In six months, COVID-19 has caused the death of almost 190,000 Americans and infected over 6 million more. The U.S. economy has been battered. Millions have lost their jobs and thousands of businesses have been forced to close.
What are the implications from this for U.S. politics? Analysts have spoken to the immediate impacts on President Donald Trump’s approval ratings and the presidential election in November. But what of the longer-term impact of the pandemic? Democracy in America already appears increasingly fragile. Will the pandemic weaken it further?
In my view, the effects of the crisis will extend well-beyond the election, regardless of who wins the presidency. The pandemic is contributing to a broader structural shift in American life, one that is undermining the legitimacy of democratic institutions in favor of more authoritarian and populist alternatives.
The personal impact
Dangerous, ubiquitous and unexplained, COVID-19 is frightening. The pandemic has also disrupted the social routines that give meaning to everyday life. So much that was once ordinary, familiar and comfortable has become uncertain, complicated and confusing.
In such times of danger and uncertainty, average citizens turn to authoritative elites for answers about what is happening and how to act. Now, however, this does not seem a viable option. The stories America’s health experts and political leaders have told citizens about the origins of the virus, the extent of the danger and best practices for responding have been revised time and again. At the same time, the experts and leaders have questioned each others’ recommendations, competence and integrity. Most troubling is they so far have failed to solve the problem. The pandemic has not been contained and no vaccine or effective treatment has been forthcoming. As a result, many Americans feel they left to their own devices to cope with the health threat and manage their disrupted lives.
While a heavy burden, these demands are manageable as long as people have the cognitive capacity required. The problem is that most people do not.
Decades of psychological research have shown that, rather than being reflective, integrative and principled in the ways required, most people’s thinking is un-self-conscious, partial and concrete. They do not understand things in systematic or general ways, but rather in terms of specific causal, categorical and hierarchical relationships among particular people and actions. They are not creative, but instead rely on the guidance of typical practices and conventional beliefs.
As a result, most of us lack the cognitive capacity to deal with the complex and probabilistic quality of the coronavirus threat, the disruptive and dislocating impact of the changing conditions of social life, or the demands of perspective-taking posed by the need to negotiate new ways of interacting with others. Unable to render the new conditions of life comprehensible and manageable, people are left anxious and alienated. They are also frustrated and angry at having these unnatural and unwanted conditions foisted upon them.
“ As traditional authority figures and institutions are rejected, a confused, anxious and resentful populace looks for alternatives. ”
Social and political consequences
Popular support for existing social and political institutions is being undermined. The fear, anger and frustration people feel turns into resentment. Their immediate targets are the cultural and political leaders who first allowed the situation to become as bad as it is, and then failed to resolve it. Their authority is delegitimized. Given the simple, causal and categorical nature of the understandings most people construct, this delegitimization extends to the broader cultural and political structures with whom this discredited elite is associated.
For example, as scientists appear not to know what they are talking about, the institutes and universities that support them are devalued. Similarly, as political leaders seem to know little and to act only in their narrow self-interest, the governmental institutions to which they belong (Congress, the presidency, and others) are regarded as ineffective and suspect. As traditional authority figures and institutions are rejected, a confused, anxious and resentful populace looks for alternatives.
As I have argued elsewhere, the liberal democracy Americans know, with its abstract principles, complex institutional arrangements and conflicted, deliberative practices, is difficult for most people to understand and embrace. Since people typically think in terms of simple hierarchies, when it comes to governing, they believe that, like the military, someone must be in charge to make decisions. Constraints on executive power are regarded as unwarranted obstructions.
Most people also think in terms of simple categories. So when it comes to citizenship, they understand that being American means being like other Americans. As such, citizenship requires loyally conforming to shared beliefs, common codes of behavior, and even often having similar appearance. In this context, respect for differences among in-group members (for example, critics and deviants) or of out-group members (such as minorities, immigrants or foreigners) makes little sense. To the contrary, these differences are potential threats to the integrity of nation and should be suppressed accordingly.
