Levitsky and Ziblatt write that ‘extreme polarization can kill democracies.’  Polarization of politics in the US has left Americans not only at risk from a weakening of democracy, but it has also now threatened their ability to trust the governments handling of the virus. This has only become exacerbated in the lead-up to the Presidential Election.
From the study of the discourse on the deadliness of the virus, the push for a vaccine, the appointment of political allies in healthcare positions and the censorship public health officials, it has become clear that decisions regarding the pandemic have fallen on partisan lines with political motivations.
In the first presidential debate, Trump used the issue of masks to critique Biden he said “I don’t wear masks like him…Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” This can be included in a trend of what has been described as a ‘health versus economy’ debate with liberals siding with extending coronavirus precautions and conservatives demanding their civil liberties back. In June, when much of the country was in the midst of the pandemic, Trump held a campaign rally in Tulsa where it was not mandatory to wear a mask. This starkly opposes Biden’s standpoint who said he would do “I would do everything possible to make it required that people have to wear masks in public.”
In the pursuit of a vaccine, ‘some fear the [Trump] administration will try and cut corners as a way to gain a political advantage’. As the election looms, Trump continues the promise of a vaccine. However, since it can take up to ten years for a vaccine to go from the research phase to consumers, many people fear that the vaccine will unsafe.
Just earlier this week it was revealed that Trump closed a Vaccine Safety office last year. Democratic Backsliding can be defined as ‘ change in a combination of competitive electoral procedures, civil and political liberties, and accountability’  Getting rid of a Vaccine Safety Office clearly raises questions about accountability for an upcoming vaccine. Eliminating the office provides Trump with another way of evading red tape in the for political aims.
Furthermore, in efforts to downplay the significance of the virus Trump has appointed political allies in public health officials. An example of this can be seen as the appointment of Michael Caputo, a former campaign official, as the spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department. This partisan appointment is highly unusual and foreign to democracy.
Perhaps the clearest example of democratic erosion influencing the handling of the virus has been the censoring and ridiculing of public health officials who don’t agree with Trump’s discourse on the pandemic. This was most starkly revealed when Dr Fauci was given instructions about what he can and cannot say during interviews.
Just last Monday Trump said ‘“People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong.” At a time when the virus is only spreading at higher rates throughout the US. This attack on the scientific discourse and its professionals is In line with other actions that undermine typically non-partisan federal agencies. Furthermore, it leaves Americans in a position where it is unclear who they believe as scientists as politicians are put against each other.
Being sure of our democracy has never been more important. Sue Gordon, Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, recently spoke at UChicago’s Institute of Politics where she said that “COVID showed so desperately how interconnected we are and how little capability we had to force organised action. The mandate is not to succumb to escalating government authorities because then we become them,” Gordon said. Accountability in our health institutions is thus crucial not only for the life of democracy in the US but also for the health of its citizens.
- Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D., 2018. How Democracies Die. Broadway Books New York, p.9.
- Lust, E., 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. USAID: From the American People,p.2.