How Democracy Ends:
COVID19 policy shows a (potential) path to the end of America
The pandemic events of 2020-2021 outline a potential pathway for a future democratically elected President of the United States to systematically end democracy. The course of events leading to this outcome need not be a repeat of the direct assault on the Capitol, but a distortion of risk of illness as a justification for military force and suspension of democratic norms.
Sometime over the next quarter century, it is inevitable that America, and all nations, will experience a cold and flu season above average. In a typical season approximately 40,000 Americans may die, but it is possible an above average season may see 80,000 or more deaths.
Inevitably some location(s) in the country will experience a surge in cases. Television news will show overworked hospital workers, and report that Intensive Care Unit beds have nearly run out-- of course, ICU’s often operate near capacity, so this finding alone may not be that noteworthy, but in our attention economy, it may be sensationalized. Some afflicted individuals will be young children-- typical for the flu, and these anecdotes will surely be emotionally salient. A video of a young boy or girl on life support machines may be used to show how dire things are. These events will then serve as an opportunity for a strong federal response.
A future US president may declare that the crisis in the region from influenza is unprecedented. Too many children are dying, and hospitals are near capacity. Citing the lessons of COVID19—that if anything we acted too late—the President may call upon the governor to issue a shelter in place warning. A week later, citing a continued rise in case, and “non-compliance” of the local people, the President could order the national guard or army troops in to secure the region. Notably, military force was applied in Australia during COVID19.
During the COVID19 pandemic, some of the most ardent calls for strong restrictions came from members of the political left. If a future president is on the political right; this would serve as a natural opportunity to remind the public that strong tactics were precisely what the other side demanded more of during COVID19. Life and safety, particularly that of children, is of paramount importance, and strong lockdowns must ensue. In many regions across the world, one political party preferred stronger countermeasures to COVID19, in all those nations, the opposing party that has the advantage for misusing force in the future.
Eventually, inevitably, disagreements with the policies will arise. Social media may see small explosions of dialog critical of prolonged lockdown or skeptical of hospital volumes. A future leader can seize this opportunity for a forced takeover of media or social media companies. Misinformation that compromises a national attempt at safety must be shut down. The future leader can remind the public that during COVID19 many were critical that we did not do enough to ban dangerous and misleading speech, and now we are doing just that.
As rules against movement are in place, with communication and media disrupted, a leader can state--without evidence-- that cases are still climbing. Anecdotes, even true ones, can be provided to show the public that some people are not doing well. Accordingly, further tracking of movement may be justified. A leader can ask or mandate citizens to carry apps on their phone tracking their location. Random spot checks (such as those faced by parolees) may be applied. Non-compliance can be treated with ankle monitors or imprisonment. Deeper restrictions on movement and assembly may follow, preventing protests and counter-movements.
As elections approach, a future leader may announce that safety is a key concern and exigent circumstances call for exigent responses. As such, elections will be suspended, pending a safer time. While the Constitution of the United States does not permit the election date to be moved, it does permit states to decide electors as they see fit. A future leader may coerce states into deferring elections, and hand pick electors instead. And with that, the end of democracy will have begun.
When democratically elected systems transform into totalitarian regimes, the transition is subtle, stepwise, and involves a combination of pre-planned as well as serendipitous events. Indeed, this was the case with Germany in the years 1929-1939, where Hitler was given a chance at governing, the president subsequently died, a key general resigned after a scandal and the pathway to the Fuhrer was inevitable.
The key factors that currently exist and may pave the way to totalitarianism are the following:
1. Strong force, including military force, has been used in other western, democratic nations to combat a respiratory virus
2. The public has accepted severe restrictions on movement and commerce in the face of respiratory pandemic, with many calls for greater restrictions to be applied
3. The media is able to present vignettes or anecdotes about overwhelmed hospitals or the untimely death of a young person, without acknowledging the denominator or comparing the risk to other risks we accept.
4. The rise of social media corporations means that public dialog increasingly occurs in spaces that can be regulated.
5. American increasingly comfortable with regulating and censoring information
6. The idea of safety as a virtue above all other dominates the culture
7. The party that favored stronger application of force during the COVID19 pandemic is vulnerable to misuse of force for a respiratory virus from the counterparty in the future
These core trends provide the basis and preconditions for a potential usurping of democratic norms. Increasing political polarization and tribalism would fuel that effort, as would worsening income inequality and reductions in upward mobility, which have worsened in recent decades, but may be exacerbated by the pandemic. Ultimately however, the proximate proffered explanation would be safety.
The key lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is not that the fall of democracy is inevitable, but rather that our policy preferences, and polarization, have set the stage for a series of events where it is possible democracy falls. As Madeleine Albright. says, “While democracy in the long run is the most stable form of government, in the short run, it is among the most fragile.” We must be careful not to create a roadmap to this future with our policy choices today, perhaps we already have.
A video discussion..
Dr Prasad, thank you for a sobering and terrifying assessment of our current situation. I have read and heard your views on the high price we are already paying for decisions regarding our education system. How easily, all in the name of safety as you mention, we have allowed the politicization of our children lives and futures to occur. I hope you will keep writing and speaking out. Please.
I think about this a lot, how much blindness there seems to be to the precedents we are establishing. Since the pandemic started, I've heard a useful rule expressed something like: "imagine this government power, for which you are advocating, in the hands of someone you hate. Because eventually someone you hate will be in charge, and that same power will belong to them."