What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About American Democracy

For many people, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that democracy in the United States is fundamentally broken. With the exception of vaccines, the government has failed to help develop and quickly implement strategies for tracing and containing the outbreaks. As the economy ground to a halt during last year’s lockdowns, unemployment swelled, as did food insecurity and debt. Covid further exposed the country’s deep socioeconomic disparities: The health and finances of Black Americans and other minorities were most affected by the pandemic, and the move to remote learning at the majority of the nation’s schools forced many women to drop out of the workforce for lack of child care. Moreover, Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump has done little to ease widespread public distrust of government, as demonstrated by the continued divide over masking and vaccines.

So it’s little wonder that some critics blame the federal system and a strong culture of individual rights for the United States’ inability to meet the challenge of overcoming the virus. The question naturally arises, then, as to whether US democracy can deliver solutions to the health and economic problems presented by a rapidly moving pandemic. But according to the Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen, it can.

In her new book, Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus, Allen argues that federalism, rather than being a problem, offers solutions to what ails democracy today. In particular, she embraces what she calls “cooperative federalism.” Consider, for instance, contract tracing programs: They are most effective, Allen argues, when managed by people trusted within the community in which they operate. “While American distrust of national government has risen continuously over the last few decades,” she writes, “trust in local government remains high.” Contact tracing programs that protect privacy are best introduced at the local level; the federal government can help design the IT infrastructure, but it’s reasonable, Allen says, to leave the use of that infrastructure in the hands of local authorities. For Allen, cooperative federalism suggests that the federal government should focus on the big picture: setting overarching goals and identifying promising practices for how best to respond to the pandemic. In contrast, states, counties, cities, and local governments should concentrate on “the nitty-gritty”—contact tracing, testing, treating the ill, and supporting those who are isolating.

But how can the US government facilitate such cooperation and coordination, especially given the widespread distrust of federal organizations, not to mention the deep ideological divides that mark contemporary politics? For this to happen, Allen believes it is necessary for the nation to renew its social contract, which allows for a sense of common purpose and resilience.

The Nation spoke with Danielle Allen about her new book, the Trump administration’s failures in managing the pandemic, the idea of cooperative federalism, how the country’s social contract can be renewed, and the efforts of the Biden presidency.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Well before the pandemic erupted, political scientists and pundits lamented that US democracy had entered into a state of crisis. Many said this was due to the Trump presidency and its challenge to liberal democratic norms. However, you argue that it was the pandemic itself that “revealed that our social contract was fundamentally broken.” What do you mean by this? More specifically, in what sense did the pandemic reveal that the real challenge we face with Covid is something beyond the political dysfunction of the Trump administration?

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