Why Coronavirus Is an ‘Existential Crisis’ for American Democracy

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“The democracies led by populists—the U.S., the United Kingdom, Brazil—have done poorly, and the democracies led by institutionalists have done well—[German Chancellor Angela] Merkel being a prime example of an institutionalist,” Allen said.

“Then there’s a separate cut, which is ‘old democracy’ vs. ‘young democracy,’” she continued. “Basically, if you look at Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan — those are all young democracies. Whereas the U.K., the U.S., France, those are older democracies.” The older ones have more “bureaucratic buildup” and have trouble responding in an agile way, she says—and are also less in agreement on social rights, and more built around 18th-century ideas about political and civil rights. In a crisis, they struggle to rally around the public welfare without getting in fights about it.

It might seem like a stretch to invoke 18th-century political principles to discuss a 21st-century pandemic, but Allen’s work goes even deeper than that; she’s a scholar of democratic ideas reaching back to Athenian times, whose modern interests include not just the pandemic response but strengthening participatory democracy. And in a moment this unique and historic, the long view is precisely what can help.

So what does the pandemic tell us about what a revitalized American democracy might look like? What specific reforms are needed? In addition to her coronavirus reports for Harvard, Allen recently co-authored a major report for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on exactly what needs to happen for America’s civic life to be reborn. On Wednesday morning, she spoke to POLITICO about all of this. A transcript of the conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Stanton: On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that if the coronavirus trajectories continue, we’re looking at possibly around 100,000 new cases of coronavirus a day in the United States. If testing doesn’t rapidly expand and we continue with this sort of partial reopening, where masks aren’t mandatory in some places, where travel is continuing and so on, what are we looking at here in the next few months?

Danielle Allen: I think it’s important to recognize that human beings are adaptive, and as numbers go up — and deaths go up alongside that—people’s behavior will change. We will look at increased compliance with stay-at-home practices, and as a result of that, we will see a real bumpy patch for the economy. So to the degree that the disease continues to spread, it will be a drag on people going about their lives. It will affect people in socio-emotional ways, it will affect the economy, etc.

In the early days of the pandemic, when we couldn’t really see what was going on, we didn’t really know what was happening yet. We talked a lot about “flattening the curve.” And the idea of flattening the curve is that you slowed the spread of the disease, and this was to give hospitals space to get their capacity up and so forth. It’s not enough to slow the spread; we actually have to break the chain of spread. The goal we’ve been arguing for consistently is suppression — getting to zero, or near-zero, case incidence. Policies to flatten the curve [are] mitigation policies. Our road maps have always been about suppression—using testing and contact tracing and supported isolation of individuals to break the chain of transmission rather than depending on stay-at-home orders to do that.

Stanton: Your coronavirus reopening road map initially came out in April, and you released a major supplement in May. What surprised you about the way things have gone since then? In what ways has the U.S. responded either better or worse than you expected?

Allen: I’ve been surprised at just how slowly we’ve responded. It is extraordinary to me. A country with this much intellectual capital, this much know-how, this much wealth, and we’ve responded this slowly? That’s a big surprise.

Stanton: What do you think accounts for that?

Allen: Well, the argument I’ve been making is that it’s a governance problem. [It’s] a combination that, in general, our governance structures are weaker—they’ve been significantly weakened by polarization—and the fact we have a president who doesn’t actually care at all about governance. He cares about politics and he cares about his own popularity, but he doesn’t care about governance, where that is understood as building consensus and converting consensus into concrete actions through institutions.

Stanton: Has the federal government’s response to the pandemic changed the way you think about government’s capacity to respond?

Allen: Well, for me, the silver lining is that the absence of a national response has required us all to think through, in really detailed ways, how we can make the federal structure achieve what we need. I’ve always been a supporter of the value of federalism and its flexibility. But I do now see our capacity as a federal structure in a way I couldn’t previously, and I have 100 percent conviction in our collective ability to activate our federal infrastructure—all its layers—to achieve what we need. That will be a positive benefit that comes out of this. There will be other problems that require real clarity about how the federal layers should interact with each other that will benefit from the learning we’re now acquiring.

