Can liberal democracy survive COVID-19?
Ana Palacio
By some mix of cruel irony and remarkable prescience, the theme of last year’s Venice Biennale – the biennial art exhibition’s 58th incarnation – was: “May you live in interesting times.” The line, purportedly a translation of an old Chinese curse, was meant to highlight the precariousness of life in this dangerous and uncertain age. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, and credible global leadership nowhere to be seen, that reality has become impossible to ignore.
Venice has always been a monument to human ingenuity. Situated in the most improbable of locations, it rose to prominence as a hub of trade and commerce, supported by the institutions that underpinned the first era of globalization. It was thus a forebear of liberal internationalism, and remains a symbol of reason, humane values, and breathtaking artistic achievement.
Today, Venice, like most of Europe, stands empty. Moreover, the values and possibilities it represents are nowhere to be seen – on the continent or beyond. Instead, the world is seemingly at the mercy of the United States and China, which appear more concerned with upholding their great-power competition than resolving the COVID-19 crisis.
This competition for global primacy, which has been escalating for years, is also a clash of models. The Chinese system privileges the social harmony that lies at the heart of Confucianism. The American – and, indeed, the Western – system emphasizes the primacy of the individual, in the tradition of the Enlightenment.
The response to the COVID-19 crisis has thrown this difference into sharp relief. In China, local authorities initially suppressed information about the virus, in order to protect the Communist Party’s reputation. When that proved untenable, the government implemented draconian lockdowns. It has since been pushing the narrative (despite dubious data) that these measures have succeeded in curbing the virus’s spread in China and are crucial to an effective response anywhere.
In the US, by contrast, the crisis has been characterized by the tension among the individual rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” upheld in the Declaration of Independence as stated. The pandemic threatens life, but the response needed to protect life would undermine liberty; the pursuit of happiness will take a hit either way. No crisis in recent memory has posed such an all-encompassing challenge to the pillars of Western liberalism.
Of course, there have been threats to life before. The specter of a nuclear exchange during the Cold War implied the possibility of casualties far in excess of even the worst predictions for the COVID-19 pandemic. But the risk was largely theoretical. And the logic of mutually assured destruction – if one side launched a nuclear attack, both sides would perish – proved to be a powerful deterrent.
In the case of COVID-19, by contrast, the risk is tangible and specific. People are contracting this virus, and people are dying alone, forced to say goodbye to their loved ones over video calls. There is no cure, let alone a vaccine, and it is so contagious that health systems are becoming overwhelmed. This has generated a simultaneous sense of urgency and helplessness to which the Cold War does not compare.
Western democracies have also curtailed liberty during previous crises. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US Patriot Act drastically expanded law enforcement’s surveillance and investigative powers. More recent terrorist violence in Europe has led to similar developments.
But, again, the threat posed by the COVID-19 crisis is far more immediate and palpable. Surreptitious wiretapping is one thing; restricted freedom of movement is quite another. So far, lockdowns, quarantines, and border controls have been broadly accepted as necessary, but the longer they endure, the more they will erode the foundations of free, liberal societies.
Thomas Jefferson’s appealing but amorphous idea of the pursuit of happiness is particularly vulnerable. In recent decades, as unbridled capitalism has seized the public consciousness, happiness has come to be equated with economic security and prosperity. It is a shallow metric, but how contentment is measured in gross terms today will define the crisis response.
That response is causing economies to a grind to a halt. In the US, 6.6 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week, after the longstanding record of 695,000, set in 1982, was overwhelmed by the 3.3 million claims the previous week. As the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in Europe showed, mass unemployment and belt-tightening can be highly disruptive, as they fuel mistrust of existing institutions.
Together with threats to life and limits on liberty, the coming economic crisis will deepen doubts about Western liberalism and weaken its position in the global contest of ideas that is currently underway. It is thus imperative that Western leaders not only limit the spread of COVID-19, but also foster social cohesion, devise a credible path back toward growth and normalcy, and reinvigorate the values and institutions that underpin liberal democratic societies. To succeed, they will need to revive the ethos that citizenship entails both duties and rights. The scenes of heroism by medical professionals, service workers, and community members that the pandemic has produced should help to advance this objective.
Even if Western leaders manage to limit the COVID-19 outbreak’s short-term fallout, it will mean little without forward-looking efforts to strengthen liberal-democratic systems from within. Such a failure would leave the West vulnerable to a China that, accurately or not, is presenting its model as the best solution to the challenges of these interesting times.