things at the state level and some things at local level. Over time, the power and resources at the national level created a deeply comforting belief for most of us that, when disaster strikes, we have a safety net that is in place for all of us. ‘The cavalry’ will arrive and set things right. Even in recent years, U.S. troops and foreign aid were understood as a critical part of ‘the cavalry’ for allies around the world and people in desperate need.

Now our fifty states are scrambling to create their own responses to a novel coronavirus. I have great faith that most, if not all, will come through (some with less loss and grief than others). But what about the aftermath? We will have clear need (and responsibility) to question other assumptions about the future of our federal system: When do we want to see a national response? When are we ‘on our own’? And how should that impact the way we fund government at every level? For all of us, the results of the next national election will profoundly shape the answers to those questions.

There is a growing list of unintended consequences from this collective COVID-19 experience. As citizens, we need to hold our leaders at each level of our system accountable for conversations about the future once this initial acute phase has been conquered. It matters who is wielding power and how they are using it. Civic leaders, elected officials and employers will need to stand up to the challenges of all that will be ‘coming after’ the virus abates. There will be lots of lessons learned—and as citizens, we should demand that we benefit from those lessons as a nation.

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