As a concrete example, New Orleans is one of the places in the country that’s done better than others. They managed to suppress the coronavirus really fast in April when they first got hit by it. And one of the reasons, actually, is because Hurricane Katrina forced their different administrative jurisdictional levels to collaborate. So they had a kind of built-in structure for harmonizing responses. The rest of the country hasn’t had that, but we will by the end of this.

Stanton: So in some ways, this could be sort of a great blossoming of these systems?

Allen: I do think it’s a turning-point moment, yeah. I think we should look back and see a dramatic transition in the capacity of different jurisdictions to function together.

Stanton: You mentioned federalism. One of the curious things about this moment is seeing how the characteristics of American democracy and politics collide with the realities of a crisis. Do you see this as a moment when we see federalism’s strength, as states take different approaches, or as a time to question whether federalism works?

Allen: Often, when people invoke the concept of federalism, they immediately think it means leaving the states to do their own things. That’s not actually what federalism means. If you go back to The Federalist Papers, the vocabulary they use is about the importance of harmonizing the interests of the states. Successful federalism has a role for every layer. There’s no such thing as successful federalism without the appropriate activation of the national layer in harmonizing the interests of the states. I definitely feel that I’ve seen the power of federalism and its potential. I don’t think that we are fulfilling its potential in the current moment, but this experience has given me a new window into just how powerful and robust our architecture is—if we know how to use it. And that’s where the problem comes in: We don’t know how to use it. It’s like sitting in your uncle’s Ferrari, and you don’t know how to drive it.

Stanton: What would be different if we knew how to use federalism?

Allen: Well, for one thing, the national government would understand its role is to provide a supportive infrastructure with regard to the macro economy. They’ve been doing that to some extent, but they needed to do more of that with regard to the supply chain and production questions. In addition, there is the critical importance of the national government of disseminating that sense of common purpose that you mentioned, and linking the common purpose to stable, consistent bodies of knowledge. At the end of the day, I do think that there should be a commission to study what happened in the same way that we had a 9/11 Commission, and I think the CDC should come under significant scrutiny. The federal government didn’t do that combination of providing the core infrastructure broadly needed for everybody and the articulation of a common purpose. And then at the other levels of government, we’ve seen a varying range of preexisting ability to collaborate between cities and counties, which has been critical. We really need those units to be working together to address this, and then we need those units to be in really tight synchrony with the state. And a big challenge to all of that has been data systems. So we really need an upgrade of our data systems that permits more integration across these levels and faster cooperation and collaboration. The first thing Germany did was invest in a data system upgrade across the local levels of their federal system. They knew that what liquidity is to the markets, information-liquidity is to cooperation in a federal system. There’s a lot that we could do to improve the functioning, but the machinery is all there.

Stanton: You mentioned Germany. They seem to have managed the coronavirus quite well. The U.S. has not. What is the difference between those democracies that have responded effectively to coronavirus and those that have not? Does that tell us anything about the underlying health of those democracies?

Allen: There are a couple of different ways you can cut it, and I think it’ll take a little while for political scientists to sort out which is the accurate one. There’s the obvious one about populism: The democracies led by populists—the U.S., U.K., Brazil—have done poorly, and the democracies led by institutionalists have done well—Merkel being a prime example of an institutionalist. Then there’s a separate cut, which is “old democracy” vs. “young democracy.” This doesn’t entirely work because it doesn’t take the developing world into account, but basically, if you look at Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, those are all young democracies. Whereas the U.K., the U.S., France, those are older democracies. And I think there are two features there: One, just a certain kind of aged sclerosis comes with bureaucratic buildup over time, a lack of flexibility and nimbleness. But another thing matters, too: The younger democracies, simply by virtue of having their birth connected to a later historical moment, have more fully embraced the concept of social rights and consequently sort of went into this crisis understanding that the social compact includes things like health, and that the goal of a national response is, among other things, to protect the foundation for social rights. Whereas the U.K., U.S., we have systems that rely—in their fundamentals—on 18th-century conceptions of political and civil rights as the bedrock; social rights are still a contested matter for us.