The year 2020 may mark the lowest point in the legitimacy of liberal democracy since the 1930s. Then, a world facing instability and economic depression increasingly wondered if liberal democracy could face such systemic challenges.

More recently, a new assault on democratic legitimacy began with the 2008 financial crisis, mirroring the tragic 1930s. The frustrations with inequality and uneven economic growth clearly contributed to the rise of two (often coterminous) trends: a wish for “decisive” leadership that would cut through the political swamp, and an appeal to new forms of national identity as a way of clarifying which actors the state should serve. Not a single region of the world has been immune. The number of articles and books on threats to democracy have increased dramatically and the systems used as models in the past were widely questioned.

“Can democratic governance make the next leap in the aggregation and complexity of societal pressures?”

Can democracies deal with systemic challenges? Can democracies deal with crises that span the globe and involve myriad domains, dynamically interacting and producing asynchronous and unevenly distributed costs and benefits? Does democratic governance hinder the appropriate response to natural disasters, conflicts, or migration flows? What about in a new social space where the relevant unit of analysis is the entire globe? Can democratic governance make the next leap in the aggregation and complexity of societal pressures? In short, is Covid-19 a potentially existential threat to democracy?

Ultimately, we must ask: what is democratic governance?

The answer might begin with T.H. Marshall’s famous trilogy of civil, political, and social rights.1Citizenship and Social Class (Cambridge University Press, 1950). Civil rights were the first to be sanctioned and institutionalized, and focus on the rights of individuals to self-determination with their bodies and property. The second of the trilogy, political rights, involve the process of selecting a government and must include broad access to voting, respect for the outcomes of such decisions, and the possibility of government turnover. The third, social rights, are usually the last to develop and include the “positive” liberties of social goods, such as education and healthcare. If we take them in reverse order, systemic crises may represent a challenge to some very fundamental principles and foundations of democratic rights, but not to others.

“Systemic risks make it clear that we have to worry about our neighbors’ house burning as much as we do our own.”

As the newest and most debated of democratic rights, social rights may be the easiest to defend with these new challenges. Systemic risks make it clear that we have to worry about our neighbors’ house burning as much as we do our own. Systems are only as strong as their weakest node and most fragile link. The social welfare revolution from the late nineteenth century to the neoliberal era created a safety net for individuals in society. This also cemented a sense of community and assured that there would be enough domestic stability to address emergent challenges. The positive correlation between well-developed welfare states and performance during the Covid-19 pandemic (as of early May 2020) is evidence of this. Extensive public health capacity and infrastructure has lowered the mortality rate from the novel coronavirus in countries like Germany and Taiwan and thus assured the continued functioning of society. Moreover, the situation in the United States indicates that relying on fragile and for-profit health systems courts a disaster when the need for care exceeds that which is expected, and when it is critical to treat all people, despite their ability to pay.

What about political rights? At first glance, these seem to conflict least with dealing with a crisis. There is nothing about systemic risks that disqualifies a regular process of asking the population for its approval. Perhaps we will need to stop depending on the anachronistic process of voting in person, but the principle of popular representation does not hamper our ability to deal with systemic challenges.

One caveat: the possibility of the population being moved by fear or misinformation, leading citizens to elect the wrong candidates—a risk inherent in democratic politics. Moreover, there is no guarantee that an authoritarian regime will produce better or even more coherent policies than its democratic equivalent. The optics of authoritarianism tend to favor it in the short run (“getting things done”) but China’s initial experience addressing the Covid-19 crisis also indicates the risks of having limited information flows. Similarly, the foundational guarantees of political democracy, such as a free press, may represent a challenge at first, but the flow of information will favor the open market of ideas.

One challenge here that democratic governance must address is the contradiction between a global web of links and a territorially or ethnically defined right to citizenship. For example, I may not vote for a neighboring government deciding to tighten or loosen quarantine, but that decision will affect my own society. The decisions of any individual country have global systemic effects—since a pandemic like Covid-19 knows no borders—and those across various boundaries not able to vote often bear the price for the decisions of others. In the case of the United States, how am I endangered or constrained by the decision of an adjoining state’s governor or city’s mayor?

“Protestors are right in challenging the ability of the government to restrict their freedoms for the sake of the common good.”

The real rub for democratic governance during systemic crises is the most well developed and widely defended set of rights dealing with individual autonomy. By this principle, each citizen has an absolute right to determining their future, disposing of their property, and deciding what to do with their bodies. Any systemic risk involves necessarily curtailing these personal rights. A bank panic might require limiting withdrawals; a food or medicine shortage might necessitate price controls or rationing. In our latest crisis, the need to enforce social distancing and quarantine is a clear possible violation of democratic civil rights. Those protesting such enforcement measures have a very solid constitutional basis for their demands and the response has been disappointingly caustic and insulting. Protestors are right in challenging the ability of the government to restrict their freedoms for the sake of the common good. In this way, systemic crises represent the same challenge to democracy as do other emergencies, such as war or natural disasters. As the systemic risks increase and become more complex, democratic theory must deal with these kinds of challenges: when is the collective good allowed to supersede individual freedom? A more explicit discussion of such conditions is desperately needed.

As in all challenges to democratic rule, some semblance of law and universality becomes ever more important. Curtailing the rights of a few for the sake of the many may be acceptable if the standards for making decisions and the processes by which these decisions are implemented are applied equally and transparently. Here, democracies may have a distinct advantage. Certainly, authoritarian systems are much more prone to selective application and hidden deal-making. In this way, the very methods of democratic governance may represent not a challenge to dealing with systemic risks, but actually a way of assuring that the responses adequately fit the challenges faced. The very complexity of systemic risks also requires the division of powers inherent in a liberal democracy. These risks stem from the interactions of many conditions, some with long historical legacies. The messiness of democracy and the frustrating process of arriving at the right collective solution may represent a significant improvement over men on horseback making potentially disastrous errors. We may be reassured by expressions of omnipotence, but they come with significant risks.

Banner photo credit: Paul Becker/Flickr


Citizenship and Social Class (Cambridge University Press, 1950).