With an unprecedented pandemic, decisions made by governments can lead to further democratic backsliding or open the door for increased democratic resilience.
It is obvious that no democracy is perfect or reaches the standard of contestation and inclusivity of Dahl’s polyarchy, and most fall short of Schmitter and Karl’s qualifications for a responsive democracy. With an unprecedented pandemic spreading into more and more countries and communities, many of the holes in modern democracies grow and let out leaks. International responses or lack of response to COVID-19 have shown areas where certain democracies fail to have guardrails to prevent democratic erosion. Given the fact that a virus on the scale of COVID-19 has never happened before, expecting governments to anticipate global tragedies is rather irrational. However, the lack of adequate reforms or the presence of overly extreme measures does signal where governments fail to be more democratic during regular times. Issues involving the effects of the coronavirus on postponing American primaries and the unpreparedness to vote by mail or use absentee ballots seem to be the major concerns and potential threats to American democracy. International issues also reveal the potential for democracies to fall into autocratic systems amid a global crisis through a halt of justice systems, privacy invasions, restrictions of civil liberties, and abuse of emergency powers. With the virus effecting the entire world, does it affect democratic erosion, and could it work to strengthen democracies?
In an interview by Democracy Now! the issues surrounding primaries and other aspects of government during the pandemic were discussed. Focusing on how different states have responded to the virus can show many of the shortcomings with regards to voting in the US. Of course, the primary concern of every state should be to protect the health of its citizens, however, the virus should not “undermine our democracy in the next several months.” Government should still make efforts to make voting accessible through mail and absentee voting. These should already be integrated into normal voting procedures as to make voting as convenient as possible for all citizens. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington are currently the only states that use an all-mail voting system according to Balotpedia. In contrast, Alabama, Indiana, New York and 13 other states require an excuse of absentee voting. Switching to no excuse absentee voting during and hopefully after the pandemic would enable and encourage many voters to participate in primaries. Early voting times should also be extended amid the crisis for convenience of citizens. In “Souls to Polls” by Michael Herron and Daniel Smith, a Florida study showed that restrictions on early voting tend to disproportionally effect African American and Hispanic voters. Another group currently affected by the changing conditions of primaries are elderly populations as voting stations are moved away from nursing homes and senior centers. A lack of proper adjustments to primaries under current conditions can seriously affect results much more than what normal conditions would normally do. Postponing primaries has been the response of several states, but as Vanita Gupta states in the interview, there should be no need to postpone the November elections. States should make mail voting available with extended early voting periods for mail to go through if COVID-19 is or is not a concern by that time. Working towards that goal and maintaining it once the pandemic is over will help the United States achieve a more functional and representative democracy.
The opportunity for positive change that this virus could bring is also accompanied by negative and dangerous changes in other countries. Extreme measures taken to prevent unnecessary damage from the virus can damage democracies. “For Autocrats, and Others, Coronavirus Is a Chance to Grab Even More Power” by Selam Gebrekidan expresses the threat that actions taken by governments can seem consolidatory and that there is a risk of autocratic rulers refusing to give up emergency powers once the virus has subsided. The most concerning example is that of Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orban can now “sidestep Parliament and suspend existing laws,” “limit freedom of expression and penalize people for breaching quarantine orders,” and “suspend all elections and referendums.” With no guarantee that these emergency powers will be suspended after the pandemic, COVID-19 can very easily facilitate democratic erosion.
Opportunities for prolonged democratic backsliding is also happening more subtly in established democracies. In Britain, a new coronavirus bill will give unchecked, “sweeping powers to border agents and the police” which could create hostile environments for detainees and immigrants. Subtle backsliding in American democracy during the pandemic is addressed by Vanita Gupta in the Democracy Now! interview. The issue surrounding “recent reports that the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is urging conservative judges to retire now while Republicans still control the White House and Senate.” The consequences of new and younger judges with extreme conservative views would mean that judges would fail to fully represent the views of citizens. COVID-19 is then used somewhat as a distraction from democratic backsliding rather than an excuse for it. Subtle erosion as well as large and overt erosion in these examples work as way in which the pandemic is used to accelerate or facilitate democratic erosion that was already or could have been present.
Overall, it is interesting to see the way in which democracies need to adapt during this pandemic to keep citizens safe and healthy. Limiting in-person interactions can be effective through internet and mail services. Although in an impaired state, society is still able to function on a crutch. COVID-19 has made impacts that reveal where governments could improve, and what governments have decided to do with the pandemic could further drive democratic backsliding openly, like in Hungary, or more discreetly like in Britain or the US. COVID-19 also has the potentially to reform citizen involvement and representation like voting reforms could bring to the United States. If civil society can persist during the pandemic, the potential for democratic growth. The lack of civil society throughout the pandemic, however, would make democracy temporarily ineffective. COVID-19 then can be a tool for democratic erosion in vulnerable democracies while more established democracies have more potential growth but still has smaller cracks where democracy can fall through.