The current global pandemic has undoubtedly wreaked havoc on democracies throughout the world, as governments attempt to balance legislative powers with mitigation policies. As the death rate in Italy has started exceeding that of China, many Europeans have begun praising the Chinese government’s brutal, but effective, efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus. Beyond mandated isolation, Chinese officials often performed random health checks and sometimes even forced citizens into state-regulated quarantine centers. In a time of peace, it seems rather impossible to imagine democracies commending the efforts of a communist government. Thus, the coronavirus has already begun eroding democracies by weakening the integrity of political institutions. In the United States, for example, attention on the upcoming presidential election has dwindled, as citizens are preoccupied with managing a dire health crisis with disastrous economic consequences. In recent days, the effects of the pandemic have weakened democracy by threatening the credibility of upcoming election results.
In January, when news of a vague respiratory illness in Wuhan, China began circulating, paranoia in the media escalated polarization on both sides of the political spectrum in the United States. On the right, Fox News notoriously played down the severity of the virus with several prominent hosts suggesting the ‘hype’ was part of an anti-Trump movement that had failed to impeach the president. Alternatively, on the left, critics argue CNN and MSNBC have created a hysteria that has led to ransacked grocery store shelves and depleted toilet paper supplies. This is an unprecedented time, where “quarantine” and “social distancing” have become colloquial terms; however, widespread paranoia is far from new in the United States. The historian Richard Hofstadter calls this “the paranoid style in American politics.” The phenomenon is less about extreme conspiracy theorists, and more about normal people across the spectrum that continually harbor paranoid political sentiments . A 2015 study by Adam Berinsky, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found rumors may gain power because “attempts to fact check them using credible sources leads to repeating the rumor, which increases its diffusion.” Berinsky’s study reveals rumors in the media, which fuel paranoia, are impossible to correct. Therefore, as the pandemic continues, so will the paranoia. It is positively “American” for feelings of paranoia to circulate in a crisis. However, partisan rooted paranoia increases simultaneously with political polarization, which, in turn, affects the legitimacy of election results.
In the United States, paranoia and polarization effect the credibility of elections by forcing radical ideologies on a moderate majority, which decreases mutual toleration. In “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States,” five professors argue polarization compromises “the norms and standards we apply to our elected representatives, and even leads partisans to call into question the legitimacy of election results… [which threatens] the very foundations of representative democracy.” Polarization creates a “winners” and “losers” mentality in elections, which forces traditional moderate voters to “compromise” their “norms and standards” or personal ideologies to avoid supporting the illegitimate side. In a strong democracy, election results are accepted by the “losing” party, because they recognize the legitimacy of their opponents. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue a decrease in mutual toleration reinforces “beliefs that our rivals pose a dangerous threat.” Thus, dwindling mutual toleration weakens democracy by threatening the legitimacy of election results. In recent weeks, mutual toleration has decreased as left-wing critics blame the rising death rates on the executive office’s denial and delayed response to the pandemic, while the right generally continues to weigh the seriousness of the virus more lightly with several, all Republican, governors still refusing to enforce shelter-in-place policies.
Beyond increased polarization, the coronavirus has threatened the core mechanisms of democracy by decreasing the legitimacy of the primary election process. Since the coronavirus outbreak, 16 states have either switched to mailed ballots or postponed their elections. However, in Wisconsin on Tuesday the primary went ahead with in-person voting at polling stations throughout the state. In Polyarchy, Robert Dahl argues democracies require “fair elections” where “the larger the proportion of citizens who enjoy the right [to fair elections], the more inclusive the regime.” It is far from “fair” to force voters to decide between protecting their health and their right to participate in democracy. Undoubtedly, fewer people participated in the election than would have if the circumstances were different. Therefore, offering mailed ballots or postponing the elections would have allowed a larger “proportion of citizens” the ability to “enjoy the right” that strengthens democracy. If the pandemic continues into the summer and fall, it will continue to threaten democracy by disrupting party conventions and possibly alter voting policies in the general election.
The coronavirus has wreaked horrendous havoc throughout the world: rising death rates; increased unemployment; and collapsing economies. At home, the pandemic has also exposed unsettling weaknesses in American democracy. A few hours ago, Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign, which as a result negates the purpose of the postponed primaries. Vice-President Joe Biden will, without doubt, receive an official nomination from the Democratic Party. However, the effects of the coronavirus regarding paranoia, polarization, and fair elections will most certainly continue to weaken democracy in the months leading up to the general election.
 Skocpol, Theda, and Vanessa Williamson. 2012. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Hofstadter, Richard J. (1964). The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
 Barrera Rodriguez, Oscar David et al. (2018). Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics. Working paper.
 Iyengar, Shanto, Yphtach Lelkes, Matthew Levendusky, Neil Malhotra, and Sean J. Westwood. (2019). The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science 22: 129-146.
 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
 Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.