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.
Bycoffe, Aaron, and Nate Silver. 2020. “Tracking Congress in the Age of Trump.” FiveThirtyEight. December 11, 2020. https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/congress-trump-score/.
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.
Edison Research. 2020. “National Results 2020 President Exit Polls.” CNN, November 10, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/election/2020/exit-polls/president/national-results.
Fukumura, Koji F. 2017. “When Our Legal System Failed: The Japanese Internment Camps of the 1940s.” American Bar Association Litigation Journal, September. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/publications/litigation_journal/2017-18/fall/when-our-legal-system-failed-japanese-internment-camps-the-1940s/.
Jenkins, Sarah. 2020. “COVID-19, Executive Authority and Fundamental Rights: What Do the Courts Say?” The National Law Review X (147). https://www.natlawreview.com/article/covid-19-executive-authority-and-fundamental-rights-what-do-courts-say.
Johns Hopkins University. 2020. “Coronavirus: United States Overview.” Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 2020. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/region/united-states.
Kavaklı, Kerim Can. 2020. “Populist Governments and Democratic Backsliding during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Bocconi University Working Paper. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344608507_Populist_Governments_and_Democratic_Backsliding_during_the_COVID-19_Pandemic.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown Publishing.
Liptak, Adam. 2020. “Splitting 5 to 4, Supreme Court Backs Religious Challenge to Cuomo’s Virus Shutdown Order.” The New York Times, November 26, 2020, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/26/us/supreme-court-coronavirus-religion-new-york.html.
Mickey, Robert, Steven Levitsky, and Lucan Ahmad Way. 2017. “Is America Still Safe for Democracy? Why the United States Is in Danger of Backsliding.” Foreign Affairs, April 17, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2017-04-17/america-still-safe-democracy.
Paz, Christian. 2020. “All the President’s Lies About the Coronavirus.” The Atlantic, November 2, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/11/trumps-lies-about-coronavirus/608647/.
Pew Research Center. 2020. “Public Assessments of the U.S. Coronavirus Outbreak.” U.S. Politics & Policy. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/08/06/public-assessments-of-the-u-s-coronavirus-outbreak/.
Repucci, Sarah. 2020. “Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.” Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2020/leaderless-struggle-democracy.
Seddiq, Oma. 2020. “Americans Haven’t Received Another Round of COVID-19 Stimulus Because Negotiations Have Dragged on for 6 Months.” Business Insider, October 14, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/timeline-covid-19-stimulus-talks-have-gone-for-6-months-2020-10.
Shear, Michael D. 2020. “Inside the Failure: 5 Takeaways on Trump’s Effort to Shift Responsibility.” The New York Times, July 18, 2020, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-failure-takeaways.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.
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Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21 (1): 93–113. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.
Great post! As you have mentioned, in other countries Covid has accelerated democratic backsliding giving leaders the ability to declare states of emergencies and curtail media freedom especially in countries with populist leaders. But that did not happen in the US which is a testament to the strength of democratic institutions in the US. The fact that courts heard cases on the overreach of state executive power and violation of civil liberties during a state of emergency is something to strive for. In addition, media outlets called out Trump whenever he tried to shift blame, downplay the severity of the pandemic, push unproven cures, or provide false stats without the media facing any repercussions. Despite the flaws and weaknesses in American democracy seen throughout the Trump presidency, the democratic institutions are still strong and serve as a good check on power even with a populist leader like Trump.
This was a really interesting and insightful post to read. The whole idea of “contingent events” affecting the fate of democracy is not typically talked about because it’s occurrence is so rare especially here in the US. However, with the unique and highly unexpected circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak, this idea pertains now more than ever. You bring up logical and well-supported arguments for both sides of the question on whether COVID-19 has increased or decreased democratic backsliding in the US. I believe that it possibly led to mild democratic backsliding, but I truly think that if there is anything the pandemic has shown us, it is that US democratic institutions and US citizens have remained strong in their abilities to check powers of the executive branch and hold leaders accountable for their actions.
