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How Can COVID-19 Support Democracy?

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11 June 2020
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The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the inability of populists to deal effectively with real problems. As a result, in societies around the world there is a growing demand for expertise, which can not only save more lives but also protect the future of democracy. 

In the last ten years, populist movements have spread to almost the entire world. In some countries, populists are in opposition, and in some they came to power and (unknowingly or intentionally) shaken the institutions on which democracy is based. The crisis caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic has caught populists in leadership positions in countries such as the United States, Britain, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Hungary, Russia, Belarus and others. Ukraine is on this list, too. We are even often cited as an eloquent example of the global hegemony of populists: a country where a comedian-showman won the elections (for comparison, Trump is called simply a showman). However, COVID-19 proved to be a real stress test for these leaders.

The problem overcomes populism

Before and in the early stages of the pandemic, the populists in power acted more or less the same as the populists in the opposition, traditionally despising experts, institutions, and the truth. This is explained by their very approach to communication, in which populists, without looking for real dialogue or discussion, fill the information space with their (not always true) messages and thus control the agenda of society. 

This explains the unfounded demonstrative optimism of some populist leaders, such as Johnson or Trump, as well as authoritarian dictators such as Lukashenko or Putin, who in the early stages of the pandemic tried unsuccessfully to maintain control of the agenda in the usual way. The populist formula “simple solutions to complex problems” had various manifestations, from Johnson’s “soft quarantine” to Lukashenko’s “tractor therapy.” However, we can already state that, despite the different levels of common sense in each of the options, they were all a delay in taking reasonable and adequate measures to level the morbidity curve, which cost many lives. 

The Conversation editor Stephen Hahn noted that some populist leaders resorted to unfounded complacency in the form of affirmative prejudice during this period. In most cases, these were reports that the dangers of COVID-19 were exaggerated, or that a country might be less vulnerable to the virus. 

Thus, while the President of the United States allowed himself risky comparisons of the coronavirus with the flu or the idea of “disinfectant injections“, the President of Brazil directly called the virus “nothing but a small flu” and a “media trick”. On the other hand, as Bruno Luciano, a professor of political science, aptly points out in his article, this can be explained not only by the prospects of economic losses due to restrictions, but also by traditional populist ideological opponents — “elites”, the scientific community, international organizations and expert institutions. 

Populists around the world cling to ignorance and “simple answers to complex questions” as opposed to “complex approaches from obscure experts” (read — “obscure answers to complex questions”). In this growing antipathy to complexity and incomprehensibility as a personal enemy lies largely the success of populism. Therefore, any recommendations from the enemy must be rejected. 

However, when such a refusal means ignoring the problem and abandoning reasonable measures to overcome it, ineffective management has negative consequences that reduce public support for the government. Populism worked well in the “good times,” but as British writer Andrew Scott writes for Politico, when a truly critical situation arises, populists with their policies of appeasing the crowd expose themselves as ill-prepared to fight a catastrophe.

As a result, it has become more difficult for populists in power to hold an information initiative with the help of traditional tools. The coronavirus cannot simply be ignored or “drowned” with fakes. However, researchers have recorded a significant increase in the number of fake news during the pandemic. In general, they were related to COVID-19 (for example, misconceptions about remedies and ways of spreading the virus) and were essentially the only available (but ineffective) response of populist technology to a problem that threatens many lives. 

The old populist methods ceased to work as politically effective when the reality was reinforced by COVID-19, and society was chained to the daily counter of the dead and the news that the authorities were taking adequate measures. A surprising transformation in Britain is described by The Economist: after Johnson tamed his own coronavirus and poignantly thanked health workers for their rescue, radical Brexit supporters “disappeared from radar” and more moderate ones became centrists. 

Experts are overcoming the problem

Opposition populist movements continue to criticize the government, mostly for late response or inaction. But today, when the price of populist mistakes in power is life, COVID-19 works as an antidote against their policies of untruth and ignoring experts. 

As noted Daniel Linsker of The Forbes, the fear of death makes people seek answers from experts and specialists, and the isolation provided them with the time necessary to do so. The pandemic retains the ability to discipline not only in matters of individual physical hygiene, but also information. This may apply to leaders, politicians and society at large. Professor of Comparative Political Science Daphne Halikiopoulou notes that populists who work with the emotional component will lose their appeal, because in a pandemic, voters are more likely to prefer competence and expertise. And Eric Langenbacher, director of the Johns Hopkins University’s program for social, cultural and political studies, believes that protesting against populist parties is a luxury that voters will not be able to afford in a crisis. 

And although all populists share contempt for experts and expert knowledge, those in power now have incentives to make exceptions to this rule. Especially when it comes to making practical decisions in a crisis period, when mistakes can affect the rating much faster. The category of such leaders includes the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, whose government was able to take timely and generally adequate restrictive measures. And Boris Johnson, who admitted his mistakes and demonstrated his ability to take action that could harm the economy if necessary. 

The examples of these leaders show how their governments are changing at the same time, from radical populism to moderate views and balanced positions (at least for now, at least on the topic of coronavirus). Thus, in an optimistic scenario, a pandemic in our political realities can become a motivating factor that can create a demand for expert governance — because it is necessary when we really want to solve the problem, not just “talk” about it. 

