How coronavirus is remaking democratic politics

The state is back. Long live globalization. The coronavirus remakes democratic politics. The ways out of the crisis will offer liberal democracies the choice between authoritarian nationalism and an open world order based on cooperation between states.

Watching nations seal their borders and governments assume draconian powers to fight Covid-19, the temptation is to expect the worst. Compare the disjointed performance of US President Donald Trump and the enlightened politics of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and you can see the reasons for optimism. Competence shines in times of crisis.

For politicians, everything except the coronavirus is now commonplace. Whether on the right or on the left, whatever their electoral programs, their commitments or their governance programs, the current generation of political leaders will be judged by the way they have handled the pandemic. One or two can sneak in, but emergencies of this magnitude don’t leave a lot of hiding places for bluffers and hawkers.

The return of the government to the fore marks the end of an era when power and responsibility have migrated from states to markets. The response to the pandemic has seen democratic leaders assume unprecedented power outside of the war. The pandemic is not a consequence of globalization or capitalism. But he highlighted the limits of unhindered markets – evidenced by the tender for scarce resources in the American healthcare system.

The crisis has ravaged other orthodoxies. To watch governments inject trillions of dollars into the fight against economic collapse is to appreciate how absurd the concern of recent decades for balanced budgets, public deficits and debt-to-GDP ratios. Of course, governments must set lasting limits on spending and borrowing, but the era of fiscal fundamentalism is over.

The coronavirus defeat bill will be colossal. At some point, the debts will have to be repaid. Hopefully, however, the context will be a rational discussion and a rebalancing of the respective responsibilities of government, private business and citizens.

The 2008 financial crash proved to be a missed opportunity for change. The result has been growing public discontent and the spread of angry populism from the right and left. The coronavirus leaves no room for a second hesitation. Voters in most advanced democracies are paying a price in fragile health systems for their ideological dedication to the economy of small, low-tax states. Liberal markets have a long-term future only if they are based on political agreement.

The easy conclusion is that the pandemic will prove to be a gift for the populists and a prelude to a leap towards authoritarian nationalism. The return of the state can be seen as proof that the populists were always right about the world’s elites. The closing of borders is the only protection against the outside world. The powers that states have now assumed to fight the pandemic reflect the public’s preference for security rather than freedom.

The disinformation campaigns carried out by Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow promote exactly such a message. The pandemic is presented as the work of decadent Western capitalism – a crisis born of unhindered globalism and a weakening of Western democracy. The relative success of authoritarian regimes in defeating the outbreak is a testament to their innate superiority over Western liberal democracies.

The story has a superficial attraction. The draconian closures ordered by Chinese President Xi Jinping undoubtedly helped to contain the initial outbreak. Beijing is now easing the restrictions. The problem is that the same political absolutism has prompted the Chinese authorities to hide the first cases. As for Russia’s claims about its own success, the jury is still absent. And the Republic of Korea has shown how a determined and effective democracy can eradicate the virus.

To the extent that it can be said that all good comes from such a deadly catastrophe, it is in the capacity of the pandemic to restore the value of competence and honesty in democratic politics. Mr. Trump’s delusional delirium over the way he defeats the “Chinese” virus is challenged daily by the escalation of new cases. It marks a growing gap between the White House and state and local authorities – republican and democratic – who are facing the pandemic. Polls show that the Americans are giving the President the benefit of the doubt, for now. But the calculation cannot be delayed indefinitely.

In Europe, political leaders have regained attention, and where they have shown adherence, the confidence of voters. The franchise worked. Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all won strong public support for tough measures to end the pandemic.

There is nothing inevitable in restoring confidence in good government. The European Union’s inability to show real solidarity in supporting Italy’s desperate fight against the virus shows how easy it is, even for those who preach internationalism, to withdraw behind the national borders. The convincing logic of enhanced global cooperation is no guarantee of action. And, yes, the pandemic will impose a high cost in terms of loss of economic production and disruption of trade.

That said, the coronavirus promises to open a door to rehabilitating the government, to a more equitable political and economic settlement, to restoring confidence in democratic politics and to renewed global cooperation. The question is whether politicians choose to go through it.

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