The Virus Comes for Democracy

The New York Times

“Strongmen think they know the cure for Covid-19. Are they right?”


Mr. Schmemann is a member of the editorial board.

April 2, 2020

China and some of its acolytes are pointing to Beijing’s success in coming to grips with the coronavirus pandemic as a strong case for authoritarian rule.

Despite a poor start, the argument goes, China had the wherewithal to establish a vast containment effort that largely brought the disease to heel within its borders. The World Health Organization called it “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment in history,” which Chinese authorities were quick to translate into encomiums for their leader, President Xi Jinping. “Only in China under the leadership of President Xi can there be such effective measures to put this sudden and fast-spreading epidemic under control,” China’s foreign minister said.

Is that so? Are democracies being hampered by inherent inefficiency and political division — or do their openness and diversity make for a more effective mobilization of the entire population and all its private and public institutions?

Other Asian countries that mounted a relatively effective defense against the coronavirus, most notably South Korea and Taiwan, are boisterous democracies that acted transparently as they restricted travel, organized aggressive testing and imposed strict quarantines. Their response was no doubt shaped by the lessons from relatively recent epidemics, especially the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003. But it required no strongman measures.

And that same “leadership of President Xi” was responsible for allowing the coronavirus a critical head start. The government denied the initial evidence and silenced the bearers of bad news, most tragically the Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. By the time Beijing responded, the coronavirus had burst onto the world.

Those who tout the advantages of democracy are apt to quote the economist Amartya Sen’s famous dictum, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” That is because, Mr. Sen argued, democratic governments have to face voters. They have a strong incentive to avert catastrophes.

His argument, however, runs up against the fact that many of today’s authoritarian bosses — Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, for starters — are in power through democratic processes and seem to enjoy broad public support. Yet their operative maxim is more along the lines of “never let a good famine go to waste.”

Mr. Orban, the prime minister of Hungary who has steadily accumulated ever greater powers, was quick to see that the draconian measures being imposed all across Europe were a perfect cover to reach for truly dictatorial powers. Legislation passed by the Hungarian Parliament, controlled by his Fidesz party, effectively allows him to rule by decree, cancel elections and punish spreaders of “false” information. Indefinitely.

No other leader has made a power grab so brazen, but others have also found political advantage in the pandemic. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, seemingly facing an inescapable and ignominious end to his many years in office, found respite in the crisis. He ordered most courts closed, putting off his own corruption trial, and managed to maneuver his challenger in three inconclusive elections, Benny Gantz, to join in an emergency “unity” government that promptly destroyed Mr. Gantz’s coalition. But Israel is no autocracy: Mr. Netanyahu’s moves are fiercely debated in the media and in society even as the country arms itself against the coronavirus.

Other governments have taken advantage of the crisis to take actions that otherwise would have been strongly resisted. With India under lockdown, the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced laws that would make it easier for Indians to become permanent residents in the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir region.

A look around the world shows many other governments that have overreached in response to the outbreak. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, a ruthless strongman in normal times, seized even greater powers to fight the virus, including the threat of imprisonment for spreading fake news about the coronavirus — a measure that presumably could be used to criminalize criticism of the government. Turkmenistan, arguably the most repressive country in Central Asia, imposed what may be the most draconian approach to information control, arresting people for even discussing the outbreak in public. In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in a military coup in 2014, announced he was assuming emergency powers, including the right “to censor or shut down media if necessary.”

Whatever advantages autocracy might offer for shaping a response to the pandemic, it becomes truly dangerous when the strongman chooses to deny the threat or to give some alternative narrative. The all-powerful president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has allowed the country’s Premier League soccer season to proceed as scheduled, arguing — in an echo of President Trump’s comment that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” — that “the panic can hurt us more than the virus itself.” Instead of staying home, as virtually every other government is urging people to do, Mr. Lukashenko recommends that Belarussians imbibe vodka daily, make regular visits to the sauna and do some hard farm work.

