Like the rest of the world, Americans have a lot on their minds right now. With the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 reaching 10,000 just this morning, Americans are understandably distressed over the nation’s public health. Perhaps, however, an even bigger stressor for some Americans is the meaningful likelihood that the death toll reported by our government is factually inaccurate. The basic process of counting the dead has been a “chaotic and disorganized federal effort, with the states employing inconsistent protocols and struggling with a lack of resources.” The broader governmental response to COVID-19, according to some, can be characterized the same way.
The inadequacy of the U.S. government’s response is thorough: it goes all the way to the top (with President Trump) and starts all the way from the beginning (in January). The American president ignored the advice of experts and minimized the significance of the pandemic. As recently as early March, Present Trump suggested inaccurately and repeatedly that this virus is comparable to the common flu and denied the reality that America has a major shortage of COVID-19 tests. These are not purely rhetorical failures; Trump’s suggestion that the virus is comparable to the flu certainly encouraged the virus’ spread and the shortage of COVID-19 tests is analogous to a shortage of our best tool for combatting this crisis.
The federal government has offered a shoddy federal response to its constituents’ legitimate need and there are serious consequences: illnesses and fatalities that could have been avoided and considerable economic hardship for some. Also, technology and globalization has empowered the American citizenry to observe and criticize its government more intensely than ever before. There’s also potential for political ramifications; some Americans are wondering where American democracy will be in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s reason to believe that this pandemic will create casualties for American democracy.
Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes was published in 1978 but may nonetheless contain lessons that are applicable to America’s present situation. Rather than using a structuralist framework to analyze the mechanisms of democratic erosion, Linz and Stepan focus on the behavior of individuals who are in leadership positions during times of intense political competition. Examining data from twelve national case studies, Linz and Stepan identify two primary variables: efficacy and legitimacy. While the efficacy of a government refers to whether it is successful, the legitimacy of a government refers to whether it is accepted by the public. The scholars find that democratic breakdown can occur when a government’s inefficacy or inability to solve problems it is presented with can lead to a loss of legitimacy.
The framework outlined in Linz and Stepan’s work predicts that the U.S. government could lose legitimacy as a result of its inability to properly support the American people during the COVID-19 pandemic. This could play out, for example, within the American healthcare system, which will be seriously overburdened by this pandemic. The plentiful and powerful stakeholders in our healthcare institutions will realize that it is not practical to rely on the federal government for adequate support during times of crises. This realization will galvanize stakeholders to rely more on non-governmental institutions, thereby redirecting political power from entities that are governmental and (ostensibly) democratic to those that are non-governmental and therefore not-necesarily-democratic.
If Linz and Stepan are right, Trump’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic could result in a loss of legitimacy for the American democratic system as a whole.