Does COVID-19 Change the Debate about Democracy?

Mark Evans

Professor Mark Evans, Director of Democracy 2025, UC-IGPA

Gerry Stoker

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis

There was already a debate about how to save democracy before the onset of COVID-19 (see: https://www.democracy2025.gov.au/documents/Democracy2025-report2.pdf). Democracy was seen to be at risk in various ways. Declining public trust in politics, a failure to tackle the big public policy issues such as climate change, rising income inequality, and lack of diversity and inclusion in the make-up of the political class and in participation and engagement from citizens, were all stimulants to the need to change the way politics is done. But has the emergence of COVID-19 transformed the challenge once again?

 

There is now mounting evidence of increasing risk to democratic practice (see: https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/how-covid-19-is-hitting-some-democracies-harder-than-others). To combat the pandemic, governments have limited civil liberties. This has included the right to vote caused by electoral disruptions in Ethiopia, as well as 15 US states. And Texas and Ohio state governments have moved to delay non-essential medical procedures that include abortions impacting on women’s pro-choice reproductive rights.

 

We have also witnessed increased state surveillance through use of smartphone location tracking, facial recognition and social media monitoring undermining freedoms of expression and association and exacerbating imbalances in military-security-civil relations (see: https://theconversation.com/the-coronavirus-is-costing-us-more-than-just-our-health-and-economy-136359). Most significantly, the long-term impact of unemployment and economic turbulence as part of the fallout from the pandemic may well create a difficult environment for positive political change (see: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/unemployment-claims-millions-increase-economist-commentary-krugman-roubini-elerian-coronavirus-2020-3).

 

At the same time, in certain areas, we have witnessed democratic advance. Women are leading the way in the successful management of COVID-19. Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Sanna Marin in Finland and Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan have shattered the myth that male, Churchillian leadership is best in times of crisis management leaving silver-back male leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson lurching from crisis to crisis in their wake (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/world/coronavirus-women-leaders.html).

 

The emergence of the virtual Parliament in the United Kingdom and the National Cabinet in Australia built on collaboration and consensus are two progressive institutional examples in this regard. We have also seen a renewed public faith in science and evidence informed policy-making. Even the media has enjoyed greater public confidence in its reporting, particularly public broadcasters. Moreover, after a decade of disappointment with digital democratic innovation, governments and citizens around the world are beginning to embrace opportunities for digital participation. More and more citizens appear to be up for digital citizenship than ever before. And, governments are increasingly recognising the need to institutionalise citizen voice in pandemic recovery processes. Select Committees in the UK Parliament, for example, have used online “evidence checks” to scrutinise the basis for policy. The evidence checks operate for one-month and use targeted outreach and social media strategies to invite comments from knowledgeable stakeholders and members of the public about the rigour of evidence underpinning new policy proposals.

 

Trust appears to have been affected in various ways. Longer term there is some evidence (http://www.lse.ac.uk/News/Latest-news-from-LSE/2020/f-June-20/Young-peoples-trust-in-government-damaged-long-term-by-COVID-19) that COVID-19 and other pandemics causes a loss of trust among younger generations and that might in turn impact on future willingness to both comply with government rules and engage with politics. Citizens also seem to be judging their political systems by how well they performed in the context of the pandemic.  There is evidence of an initial surge in support for governments and politicians of all kinds as the anxiety and threat created by the pandemic led citizens to fall back on a fragile level of implicit trust in government (see: https://ukandeu.ac.uk/covid-19-and-the-rally-round-the-flag-effect/) but this has broken down to various degrees especially in countries where government has appeared indifferent or slow to respond by their citizens. This justified scepticism might be healthy for democracy, or it might develop into a negative partisan blame game that diminishes the prospects for political dialogue still further.

 

The crudest forms of populism have not fared well in managing the human cost of the pandemic, but experts and expertise seems to have come back into public favour. Yet the manipulation of evidence and what some politicians kept on referring to as “the science” suggests that expertise may be playing the role of crutch rather than enlightenment. But the re-legitimisation of experts does open-up the possibility of a different type of political dialogue and deliberation.

 

Maybe that bodes well for dealing with demanding and long-term issues such as climate change. Governments have shown that that can borrow and intervene which seems to blow away the restrictions imposed by a neo-liberal framing of what can be done to tackle climate change. On the contrary, however, climate change as an issue has moved down the political agenda and may be swept aside by the pressing need to restart economies no matter what the environmental cost.

 

COVID-19 has changed the context for democratic reform with a mix of positive and negative developments.   To make the most out of the positive we need to refocus debate away from valuable but limited new practices and reforms to a better understanding about how to transform systems of democracy. The disruption caused by the pandemic has reminded us how interconnected our societies are and the same goes for our political system. We need to not only improve the access of all citizens, but also get elected officials and their advisors to be more open and engaging and then above all make sure that good ideas get translated into better practice on the ground. Only by transforming the system and making improvements to inputs, throughputs and outputs can we help democracies meet the continuing challenges of COVID-19 and future pandemics, climate change, social and economic inequalities  and create political systems that are trusted by their citizens.

 

The systems approach referred to above, underpins our ideas in Ten Ways to Save Democracy Post-COVID-19 (Palgrave Macmillan). Faced with pandemics, protests and global upheaval, democracy is under threat, but we also have an opportunity to reflect on how we can do things differently in the future.

 

WE THEREFORE NEED YOUR HELP:

This is a call for champions of liberal democracy to have a say in a new project on strengthening democratic practice – Ten Ways to Save Democracy Post-COVID-19.

 

Over the next six months, we’ll post a draft chapter every three weeks for YOU to comment on in either a Facebook group discussion at:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/581430062574874/

 

Or via our website at:

https://www.democracy2025.gov.au/programs/save-democracy-post-covid-19.html

 

We will then post a rejoinder on the lessons that we will draw upon for the redrafting of the chapter and publish the next draft chapter for your comment.

Throughout the process we will publish panel discussions and host live chats around key sections of the book.

Join the group now to participate in this unique, crowd-sourced experiment to help us answer the question, ‘How can we save democracy in a post-COVID 19 world?’

 

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