July 9, 2020
Three of Harvard Kennedy School’s leading scholars on democracy, social movements, disinformation, and communications discussed the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on democracies across the world. The panelists used their recent research and survey data to explore the negative effects of the pandemic on civic institutions, as well as ways in which it has uncovered fundamental truths about democratic systems and inspired innovation among both policymakers and activists. Matthew Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications. Erica Chenoweth is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government and co-founder of the Transparency Policy Project. Their conversation was part of the Dean’s Discussions series hosted by Dean Douglas Elmendorf and moderated by chief of staff Sarah Wald.
I want to make the case that we're what we're witnessing in real time is a series of slowly unfolding, or creeping, crises. These are crises that are emerging slowly enough that they're not producing the sort of national urgency to warrant the kind of an all-hands-on-deck policy response that the situations would seem to demand. The first is a widespread emerging deficit in public trust in democratic institutions. We've seen a steady decline of trust in our surveys over the last few months at every level, but especially the federal level, where the declines are the largest. We've also seen them across every single individual public and private institution that we pull in. This ranges from social media companies, to banks, to local governments, to the White House and Congress. If we project forward another few months, given the trends that we're observing, if there is a second wave in the fall, we could be heading for a significant crisis of confidence in our democratic institutions.
In just the past decade, which really began with the Arab Spring uprising, there had been 90 mass movements around the world that were demanding that autocratic or semi-autocratic leaders leave office because of their authoritarian impulses. And there are only 195 countries, so this is a sizable proportion of the world's population that was involved. So, there was real concern, when the global shutdown hit, that the pandemic was going to be used by these leaders to essentially shut down street demonstrations and popular protests. A couple of my colleagues and I started to collect data on exactly what was happening around the world, if not street protests. In February and March, we observed about 115 new techniques, from car caravans, to different types of socially distant protests, to forms of online activism, to all kinds of different community organizations or mutual aid associations that popped up and flourished during this period. Part of the reason why we should really care about these types of tactical innovations is because street demonstrations are usually not the most effective tactic related to popular uprisings; more effective tactics are forms of non-cooperation like strikes, stay-at-homes, boycotts, and different forms of alternative institution-building exactly like these mutual aid associations. They are forms of supercharged social capital and very-high-stakes community engagement where people are practicing active concern for others. They are providing food, shelter, money, errands, and rides, which establishes a sense of reciprocity and volunteerism and gives people a sense of a kind of civic or collective claims-making capacity that then can lead to other forms of mobilization.
To the extent that there's any governance bright spot, it's going to be state and local. Friends of mine that I was talking to said, “Well, one lasting effect of the pandemic is going to be centralization and confidence in centralized government.” I think probably not. Not in the United States, probably not in a lot of other countries, either—even in Germany, where their federal system allows a couple of things. One is appropriate, local responses. Civic federalism is kind of a Tocquevillian idea that if we're going to deal with this, it's going to be an all-hands-on-deck kind of effort. It's going to be businesses. It's going to be community organizations. It's going to be a government that works. It's going to be attentive to evidence, even knowing that there's always going to be serious debate about what the evidence implies among well-meaning people and even expert scientists. The federalist part is there's going to be great variation from state to state and community to community. And looking back, I think the test is going to be which communities were able to muster that inclusive, evidence-based, problem-solving, all-hands-on-deck community.