“ The U.S., like many Western countries, has been democratic in only a limited sense. Economic, political and cultural power has remained in the hands of a relatively small elite. ”
Yet despite the limitations of its citizens, the U.S. has remained a liberal democracy with broad popular support. In my view, this is because the U.S., like many Western countries, has been democratic in only a limited sense. Economic, political and cultural power has remained in the hands of a relatively small elite. This power is divided among progressive and conservative elites, who are united in their appreciation of democratic governance, the protections it affords — and of course the benefits they themselves enjoy.
Consequently, America’s elites have deployed their power over political nominations to sideline figures who to threaten democratic processes. They have similarly used their influence over the mass media and educational institutions to guide the national political discussion and exclude anti-democratic messages. In these ways, they have been able to shepherd a public that might otherwise naturally be receptive to undemocratic alternatives.
The problem now is that the power of this oligarchic elite is waning. Competitive capitalism, technological innovation, the social dislocations of mass migration and the ever-greater democratization of governance have combined to weaken the authority of traditional elites and the conventional practices they advocate.
In the process, individuals are now free to come to their own understanding of their situation and needs, and to choose the direction they and others must follow. But, as already noted, people typically lack the cognitive capacity to generate their own understandings and self-direct. Instead they rely on conventional beliefs and the guidance of authoritative leaders. Rejecting traditional resources but unable to make sense of things themselves, people are increasingly seeking alternative authorities (political, social and religious) to provide the certainties and moral direction they require.
Indeed, with the rise of social media and increasingly open political primaries, the messages offered by alternative authorities are more available than ever. If these new messengers offer a worldview that people can readily understand and appreciate, they are being enthusiastically embraced by a public that is otherwise confused, alienated and anxious.
Most politically significant now are right-wing populist movements. Their vision resonates with the kind of understandings most people naturally construct. Here, social and political problems have clear and simple causes and can be readily addressed with direct, concrete action. This in turn requires a strong leader and a hierarchically structured government that facilitates the leader’s ability to do what is necessary.
In these political movements, “We the People” is a concretely defined social category. “We” share the same basic characteristics, the same unassailable beliefs and aspire to the same goals. “We” belong and so have a clear identity, certain direction and protection in an otherwise uncertain and threatening world. “We” stand against alien “others” who have different characteristics, beliefs and goals. Whether they are the domestic “other” of minorities and immigrants, or the external “other” of foreigners, they are at best irrelevant and at worst a threat. For most people, this is the kind of world they can easily understand and comfortably embrace.
Further undermining democracy
The broader and longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is best understood in this context of an already fragile U.S. democracy. The dangers it presents and social dislocations it creates are exacerbating the confusion, anxiety, alienation and anger many people already feel. These people want and need clarity, saviors and scapegoats. Given the more concrete, fragmentary ways in which most people think, the message of liberal democracy with its code of “political correctness” is too abstract and complex to satisfy them.
Meanwhile the pandemic has further delegitimized the oligarchic elite. For many Americans, the failures of science, health experts and political leaders to deal with the crises is further evidence of their inability to lead and their lack of common interest with the people. The pandemic thus contributes to the process whereby the oligarchic defenders of U.S. democracy are losing their ability to impose their vision on an increasingly alienated public. Emancipated from the strictures of social convention and traditional authority, Americans are free to make their own choices. In doing so, they are increasingly favoring authoritarians and populists. In this way, democracy devours itself.
Shawn Rosenberg is a professor of political science and psychological science at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of the 2019 research paper, “Democracy Devouring Itself The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Populism.”
An expert on political cognition and democracy, Rosenberg’s relevant publications include: The Not So Common Sense: How People Judge Social and Political Events (Yale University Press 2002); Deliberation, Participation and Democracy: Can the People Govern (Palgrave MacMillan 2007); “Unfit for Democracy? Irrational, Rationalizing and Biologically Predisposed Citizens.” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society (2017) 29:3, 362-387.