American democracy is in a state of democratic decline. Once rated 93 by Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index in 2013, the U.S.’s score dropped to 86 by 2019 (Repucci 2020). This regression did not merely occur overnight, but rather as a gradual process of the downgrading of American civil rights and political liberties. Backsliding, or “a deterioration of qualities associated with democratic governance,” can take many forms: quick breakdown or slow erosion, resulting in an authoritarian state or an ambiguous hybrid regime (Waldner and Lust 2018, 95; Bermeo 2016). In the U.S. case, the Republican party’s willingness to indulge Trump’s blatant violations of both norms and laws, the polarization of the electorate, Congress, and the media landscape, discriminatory voting laws, an electoral system that doesn’t necessarily reflect the will of the people, a judiciary that favors one party, the expansion of executive powers, attacks on the free press, and high income inequality are some of the key indicators of backsliding. As these processes expose the judicial branch, bureaucracy, and free press’s inability to prevent democratic backsliding, it is clear that they are not the safeguards of American democracy that many make them out to be.
In a 2017 article, authors Mickey, Levitsky, and Way identify a single factor that they say could determine “the fate of American democracy”: contingent events (Mickey, Levitsky, and Way 2017, 7). An economic crisis, national security emergency, or natural disaster could bolster support for Trump, create a “rally around the flag” effect, and give him the green light to escalate attacks on the media, independent judiciary, opposition members, or minority groups. However, they also say such an event might reverse the direction of backsliding entirely: it could pin responsibility for the failure on the incumbent, undermine support for Trump among voters and key Republican party members, and embolden federal judges to counter executive power more aggressively. Levitsky and Ziblatt expand on this idea in their 2018 book, suggesting that Trump’s approval rating and popularity is directly related to how much he threatens American democracy. The more popular he is, the more elected officials will support him, no matter the implications of his actions. Crises have negatively impacted American democracy in the past: Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War and Bush passed the Patriot Act in the aftermath of 9/11 (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, 193).
Is the COVID global pandemic one such unforeseen “contingent event”? And ultimately, has it determined the fate of American democracy? In the United States, COVID struck 11 months before a general election in which voters would decide whether to elect President Trump for a second term. By all measures, the pandemic constitutes a national crisis. As of December 12, 292,141 Americans have died and there have been 15,611,014 confirmed cases (Johns Hopkins University 2020). The unemployment rate has fluctuated between 14.7% in April and 6.7% in November, a level far from February’s 3.5% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020). Schools across the country remain closed, many businesses are at risk of bankruptcy, and COVID is on the rise in many states.
Both in the United States and abroad, many have argued that COVID is accelerating democratic backsliding, giving leaders the ability to declare states of emergencies, curtail media freedom, or take control of institutions, all in the name of public health (Edgell et al. 2020; USAID 2020). This link may be even more pronounced for populist leaders. Through an analysis of government responses to COVID in 102 countries, Kerim Can Kavaklı finds that populist leaders are more likely than their non-populist counterparts to commit democratic violations, especially those related to impeding the free flow of information (Kavaklı 2020). However, this article tests the hypothesis that COVID did the reverse: prompted public blame, triggered legislative backlash, gave rise to judicial empowerment, and ultimately improved the state of democracy.
First, per Mickey et al, a crisis must be able to be blamed on the incumbent, either because of mismanagement or preventable measures that weren’t taken. Undoubtedly, Trump recognized this possibility. In April, he declared victory over the virus and began shifting responsibility to the states, setting up governors and counties to take the blame when things inevitably went wrong (Shear 2020). The provision of federal aid to different states was predicated on personal relationships and political ideology. Trump also repeatedly lied about the veracity of the confirmed case count, the need for testing, fatality rates, the nature of the virus, and the anticipated duration of the outbreak, ultimately attempting to allay public fears and avoid blame (Paz 2020). Polling suggests that many continued to hold Trump responsible. A July Pew Survey reports that 63% of Americans think Donald Trump is doing a poor or “fair” job of handling the pandemic, compared to 44% disapproval for state officials and 39% for local officials (Pew Research Center 2020).
