Laura Thornton: How does Democracy Work Six Feet Apart?
Caucasian Journal 04.21.20
Coronavirus has disrupted virtually all aspects of our lives and there is much speculation about both the effectiveness of democracy to handle the crisis and the impact the virus will have on democratic institutions and processes in the short and long term.
For an expert opinion on this subject, Caucasian Journal has turned to Laura Thornton (@LauraLThornton), Director for Global Programme at Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Until recently Laura has headed the National Democratic Institute in Tbilisi and is well known in our region. She is also a frequent guest of Caucasian Journal (see her other interviews here).
Much has been said about autocracies being “better equipped” to handle corona due to their ability to take draconian measures. How would you respond to this?
Yes, there is plenty of bemoaning the inability of democracies to quickly adopt the tough measures, including limiting freedoms, to address the virus, the assumption being that non- or hybrid- democracies do this more effectively as they are not hindered by checks or bureaucracy, like China and Singapore. This position is, of course, swiftly countered by those pointing out the successes of democracies like Germany, Taiwan, and South Korea, where immediate and efficient actions – including large scale testing, tracking, and isolating cases – have proven effective. There is also evidence of established democracies crippled by incompetence and bureaucracy. Successful responses reflect mostly the competence and efficacy of states and, in my view, provide a more compelling case than ever for good governance – efficient, nimble, responsive, transparent, and organized.
This praise of authoritarian regime’s responses also doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Many have pointed out how China was able to command millions of people to stay home and shut down swaths of the country because it did not have to contend with democratic politics, processes, and checks and balances. What this argument fails to consider was how the lack of transparency and suppression of information by leaders for weeks, including gagging whistle-blowing doctors, not only seriously exacerbated the crisis but also provoked blowback from Chinese citizens. Public fury spewed forth on social media when people started to discover the cover-up act of their leaders. The demands for more transparency and information were unprecedented and shook the government to its core, forcing it to come as close as the Chinese government can to a mea culpa, including serious back-peddling on messaging about a hero doctor it had previously muzzled. While corona in China may have exposed some efficiencies in autocratic rule, it also bolstered civil society’s appreciation of freedom of speech and information, perhaps exposing future cracks in the system.
Some leaders have used corona as an opportunity to consolidate powers (like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán). Are there any mechanisms to control such situations?
In a time when democracy is backsliding across the globe and countries have experienced the rise of authoritarians and far-right populism, this fret is deserved. Viktor Orbán knows an opportunity when he sees it, using the pandemic to expand his powers and stifle information. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon – any crisis, war or otherwise, can result and has resulted in executives pushing the envelope of their power. Fear and the “monster under the bed” is the beloved elixir of wannabe authoritarians to subdue the public. What is better than a scary, “foreign” pandemic? It is no coincidence that President Trump immediately focused on closing borders and tried to sell the name “China virus” to stoke existing xenophobia in American society. COVID-19 has also become another excuse for Trump to attack journalists, recently snapping at a PBS reporter and demanding she ask “nice” questions, not exposing ones. His authoritarian instincts are further on display in his attempts to cover up information about the early pandemic response, to secure un-checked control of financial bailout slush funds, and to demand that governors “be nice to him” before he will provide federal support.
However, it is important not to presume that the adoption of strict measures – including restrictions of rights – is inherently undemocratic. Representative democracy entails electing leaders we entrust with important (and life-saving) decisions, and the public supports this. In fact, it is a sign that democracy is working, not failing. It is critical to distinguish this from unnecessary (restrictions on speech), unrelated, or purely self-interested abuses of power – such as Orban’s use of corona to trample on the rights of the LGBTI community. Time is also a factor – how long the state holds on to these measures past their expiration date.
Obviously checks are needed to ensure this distinction is made. This comes from different branches of government, as well as non-state actors. Parliamentary oversight is critical to protect against executive abuse. In disbursement of emergency funding, for example, it was important that the U.S. Congress ensured that this was not simply a slush fund for the executive but had specific criteria and oversight in place. Does the media back down and become complacent or continue to push for answers? During Spanish influenza, the U.S. government demanded journalists not cover the sickness because it was also a time of war. Journalists complied. In the U.S., the picture has been mixed – journalists on Fox News described coronavirus for weeks as an “impeachment hoax” and downplayed its risks, and there are far-right commentators today painting the head of the Center for Disease Control as a liar and traitor because he has contradicted Trump. In most countries, media has proven essential in preventing possible over-stepping and providing needed information to keep people safe.
The other question will be how the public reacts and if they are paying attention to potential executive abuse. In times of crisis, there can be a blind “rally around the flag” response from the public, the sheep behavior to follow the leader. People are simply too scared to ask questions or provide oversight and this could result in ceding unwarranted authority. Or, the other way around, non-state actors can pervert acceptable and needed restrictions on rights.