In neighboring Russia, where President Putin has ramped up defenses against the outbreak, we can see another problem posed by autocratic regimes: dubious statistics. As of Thursday, Russia had more than 3,500 infections, but for weeks the authorities reported curiously low numbers. The real number may well be far higher. True to form, Russia has also joined China and Iran in spreading disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus on social media — including the theory coming out of Beijing that it’s an American disease that might have been introduced by American military visitors.

In the end, it is hard to draw up a conclusive balance sheet on the relative disease-fighting abilities of autocracies and democracies: The pandemic is far from finished, and there are many factors other than governing style. A country’s wealth and resources obviously play a major role in its ability to respond to an unexpected crisis, and countries with a history of previous epidemics have a clear advantage in coping with new ones.

Yet democracies do appear to hold a clear advantage. That may not seem obvious when China can throw up a new hospital in less than two weeks while New York City is fast running out of hospital beds. But the flow of information and public give-and-take in the United States could serve to constantly fine-tune tactics against the disease; false information, deliberate or not, can be quickly exposed. Transparency, an official in Taiwan noted, was one of the most important factors in the success of the government’s response.

An analysis by The Economist of data from all epidemics since 1960 found that “for any given level of income, democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts.” One reason, the magazine said, was that authoritarian regimes are “poorly suited to matters that require the free flow of information and open dialogue between citizen and rulers.” It is unlikely that Mr. Lukashenko could sustain his foolhardy stance if Belarus had an independent news media.

Where the Trump administration fits into this debate depends, as does so much in the American political landscape, on which side of the bitter political divide one stands on. The diversity of American democracy — the local governments, varied health services, strong news media and multiple religious institutions — preclude a China-like rule by authoritarian diktat. But the inclination of the autocratically inclined to exploit a crisis should never be dismissed.

Can Democracy Survive Coronavirus?

U.S. News & World Report

The pandemic threatens elections, and experts worry Americans’ rights could be curtailed.

by Susan Mulligan, Senior Political Writer

April 3, 2020

STATE PRIMARY ELECTIONS have been delayed, and experts fret about how to hold a credible and accessible general election in November. Congress is out until at least April 20, and many state legislatures have suspended their sessions. Government buildings are closed. The Trump administration wants “emergency” powers to allow suspects to be detained indefinitely, while abroad, world leaders are using the pandemic to seize more power.

The novel coronavirus has already claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people worldwide. Will democracy be the next casualty?

Crises often lead governments to take extraordinary measures, whether it’s increasing security, expanding surveillance and other government powers or limiting rights citizens had come to take for granted. But the global pandemic presents risks to democratic institutions unprecedented in modern times, experts say, whether it’s unsavory leaders using the virus as an excuse to demand more authority or civically inclined officials struggling to figure out how to keep democratic institutions going without endangering public health.

“We all want to come out of this crisis alive, but we also want our political systems, democracy, to survive,” Jonas Parello-Plesner, executive director of the Alliance for Democracies, which held a webcast Thursday from Copenhagen, Denmark, on the ways different countries were responding to the crisis.

“There are a range of ways in which the pandemic is creating new threats and exacerbating old stresses on our democracy,” says Wendy Weiser, head of the democracy center at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “This is a momentous event that has opportunities and risks. We have the opportunity to reassert not just national unity but national commitment to our democratic systems. Similarly, there is a great risk that people can take advantage of the confusion and fear around the coronavirus to gut or erode our democracy.”

Abroad, democracy-watchers are looking anxiously at Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban – notably, a dissident when Russian communists controlled his country – has been given new powers by parliament that effectively let him rule by decree. Orban now also has the ability to impose harsh penalties for free speech and those who violate quarantine rules.

In the nominally democratic Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered police to shoot dead anyone “who creates trouble” during the lockdown in Luzon, the nation’s most populous island. Israel recently assumed the right to gather personal information, including cellphone location data, of those diagnosed with the virus or suspected to have it.

In the United States, such drastic measures have not occurred, and legal and political experts don’t expect the government to try. But there are other threats to democratic institutions here that could curtail citizens’ rights or undermine public faith in America’s elections, they warn.

Attorney General William Barr has asked Congress to allow the Department of Justice to petition judges to hold people indefinitely during an emergency and to pause the statute of limitations during such times. (The idea, first reported by Politico, was roundly rejected by both Democratic and Republican senators.) States and cities have imposed stay-at-home orders that allow some exceptions for essential work and errands.

But most at risk is the basic machinery of democracy – the multi-layered process of nominating candidates for office and conducting a general election in November. Several states have already delayed their primaries, not only to protect voters but because poll workers are afraid to staff the polling stations.

“There is a great risk that people can take advantage of the confusion and fear around the coronavirus to gut or erode our democracy.”

The Democratic National Committee on Thursday delayed its national convention, previously scheduled for July in Milwaukee to August. But the state is still going ahead Tuesday with its presidential primary, despite the fact that officials warned earlier this week that they are short nearly 7,000 poll workers.

It’s not unprecedented for primaries not to go off as they have in recent history, says John Geer, dean of the College of Art and Science at Vanderbilt University, noting that up until 1972 the primaries were more advisory than determinative (Hubert Humphrey, for example, got the 1968 Democratic nomination without winning a single primary). “What the real issue is, how are we going to make sure there’s as much participation as possible in the fall, if social distancing is still in place?” Geer says.

And in the case of next week’s scheduled primary, “Wisconsin is the canary in the coal mine” for the November elections, Weiser says. President Donald Trump can’t simply cancel the elections (which are run by states), experts note. But if hardly anyone shows up – or if turnout is minimal because there aren’t enough people to staff them – Americans won’t have faith in the result, they say.

“We need to start thinking now, in the states, about different ways of allowing people to vote in a secure way,” says former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, executive chairman and co-founder of The Chertoff Group. “What do you do if the virus continues in November and people have difficulty getting to the polls? It’s not too soon to plan.”

Chertoff agrees with a mounting call for increased vote-by-mail elections. Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah – conduct elections entirely by mail, while 21 other states allow some mail-in voting. No-excuses absentee voting (meaning voters don’t have to give an approved reason for not voting in person on Election Day) and curbside voting, whereby voters can drop off a ballot without getting out of the car, are also good options, Chertoff says. Some states offer curbside voting now, but not always for all voters. Virginia, for example, allows the practice for voters with disabilities or who are 65 and older.

States control their own elections and would have to make the changes, but Congress could offer federal money in exchange for states doing those reforms, he says.

The downside is that Americans might need to lose the expectation of an election night announcement of the next president, since mail ballots can take weeks to count, Chertoff says, but it’s an inconvenience made worth it by expanding voter access.

Some communities, such as those on Native American tribal lands, aren’t as well-served by the U.S. postal system, and mail-in ballots should include pre-paid postage so citizens don’t have to pay for the right to cast a ballot, says Karen Hobert-Flynn, president of Common Cause. But she’s for any idea that “makes sure there’s fair and safe voting for all.”

“Even as we are worried about this public health threat, we need to remember that it can’t distract us from the ways we can fight it,” Hobert-Flynn says. “That means we have to come together locally, nationally and internationally to stop the spread (of the virus) and part of that is ensuring our democracy continues to function.”

Hoping, experts say, that the virus doesn’t deliver the lethal blow.

New American Promise 28th Amendment Candidate Pledge Signer

Sarah Guzman, Candidate for Santa Fe County Clerk

Ms. Sarah Guzman, Candidate for the Office of the County Clerk for Santa Fe County has become the latest New Mexico candidate for elected office to demonstrate her commitment to using her public office to promote an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reform the terribly flawed campaign finance system in our country.

Sarah, a graduate of New Mexico State University, has a strong passion for social justice and public service. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. After Heinz College, Sarah has worked as a non-profit fundraising consultant.

About her decision to sign the Pledge, Sarah stated, “Money should never be a barrier to running for office, and yet it is, because of the exorbitant amount of money poured into present day elections. I believe it is truly detrimental and goes against the core principles of a functioning democracy. The only way to restore a government truly of the people, by the people, and for the people is to pass the 28th Amendment, and set limits on the amount of money you can raise and spend on elections. Because everyone matters equally and corporate influence should never supersede people.”

Let’s all thank Sarah for her commitment to democracy reform! Sarah can be reached at