Next, how the judicial branch responds to crises is a critical determinant of the fate of democracy. The American judicial system has allowed unconstitutional governmental overreach in the past: see Korematsu v. United States, which extended war powers of the federal government to allow internment of Japanese citizens (Fukumura 2017). However, in the case of COVID, courts have largely upheld fundamental principles and acted as a check on both federal and state emergency powers. The Supreme Court sided with two New York religious groups who contested Governor Cuomo’s stay-at-home order, citing a violation of their right to freely exercise their religion (Liptak 2020). Courts across the country have heard cases on overreach of state executive power and violations of civil liberties during a state of emergency (Association of State and Territorial Health Officials 2020). They’ve largely sided with upholding rights over restrictions, particularly those contained in the Bill of Rights, Fourteenth Amendment, Contracts Clause, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Jenkins 2020). Though it is important to note that these decisions coincide with a partisan divide on attitudes towards COVID restrictions, nonetheless, the judicial branch has reacted to the crisis by acting as a check on executive power, not setting a precedent of bending to executive will.
As a result of erosion of public support for the incumbent, Mickey et al suggest that in times of crisis, the legislative branch changes their stance towards the executive and that more Republicans might defect from the party line. However, this has unequivocally not occurred. A key example of this is the effort to pass COVID relief. In May, Congress passed the CARES Act, $3 trillion legislation which provided temporary relief. However, since May, at the behest of Trump and along highly partisan lines, the Senate has vetoed all additional relief packages (Seddiq 2020). Rather than focus on the crisis, the Senate conformed to Trump’s legislative agenda, focusing on the nomination of Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett throughout September and October instead of COVID. As of December 12, the Senate remains in a stalemate. Republicans continue to side with Trump: 538’s tracker of Senators in the 116th Congress finds that Republicans voted with Trump an average of 84% (Bycoffe and Silver 2020).
Without key changes in legislative actions and attitudes towards the President, Mickey, Levitsky, and Way’s predictions about the effects of a national crisis were not fully borne out. However, the November elections provide some support for their hypothesis. Though it is hard to determine with certainty the effect of COVID on the election outcome, a few facts stand out. According to exit polls, COVID featured as an important issue for voters, particularly Democrats. One question asked people to rate the importance of COVID in determining their vote: 23% called it the most important factor and 37% said it was an important factor. Among a list of multiple issues, 35% said the economy was their most important issue, 20% named racial inequality, and 17% said COVID (Edison Research 2020). Elections are, at least to some extent, an evaluation of job performance, and the November election delivered a verdict to Trump that his leadership in a time of crisis had not been sufficient.
Even though COVID created a public backlash, emboldened the judicial branch, and ultimately featured as a key factor in voters’ decisions to elect Joe Biden, it was not the game-changer that Mickey et al predicted. Many problems existed long before COVID and have not changed as a result of it. Biden will face a Supreme Court stacked in favor of conservatives who could challenge key policies like healthcare, abortion, and election laws. Without a majority in the Senate—an outcome that hinges on January elections in Georgia—Biden will confront paralyzing gridlock in the legislative branch. In addition, state legislatures are set to redraw congressional districts according to the 2020 Census, which will result in further gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, and potential challenges for Democrats in the House of Representatives. Given all of these barriers, I will not contend that American democracy is once again vibrant and fully consolidated, nor is it “safe” from backsliding. However, I do suggest that the pandemic was a “contingent event” that changed the national conversation, affected voter decision-making, and led some to place blame on the incumbent president and his administration, ultimately affecting the outcome of an election in which one candidate supports democracy and one ostensibly does not.
Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. 2020. “Legal Challenges to State COVID-19 Orders.” https://www.astho.org/ASTHOReports/Legal-Challenges-to-State-COVID-19-Orders/10-20-20/.
Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27 (1): 5–19. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
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Edgell, Amanda, Sandra Grahn, Jean Lachapelle, Anna Lührmann, and Seraphine Maerz. 2020. “An Update on Pandemic Backsliding: Democracy Four Months After the Beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic.” V-Dem Institute Policy Briefs, no. 24 (June). https://www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/b9/2e/b92e59da-2a06-4d2e-82a1-b0a8dece4af7/v-dem_policybrief-24_update-pandemic-backsliding_200702.pdf.
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