Coronavirus' Promise for Democracy 


17 Sept. 2020


By Julius M. Rogenhofer 


COVID-19 is a chance to recalibrate our contemporary democratic imaginaries and to revise pre-existing models of democratic representation. Lockdowns and social distancing prompted historically conservative institutions to embrace technology within the democratic process. Yet, the promise of technology is not limited to parliamentarians meeting or voting online. ICT can help representatives bridge the gap with constituents by inspiring new forms of citizen participation, whether through digitally enabled citizens’ assemblies or through improved deliberative practices, which make political decisions and their implications more comprehensible to publics. Digital competence can become a listening device for representatives. 


The crisis is a chance to increase recognition. Even Brexiteer Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rebutted the Thatcherite mantra that “there is no such thing as society”. Upheavals in the healthcare sector, economy and labour market can move hyper-individualised societies towards (re)embracing social bonds and a sense of community. Crises are moments for states to prove their worth, to exhibit decisive capacity and to identify/remedy their institutional contradictions. In Germany, COVID-19 revived questions about federal versus state-level competences and helped legitimate government investment into environmentally sustainable hydrogen technology. In the UK, the pandemic response prompted an expansion of social welfare systems and forced Conservatives to embrace the National Health Service. Beyond these existing changes, COVID-19 might inspire new economic models including experimentation with universal basic income or government (re)nationalisation of key industries. Whether a more economically active state can offer respite from the dangers of unfettered capitalism remains to be seen.


Moments of crisis push-back against the siren calls of populism: Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Benjamin Netanyahu and Germany’s AfD have all been wrong-footed by COVID-19. Yet, temporary setbacks for populists do not themselves fill the legitimacy-void experienced by citizens within many democracies. The proliferation and resonance of Corona conspiracies, anti-vaccination movements and QAnon testify to democratic representatives’ continuing failure to retain the trust of citizens. While wide-ranging civics, internet-literacy and fact-checking education may help counteract some of these symptoms, representatives must nurture trust through increased transparency and better responsiveness to citizen demands. Trust-building might entail making parliaments more representative (in terms of its demographic, cultural and ethnic composition) of the populations they claim to stand-in for. Yet, even if resemblance may bolster legitimacy, democratic politics continues to be an expert activity, in which the mediation of professional politicians offers important safeguards against more plebiscitary forms of decision-making.


Finally, COVID-19 may force democracies to rediscover the local. Disinformation campaigns and strategic interference by China and Russia in democratic politics forces Western democracies to recon with the adverse effects of economic dependency on advocates of rival political imaginaries. Increased localism within democratic politics should not disintegrate into xenophobic communitarianism or into a world shaped by walls and restraints on movement. Rather, embracing the local can be a pluralistic, multi-cultural and environmentally conscious way of reviving post-pandemic economies. While multilateralism should continue to underpin our international relations, such cooperation must reaffirm commitments to a shared cannon of universal values, many of which are presently disregarded.