You address good points for the argument that the pandemic increased democratic backsliding by creating a “rally around the flag” effect that gave Trump the opportunity to escalate his power and curtail freedoms in the name of public health. I would like to offer an additional line of reasoning for the argument that COVID-19 did, in fact, lead to some form of democratic backsliding. Donald Trump’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as highly undemocratic. For one, he created a lack of transparency and honesty between the government and the public. By constantly downplaying the severity and dangerousness of the virus, he put the lives of millions of American citizens at risk and can even be seen as responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have largely been prevented had our leader taken the virus more seriously. Despite being well-aware of the deadliness of the disease due to his plethora of health experts, he repeatedly compared it to the flu and wrongfully threw out false statistics like claiming that 99% of cases are “totally harmless”. In Jan-Werner Müeller’s book What Is Populism? he discusses key characteristics to the endurance of democracy such as transparency, accountability, and personal freedoms. He also describes that historical populists in the US are prone to conspiracy theories which is evident with Donald Trump’s wild and absurd claims about COVID. Citizens rely on their leaders to provide them with accurate information, especially in desperate times, in order to keep themselves and their families safe. The dishonest and misleading lies Trump spread in regards to the virus is proof of his lack of transparency with his citizens on crucial information he was being given. Transparency is key to building accountability and trust in a democracy. Therefore, this lack of it led to moderate democratic backsliding throughout Trump’s 2020 administration.
I find it notable that you addressed both sides of the argument, and while both have equal validity, I lean more on the side that democracy was actually strengthened as a result of COVID-19. While many of Trump’s actions were in clear violation of constitutional norms and laws, he was held accountable by many, including other branches of government and US citizens. This goes to show the resilience and strength of US democratic institutions and its citizens in the face of crises. As you noted, COVID prompted public blame on the president for his poor handling of the pandemic. In Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy, he defines democracy as a continuing responsiveness of government to its citizens who are considered political equals. This authority has legitimate power and is held accountable by citizens. In this sense, democracy remains strong in that many citizens recognized Donald Trump’s inconsideration and unresponsiveness towards US citizens in regards to COVID which prompted a large portion of voters to vote him out of office during the November election. As you said, elections are to some extent, an evaluation of job performance, and COVID was an important issue for many voters and likely affected their decision-making. In addition, many media outlets called Trump out whenever he attempted to shift blame for the poor COVID response to other groups and individuals. As president, he should have taken responsibility for his actions (or lack thereof), and since he did not, US citizens made sure to hold him accountable.
You also mention that the pandemic gave rise to judicial empowerment in which the courts largely upheld constitutional rights, specifically the right to freely exercise religion, over restrictions such as stay-at-home orders put in place by state governors. This is somewhat debatable in my opinion because while I understand that freedom of religion is a fundamental constitutional right, there was a compelling and reasonable purpose to put in place stay-at-home orders, and that was in the name of public safety, especially in a time when so little was known about the virus. Nonetheless, this judicial empowerment is still testament to the checks and balances power of the judicial branch on executive power. In the article “On Democratic Backsliding” by Nancy Bermeo, she discusses executive aggrandizement (unchecked executive power) as a cause of democratic backsliding. In this case, judicial power was not hampered by the executive and was still able to effectively carry out its duties in this state of emergency which is noteworthy. This resilience in the face of executives overstepping constitutional boundaries is reason to be assured that American democracy is not at a huge risk of backsliding.
While American democracy is not perfect nor completely consolidated, the examples you gave offer good reason to remain fairly confident in the state of our system of government. I would, however, like to bring up one more point to think about. Extreme polarization within our legislative chambers can lead to gridlock and therefore limited action by President Biden in regards to continued COVID-19 efforts or any policy goals at that. Polarization can destroy democratic norms and undermine the stability of democracy, so this is an additional thing to keep an eye on in the coming months.