According to Euronews, recent polls show that the popularity of the ruling parties in Britain, Germany, Italy and France has grown during quarantine restrictions. According to a May poll by the Rating Group, the popularity of Ukrainian President Zelensky is also high — a trust rating of 57%, and 39.3% of those polled would vote for him in today’s election. 

Instead, support for populist parties in Italy, Spain, Germany and France has declined, according to Europe Elects. A similar trend is followed by The Economist: support for the leaders of France, Germany, Canada, Britain is growing, and the ratings of populist leaders in Mexico, Brazil and the United States are falling. The rating of confidence in the President of Russia in May fell to 25%, although in January it was 35%. From the above data, it can be seen that the crisis has become a test for populists both in power and in opposition. 

However, one of the most significant battles will take place in the US in November this year during the US presidential election. According to the Washington Post, one of the main paradoxes of the “Trump pandemic” is that by sending messages that contradict science, it is sending most of its voters to their deaths. Trump’s behavior makes it clear that he is not willing to back down from his populist methods (for example, shifting responsibility and accusations to the WHO and China), and recent polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation show that for 50% of voters, the effectiveness of the government’s fight against coronavirus will be very important in the election, while 72% of voters said it would somewhat matter to them. 

In light of these data, it is especially noticeable that recently Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief infectious disease specialist in the United States, was ahead of Trump himself in terms of trust rating. In counteracting coronavirus, 56% trust the expert, while only 34% trust the advice of the US President (according to another survey on the approval/disapproval of coronavirus measures by Quinnipiac University National Poll, Dr. Fauci was trusted by 78% of respondents, while President Trump was trusted by 46%). It should be noted that the rating of trust to the Chief Sanitary Doctor of Ukraine Viktor Lyashko is also a record high for our medical industry and is 41%. 

In almost every country affected by the pandemic, there was a request for a medical examination and, fortunately, an expert with a high rating of trust, and sometimes the title of “savior of the nation”. In the United States it is Dr. Fauci, in Ukraine it is Victor Lyashko, in Italy it is Dr. Massimo Galli, in Greece it is Professor Sotirios Tsodras, in Germany it is Dr. Christian Drosten, in Spain it is Dr. Fernando Simon, in Great Britain it is Professor Neil Ferguson. These experts are still (except for Ferguson, who filed for resignation) the embodiment of the demand of different societies for truth and common sense (at least on the topic of coronavirus). 

How can this help democracy

According to various forecasts, the pandemic will last up to a year, and maybe more. Therefore, this “motivating effect” is likely to be the same glorious opportunity that is rumored to be hidden inside any crisis. The request for expertise, if it is really long and sustainable, can lead to such political competition in which the parties will have to really make expert and innovative proposals to solve the main practical problems of society. And because they will occur constantly during a pandemic, this could lead to a Schumpeter competition mechanism that can create political leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt or Margaret Thatcher. Both figures were distinguished by innovative and not always popular approaches to solving the main problems of their time. 

Former Chilean presidential candidate and finance minister Andres Velasco, in his article for Project Syndicate, also sees the crown crisis as a “healthy by-product of restoring respect for experts.” However, the author notes that although the coronavirus is deadly and ruthless, it is not in itself able to smooth out the “populist infection curve.” And for the most part, it will be up to us whether the pandemic strengthens trust in experts and institutions, or, conversely, further strengthens the populists with their rhetoric of simplification, hostility, and flattery. 

As soon as the mortal danger and the crisis begin to pass, the demand for experts can be quickly replaced by acceptable and simple slogans of the populists — so the window of opportunity is limited in time. But this is a good time to build an effective mechanism for communication between the government and society, to support existing and build trust in new institutions, to educate and involve citizens in decision-making, to promote self-determination and at least to prevent new cases of New Sanjars

At least creating something like Healthy Democracy: 2020 Oregon Citizen Assembly on COVID-19 Recovery would already be a good step. This is an institutionalized model of communication in the state of Oregon (USA) (tested, by the way, in Finland and Switzerland), where randomly selected residents of the state during a paid long discussion with experts, government officials and politicians on issues raised by government and representatives the public, provide, in this case, official state recommendations on quarantine, ways to overcome the crisis and plans for the future. 

The above model, according to a report by University College London, was chosen as one of the nine most effective for improving the quality of information and political discourse in society. This experience is also in line with the conclusion of Harvard University history professor Jill Lepor in an article for The New Yorker: “The paradox of democracy is that the best way to protect it is to attack it by demanding more, discussing and criticizing.” 

Therefore, such steps to involve citizens in discussions with experts and the decision-making process would contribute to the development of legal awareness and trust in society as a whole. And, perhaps, such communication initiatives are just what we need in order for Ukrainian society, under the influence of pandemics and armed aggression, to be able to finally transform its internal social logic, which for about 30 years has been balancing between two types of social order: feudal, where rent-making and nepotism are widespread, and open access, where the rule of law can exist, as well as free market and true independence of institutions. 

After all, we now see once again that only truly impersonal and indefinite institutions, described in the work of D. North, J. Wallis, B. Weingest “Violence and Public Order”, can effectively adapt, survive crises and change parties in power, give impetus to the effective competition for positions and enable the provision of public goods and services inherent in democracies.

Authors
  • Kyrylo Pasenyuk, Head of the NGO "European Human Rights Group", Attorney at law, Partner at “The Firm”

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The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations