Pulling together or pulling apart: The coronavirus crisis and political participation

The sheer magnitude of the crisis and the way in which it exposes existing fault lines – particularly the shocking levels of inequality in many societies – are making political mobilisation more likely.  

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Disillusionment with establishment politics plagued the pre-coronavirus political world for years. For many citizens, politics seemed to consist largely of the administration of the status quo, with little prospect of meaningful change. As the political climate became more polarised, preparing workable policy solutions became more difficult, creating a vicious cycle of bad politics that led to bad policy. All this amounted to a crisis of representative democracy, with party membership and affiliation declining, people (particularly the young) becoming less likely to vote, scepticism of democracy growing, and support for authoritarianism rising. Now, the extraordinary situation created by the coronavirus crisis – with citizens facing dramatically increased health and economic risks, and long-term changes in many aspects of their lives – has instilled a new sense of urgency in politics. But is the crisis likely to make more people engage with the political process?

The pandemic affects the population in various ways, energising existing political constituencies and creating new ones: it empowers states, but also raises peoples’ expectations of them and underscores the importance of trust in institutions; it deepens inequalities but also makes them less acceptable. The virus all but monopolises public debate, but often does so through a confusing mixture of expert opinion and political spin. And, while citizens seem to be more digitally connected with one another, their online interactions often seem to be frighteningly judgemental or shallow and insubstantial. Two major, conflicting trends that have emerged during the pandemic may well determine whether people become more engaged with politics.

Shared experience of vulnerability pulls people together …

Pandemics, like wars or natural disasters, affect societies as a whole as well as individuals. Citizens become part of a shared experience, something that leaves a mark on their lives regardless of the many other things that separate them. Going through this experience together, and developing a greater appreciation for the value of the work others do to keep society functioning, generates a stronger sense of community. A shared sense of vulnerability and of mutual dependency contributes to a feeling of belonging and purpose – resulting in a greater willingness to engage with politics in ways that help achieve common objectives.

The pandemic underscored the responsibility citizens’ share in a community in an unusually drastic way. In a health emergency, it is not enough for an individual to respect the rules, the entire community needs to do so; without that shared responsibility, everybody is more vulnerable. While extensive and prolonged physical distancing and isolation may tear the social fabric, a shared experience of vulnerability can help people express greater empathy, understanding, and support for one another. In many countries – notably the United Kingdom, where the pandemic brought back memories of the Blitz – volunteering soared during the crisis.

Two major, conflicting trends that have emerged during the pandemic may well determine whether people become more engaged with politics.

A strong community spirit became an important part of the “national infrastructure” during the pandemic – countries that scored highly on measures of social capital and had relatively strong trust between citizens fared well in fighting the coronavirus. The importance of strengthening the social sector – and, more generally, appreciating the importance of social capital – is another long-term policy lesson of the crisis. Citizens who think about the situation of others, even if this is motivated by their own interest in the resilience of society as a whole, are relatively open to engaging with the political process.

The crisis forced everyone to become “citizens of somewhere” – as opposed to globalised “citizens of nowhere”, as former British prime minister Theresa May called them. While people interacted with friends around the world or even worked for an employer in another country, they have all “belonged” to the places in which they were isolating. Geography determined identity to a greater extent than national or ethnic background. This may lead people to re-evaluate their identities, including how they define “others”. Those whom one lives near become more acceptable, even if they are of a different ethnicity, while those that come from elsewhere may seem a potential health threat, even if they are of the same ethnicity.

… while fear, suspicion of others, and curtailment of rights pull them apart

As the pandemic spread across the world, fear gripped societies everywhere. All countries – irrespective of their size, international standing, and economic strength – experienced a profound shock. People were afraid of the disease, of losing their jobs and economic security, of disruption of supplies, and of an uncertain and ominous future.

While this initial phase is now over, the future remains, at best, uncertain and, at worst, bleak. With new waves of the disease possible, and with little prospect of a return to normality before the discovery of a vaccine or effective treatment, most people will continue to focus primarily on themselves and their families. A closed and defensive mindset marked by selfishness and mistrust of others may gain ground and stifle political participation. A seemingly endless crisis that inflicts collateral damage on many parts of life can result in fatalism, making people lose faith in engagement with the political process, as there appear to be no good outcomes.

Containing the spread of the coronavirus led to the lockdown of billions of people across the world and severe restriction on their civil liberties unlike anything seen in peacetime. It turns out that the temporary curtailment of rights during the pandemic did not appear to pose a long-term threat to political participation in well-established democracies. Indeed, as the crisis moves to the next stage and citizens assess its health and economic outcomes, there is likely to be increased demand for scrutiny of democratic politics.

The situation is more worrying in countries where the government displayed authoritarian tendencies before the pandemic, and where restrictive measures could become the new normal and a long-term hindrance to political participation. In these countries, leaders invoked executive powers with little concern for proportionality and transparency; consolidating their power, they further weakened checks and balances. The space for independent media and freedom of expression shrank, as the effort to fight disinformation about the health crisis provided governments with new excuses to investigate or arrest journalists – further restricting the space for opposition politicians, journalists, and activists to make their voices heard. All this made political participation more difficult in the short term. However, by adding to the tension and frustration in society, it could eventually provoke a backlash and lead to more engagement with politics in the future.

As the crisis progresses, governments increasingly rely on surveillance and contact tracing, including through the use of big data. There is a significant risk that they will abuse these measures, especially when they implement them without transparency and oversight. If a culture of surveillance sets in, governments may deploy such measures for purposes that go beyond the response to the pandemic, sowing fear and mistrust in ways that are likely to have a negative effect on political participation.

Ultimately, the pandemic’s impact on individual societies will be determined by how the political circumstances in each country shape these unifying and dividing influences, and their interplay with pre-existing trends – as well as by the conclusions people draw from the experience of crisis. On balance, the sheer magnitude of the crisis and the way in which it exposes existing fault lines – particularly the shocking levels of inequality in many societies – are making political mobilisation more likely. This should cause more people to engage in traditional forms of political participation – joining parties and trade unions, as well as taking part in elections. And it should also increase their non-institutional engagement with politics, in areas including activism at the local level and within informal networks, such as volunteering. One can also expect – and, indeed, can already see – more protests, even leading to open rebellion against the existing order in some countries.

It is the responsibility of political leaders in each country to anchor their politics in this new feeling of shared experience and shared responsibility, and not to stoke fear and suspicion or curtail people’s rights. The choices that citizens have to make collectively will determine whether societies pull together or apart, and whether the crisis of representative democracy will dissipate or deepen.

Milica Delevic is an ECFR council member and director of governance and political affairs at European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The commentary is drawn from a longer article, originally written for the Europe’s Futures project at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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