The Georgian government, for example, was praised extensively by the WHO for its swift and preemptive measures to address the virus, including social distancing. However, a strong civil society force – the Church – pushed back and has continued to have worshippers take communion from the same spoon creating enormous public health risks. Unfortunately, the government is not enforcing its own measures in this case. Was this civil society “win” a democratic one? Or does it demonstrate the power of unelected forces to thwart representative government in a time of emergency?
Good point! Speaking about Georgia, what implications will corona have on upcoming elections? And what will elections look like with social distancing?
How does democracy work six feet apart? This is a critical question in an election year. All the powerful tools of campaigns from door-to-door canvassing to rallies to debates and town halls cannot take place. This includes political mobilizing from voters and civil society actors who want to influence the campaign and platforms. Add that to the difficulty to break through to the media when air channels are (rightly) preoccupied with a pandemic and economic recession. Further, how can candidates and parties raise money when there is a tsunami of economic hardship headed our way?
My guess is that for immediate elections (2020), the incumbents will have a significant advantage. The incumbent has the platform and media, in fact, more than usual given the need for regular briefings and updates. The incumbent in many countries is less reliant on private donors as it has the state apparatus at its disposal. Plus, given the emergency, ruling party leaders can pass legislation that includes financial benefits to people, which in a non-emergency time could be interpreted as a form of vote-buying. Finally, in the time of crisis, leaders always get a short-term boost – again, the rally around the flag phenomenon. People are quite generous in giving the benefit of the doubt in difficult times. It is also tricky for the opposition to go after the government too harshly, and they risk criticism for bringing up non-COVID issues considered by many during this time as irrelevant or untimely. My guess is these factors apply to Georgia as well. Georgian Dream executives dominate the airwaves and have the platform to demonstrate leadership, while opposition parties are at a disadvantage with regard to reaching people. Now, next year’s elections around the globe could be quite different. Once the health risks become less severe but the economic hardships settle in, opposition parties could be well-positioned.
I’ve talked to some campaign managers and party leaders who are doing their best to adapt. Obviously, much of this takes place online. Parties (and civic groups trying to influence them) are doing online surveys to gather public opinion and online platforms allowing citizens to help design campaign platforms and messages. Tele-town halls, video clips, livestreaming, podcasts, chat rooms, memes, mini-dramas are all innovative methods. This, of course, proves difficult in countries with lower Internet penetration and where “old school” in-person campaigning is all that’s available.
Of course, a bigger question is whether to postpone elections altogether, which some countries have already done. Ethically, we cannot have citizens choose between their health and their franchise. The concept of postponement is polarizing, infuriating opposition parties in some contexts, but in other countries, like Ethiopia, the opposition actually welcomed the move. Postponement is of course not the only option – movement to mail-in ballots and other measures is feasible. International IDEA has an analysis of this (and other issues) accessed through its COVID-19 and Democracy link.
What are the longer-term potential effects of corona on democratic institutions? How will the virus change our governance systems for better or worse? Are there other global, geopolitical implications?
This is the million-dollar question. There are negative and positive possibilities. Upcoming economic hardship presents a tempting opportunity for populists who may have success manipulating people’s poverty by identifying bogeymen (foreigners, religious minorities) while continuing to restrict liberties and checks. On a more positive note, countries could evaluate and address the significant problems the corona dug up and exposed, from weaknesses in emergency response and crisis management, to inadequate healthcare coverage and expertise, to economic inequities baked into our governance systems. The fact that, for example, so many people are employed in the service and gig economy that provides zero safety net, unemployment insurance, or minimum wage exposes enormous vulnerabilities. I do hope we don’t just bounce back to the way things were before and find ways to address these issues. Our reliance on technology during this time will, I think, continue to spur tech innovation and perhaps make us less dependent on in-person conferences and events and constant, environmentally-unfriendly air travel.
My favorite, albeit perhaps crass, expression about COVID-19 is that there is no “peeing section of a swimming pool.”
Geopolitically, yes, I think there are broader implications. One disappointment at the start of the crisis was the ineffectiveness of our global institutions and bodies to respond. Many Italians accused the EU of paralysis at best and abandonment at worse. With Brexit and Trump’s vocal disdain for international order, we have seen a weakening in our global democratic ecosystem over the past few years. A pandemic – and likely the next crisis whether disease or climate change or something else – is global and requires global coordination, cooperation, and support. My favorite, albeit perhaps crass, expression about COVID-19 is that there is no “peeing section of a swimming pool.” We will be affected by and must rely on one another, sharing information and resources, to manage the “next corona.”
Many thanks for an excellent interview!
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