Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid politics – Being Tough (Enough?) – Navigating the Limits of Democratic Power in the Coronavirus Crisis
Isabel Kusche, Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany
From late February onwards, European countries tumbled into the Coronavirus crisis one after the other. Over the course of March, most governments introduced increasingly strict measures every few days in the attempt to slow down the spread of the virus by reducing the likelihood of contagion. By mid-April we saw the first reluctant steps to lift some of the most severe restrictions in a few countries, although the future development remains very uncertain, and the possibility of returning to a full lockdown continues to be a looming threat.
Initial reluctance to implement strict lockdown measures was criticised by some as a piecemeal approach that did not rise to the challenge. Others pointed out that democracies should be reluctant to impose measures that encroach on fundamental rights, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of movement. However, a long tradition of sociological analyses of power suggests that there are not only normative reasons for avoiding radical measures, such as curfews and the prohibition of even small assemblies. Power is based on a threat with negative sanctions, but it is reduced to coercion whenever such sanctions must actually be implemented. Parsons’ classic article on power as an exchange medium , in which he explores analogies between power and money, remains a valuable form of guidance when reflecting upon the potentials and limits of democratic power, including in times of the Coronavirus crisis.
Parsons stresses that power is a form of communication. It is never exclusively the result of a specific act of sanctioning, but it relies on generalisation and legitimacy. The Coronavirus crisis offers a perfect illustration of this point, since the political measures taken to deal with it run counter to democratic norms such as freedom of assembly, as well as to implicit behavioural norms and routines. From a political point of view, social-distancing rules and curfews are therefore risky measures to take. In normal circumstances, general compliance with such rules would seem highly unlikely. Yet, whenever wide-spread non-compliance with a rule is obvious, that rule becomes counterproductive and a testament to the limits of state power.
In democracies, such limits are part and parcel of politics. Contrary to authoritarian regimes that count on repression to stay in power and maintain a correspondingly large security apparatus, democracies do not have enough police to enforce a rule when many people break it. Democratic power relies on the huge majority of people following the rules, and on the generalised expectation that rules made by a democratically elected government will be followed. Consequently, too many people visibly breaking a rule at the same time poses the same problem to the authority of democratic governments as too many people attempting to withdraw all their money from a bank at the same time poses to the liquidity of banks.
The stricter a suddenly introduced rule is, and the more it deviates from rules we are familiar with, the more likely it is that people will refuse to comply. That is why democratic governments have to navigate a difficult territory in relation to the spread of the new Coronavirus. When the measures taken against it are too strict, they can become counterproductive and undermine the authority of the state that is very much needed in times of crisis. When governments count on voluntary behavioural change too much, and when measures are not strict enough to slow down the spread of the virus, state authority is also endangered, as are the lives of many people.
There are a number of communicative challenges related to this dilemma. The first challenge is the need to emphasise extraordinariness and ordinariness at the same time: Highlighting how extraordinary the situation is renders compliance more likely; insistence on ordinariness is, however, needed when it comes to affirming the government’s capacity to act. The second challenge is to convey uncertainty about the virus and its impact on the one hand, but on the other hand to project sufficient certainty about the measures taken to deal with both the virus and its repercussions for the healthcare system, the economy, education, and the livelihood of many people. The third challenge is to attribute responsibility while avoiding blame. Failure to meet these challenges would weaken the foundations of democratic power, namely its generalised capacity and its legitimacy.
A preliminary look at the past months suggests that European governments have dealt with these challenges in similar ways. A rather common strategy to meet the first challenge was for heads of states or monarchs to address the public on television, thus combining the familiarity of the format with its extraordinary timing, considering that such addresses are normally reserved for New Year or other ritualised occasions. Perhaps less frequent but still remarkably widespread was the use of a rhetoric of war to contrast the situation with ordinary times.
A common way to deal with the second challenge was publicly to refer to the advice of experts from virology, epidemiology and similar disciplines, to an extent that is highly unusual compared to normal relations between scientific policy advice and political actors . Uncertainties regarding the virus are thus clearly attributed to the ongoing work of scientists. At the same time, experts on other aspects of the crisis, namely its consequences for different spheres of society, remained in the shadows. The public does not know whether and to what extent such experts were consulted, which means that the many uncertainties about the wider effects of the measures taken are communicated as little as possible.
The third challenge may be the most difficult. At least in the context of the European Union, it only took a few weeks before attributions of blame – either for a lack of preparation, or for a lack of solidarity – emerged. Yet, the challenge is also crucial when it comes to the next phase of dealing with the virus, namely a step-wise lifting of the most restrictive measures on the condition of keeping many social-distancing measures in place for a long time. Such a strategy relies on a high degree of individual discipline among the overwhelming majority of the population at a point in time when the lifting of the strictest measures seems to convey that the worst is over. If things go wrong and the pandemic accelerates again, will this be framed as a shared responsibility, or will it turn into a blame game? In such a game, the government will become an obvious target, but groups such as the young, commuters from adjacent European countries, or migrants in general, may also be blamed.
 Parsons, T. (1963) ‘On the Concept of Political Power’. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107(3): 232-262
 Kusche, I. (2008) Politikberatung und die Herstellung von Entscheidungssicherheit im politischen System. VS Verlag
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