A Democratic Virus

As the coronavirus sweeps the entire globe, democracy is becoming just another casualty.

Military patrol at the empty Louvre Pyramid square on March 28 in Paris, France. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

In the first two months of the response to coronavirus, the following happened. China imposed a full lockdown, ran a cordon sanitaire around a number of cities, removed sick family members from their homes against their will, and imposed a mandatory fourteen-day isolation. Beijing now tracks the movement of its entire population through a network of cameras, public thermometers, and personal data.

South Korea, the much-hailed model, locked down two cities, currently takes everyone’s temperature in public spaces, monitors every person’s movement through cell phone and television data, and uses government and public surveillance to keep tabs on any individual suspected of carrying coronavirus so it can enforce self-isolation. Taiwan is the same. Locals report getting a knock on the door from the police a half hour after their cell phones died because their movements could no longer be tracked.

In Hungary, Viktor Orban has postponed elections and imposed indefinite rule by decree. In Italy there is mass suspension of civil liberties — nobody is permitted outside except for government-approved purposes. Police patrol the streets and inspect whether passes follow government guidelines. France, Spain, Germany, similar. Outside Sweden and the Netherlands, there is only one other country where the central government has not ordered a mass suspension of civil liberties and has not moved in a clear and decisive way to constrain or revoke political freedom . . . the United States. The country led by Donald Trump.

We have been told by establishment liberals for years that Trump was just waiting for the opportunity to cancel elections, terminate dissent, and take his place in the authoritarian international. Yet now, given the chance of a lifetime, he has recoiled from seizing the moment.

To be clear, I do not think this is because Trump has any special love for democracy. He is attracted by celebrity, popularity, recognition — in short, he is vain. But his is a politically shallow vanity. He has never had the kind of grounding political project attributed to him. He has not shown that sense of purpose — a political passion, as Max Weber called it — that would draw him out of his own self-absorption and focus his mind on the strategy and technique of acquiring and preserving power. He relates to power as a way of acquiring and concentrating attention on him, not as a means of imposing his will on the world and taking responsibility for that imposition.

To the degree that Trump is checked by external realities, it is again less by democratic fidelity than by things like the vagaries of the stock market and wider concerns about what declaring a federally coordinated quarantine would require of him. Though he is keeping as much attention on himself as possible, it’s clear he doesn’t want responsibility for making the really crucial decisions.

This is a consistent pattern with Trump and the serious side of politics — he likes the glitter of war but not the responsibilities of a wartime president. In the past, he was happy to engage in media stunts, threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea, bombing undefended Syrian airfields, and assassinating top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, but he never had the appetite for an actual war and for having to take responsibility for American deaths.

So it is now: he can hold daily two-hour press conferences, but he can’t act as an emergency president making clear decisions about public health and the economy. He has left social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, and other coronavirus decisions to the governors, then gotten upset when they criticize him. He insists his job is not to coordinate national medical policy, then takes pride in the distribution of medical supplies and naval hospitals. States are left to fend for themselves, so they end up in bidding wars for essential medical supplies.

This has the consequence not of uniting the nation under the single, unified will of the leader but of fragmenting it. There is almost no shared political reality at the moment. A bewildering mosaic of political orders and public advisories cover different states, a fact beneficial only to profiteers and those who enjoy making infographics.

Some of us live according to strict, state-specific shelter-in-place orders, while others live without any serious social distancing orders at all; some social distancing guidelines are advisory, others compulsory; some closings are directed by state authorities, others voluntarily imposed by local businesses or agencies. For some, their lives have been completely upended — kids at home, home-schooling imposed, normal social life suspended; for others, there is a vague sense of wider disruption and sudden economic pressures, but no dramatic change in work or social patterns.

For still others, the ordinary oppression of the market has been raised to peak intensity. Workers in normally unpleasant, hazardous, unrewarding jobs now find themselves under extra performance pressures, surrounded with the anxieties of mass unemployment and greater labor market competition, and carrying the threat of disease to boot. Political fragmentation only makes the most obvious social fact that much worse: social distancing has become something like a marker of class status.

It is not surprising that Trump has enjoyed a bump in his approval rating despite the persistent incoherence of his response. He is the only semblance of any kind of unity at all. There is no people-in-waiting, no alternate figure of any confidence or authority ready to represent the possibility of mastering the moment or, less grandly, of providing a coherent and consistent national response.

We stand suspended between two strategies — suppression and letting the virus spread until herd immunity — which is bound to be worse than either alone. It prolongs the period of high rates of transmission, preserving the epidemiological uncertainty, while suppressing economic activity and social fragmentation.

What was the point of the first two weeks of shelter-in-place in New York, California, or Massachusetts if Florida, Georgia, and Texas only just got going? “In Texas,” the New York Times reported last Wednesday, “the largest state without a statewide mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott has left it to mayors and county officials to build a patchwork of orders for the state’s 29 million residents.”

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders have been happy to cooperate with Republicans in suspending congressional activity for at least a month. One of the most important functions of a legislature in a democracy is monitoring the executive, a function that takes on special significance during an emergency. Democrats spent the last few months appearing to care about this function during the impeachment hearings. Yet now all of that is forgotten, leading us to wonder whether it was all political theater.

If Trump really is the most dangerous and corrupt president ever, isn’t it of vital importance to redouble congressional oversight of him and his administration, especially as he prepares to hand out multi-trillion dollars worth of aid? It is as if, in having negotiated away some of the worst aspects of the bailouts, and added some reasonable ones, they thought their job was done. Or, worse yet, that their deepest desire is to not have to govern, to not have to represent their own society, at all. They stand ready only to scuttle back to Congress to authorize another round of bailouts.

It might not be reasonable, under the circumstances, to demand everyone be out ready to protest Trump. But it is at minimum right to insist that Congress continue to meet and exercise its normal oversight and legislative functions despite the elevated health concerns. It is an unacceptable evasion of their responsibilities as democratic representatives especially when others are asked or required, for the sake of public health, to limit their civil and political activities.

Instead of doing as everyone else is or would like to be doing — staying home — they should, as our representatives, be doing what it has become harder for us to do: supervise and check power. Even if we know they won’t, or won’t do much, the point is to insist on it, to continue to make the most democratic demands possible, to refuse to let any of them duck their responsibilities.

Where else might we look for any kind of democratic will? The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has retreated from the stage with predictable eagerness. He was too timid even to debate Bernie again. What about Sanders, then? Though more public and thoroughgoing in his criticism of Trump, his campaign focused too much of its energy recently on raising a few million dollars for charity rather than using the moment to redouble its critique of the establishment. The retreat to the moral high ground was hardly a substitute for democratic organizing against political demobilization.

Sanders’s campaign so effectively opened up the possibility of criticizing not just Trump and the Republicans, but also the rot within the Democratic Party. Yet in the moment, he never took the obvious step of tagging Biden as the candidate of a dystopian status quo — one that gave us understaffed and undersupplied hospitals, a poor and vulnerable workforce, inadequately insured and seriously unhealthy populations, unprepared emergency response units, and dysfunctional welfare administration programs. What we need at the moment is more, not less, readiness to criticize politics as usual, more, not less, readiness to imagine a properly democratic political economy — the very best things about his campaign. 

There have still been a few bright spots. The unwillingness of various groups of workers — Instacart shoppers and Amazon warehouse stockers, GE factory employees and Purdue poultry processors — to be totally cowed into obedience has been an inspiration. It is a reminder that it is appropriate and necessary to fight. A reminder, further, that there really is no emergency, not even a public health emergency, that can suspend politics. Look at the stimulus bill, or Amazon weaponizing social distancing to fire a strike organizer, or just about everything else.

There are other ways of organizing social distancing so that it is not a benefit enjoyed by one class at another’s expense; there are more equitable ways of distributing the burdens of performing essential tasks, and of distributing the remaining benefits, in a shrunken economy; there are massive industrial projects for increasing medical supplies, hospital capacity, physical infrastructure, and needed personnel that can only happen if we impose our will on reluctant parties. Politics is a struggle, it involves conflict, and that conflict and struggle does require people assembling together.

That very gathering together is what is dangerous right now. But that doesn’t settle the question of how a democratic society responds to the problem of social distancing. We are living, instead, in something closer to the technocratic dream — the people ceding the public stage to the state. The ultimate test of whether there can be any public without the people.

We are in a real public health emergency, and we do need to radically adjust our normal social and economic behavior to win some short-term reprieve so we can develop the resources (masks, ventilators, hospital beds, drugs, vaccines) to be able to return to high levels of social interaction. But one has to believe a truly democratic society would have worked out a different balance, or would be trying to work out a different balance, between democratic politics and social distance than the one we are seeing now.

In fact, as one perceptive commentary on the United Kingdom case has observed, a real marshaling of the necessary resources for public benefit will require a massive exercise of democratic political power. There is no real public health response to an emergency that involves suspending democracy, because democracy is necessary for any proper public health response. It will take the organized pressure of people to discipline both the government and the capitalist class into producing for human need. That starts by forcing representatives to take responsibility for ruling.

At the moment, we face political leaders who want no responsibility for ruling, congressional leaders who want no part of their normal democratic responsibilities, and a fragmented public with a few bright spots of resistance. In other words, it looks like democracy has been considered one of those non-essential activities, even while the state remains.

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Alex Gourevitch is an associate professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery To the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.

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