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The Coronavirus Isn’t Killing Democracy

Authoritarianism is not a symptom of COVID-19

Josef Joffe
May 12, 2020
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

“Democracy is dying” runs the coronavirus-infected message across the opinion pages of the Western world, Israel included. Here are some typical refrains from the United States. For would-be despots, “a population gripped by terror creates extraordinary opportunities.” The “autocratic creep continues.” So, “authoritarianism may be just around the corner.” Watch out for duces and caudillos!

In Europe, postmodernist philosopher Giorgio Agamben warns: “A society ... in a permanent state of emergency cannot be free.” Ours “has sacrificed freedom to the so-called demands of security and condemned itself to a permanent state of fear and insecurity.” In Israel, a Haaretz headline blares: “Coronavirus Crisis Accelerates Israel’s Slide Into Erdogan-style Authoritarianism.”

How do the soothsayers know? And which democracies have flipped—or are about to fall to the virus of despotism? The merchants of fear love to dredge up evidence that misses the point. Invariably, they cite familiar thugs who arose long before the coronavirus. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the would-be sultan of Ankara. Viktor Orbán, who is pounding Hungary into a one-party state. Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, copycatting Jozef Pilsudski, the marshal who turned his country into an autocracy in the 1920s. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s post-Romanov czar. Throw in Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.

These are nasty characters. Alas, as exhibits, they don’t work—no matter how often they are dragged into the dock. They did not ride to power on the back of a pandemic. Their machinations go back as far as 2008, when Putin launched his grab. Or to 2010, when Orbán’s Fidesz party scored a landslide victory. So, when he used the virus to rule by decree, he merely dispatched a parliament he had emasculated long before.

Fingering the COVID-19 emergency ignores the history of neodespotism. The claim runs into two fallacies. One is to confuse pretext—“the emergency made me do it”—with causality. The pandemic cannot explain today what Putin, Orbán, et al. unleashed a decade ago. The other is the trap of reasoning by analogy: Because these strongmen did it, so will Frau Merkel in Berlin as well as Messrs. Conte in Italy, Macron in France, Netanyahu in Israel, and Trump in the United States.

Naturally, bad news always beats good news in the battle for attention, as fought by pundits and philosophers. Still, all the Cassandras, who started ringing the death knell for democracy in February and March, might now want to think again—and above all, to take a sober look at the settled democracies. For these matter, unlike the eternal autocracies such as Russia or the barely rooted democracies of Eastern Europe.

Let’s run the test in the West. In Italy, one of the three hardest-hit victims of the coronavirus (in terms of deaths by population), Blackshirts, who brought Mussolini to power, are not roaming the streets of Milan. Prime Minister Conte’s Carabinieri obey the rule of law. No truncheon-wielding gendarmes in Paris. No latter-day Gestapo in Germany. The truly bad stuff happens in totalitarian China, what with wall-to-wall surveillance, systematic cover-ups, and government lackeys banging on doors to take temperatures and drag the infected off into prisonlike quarantine.

Germany, once a haven of totalitarianism, makes for a most instructive test case. The nation, as elsewhere in the West, has not been forced into submission to the regimen of store closures and social distancing; it sticks to the rules freely. Chancellor Merkel has not introduced an “enabling law” like the one that killed democracy in 1933. As between Stockton, California, and Stockholm, the press is as vigilant as ever, as it cannot be in Beijing or Budapest.

The larger point is about the resilience of the liberal state and its institutions, above all, the separation of powers and sacred civil rights. If the doomsters were right, these checks and balances would have gone first. Yet in April, the German Constitutional Court struck down an ordinance that in the name of social distancing sought to ban anti-government protests. No, said the court, a blanket injunction against the freedom of assembly is verboten. Health must not trump inalienable rights.

Next to go to would be states’ rights in favor of an almighty center. It so happens that public health belongs to the 16 Länder of the Federal Republic, all the way down to the county level. When Merkel claimed nationwide power over local jurisdiction, the governors revolted—and the chancellor backed off. Same in the United States when Donald Trump asserted “total authority” over the states. The power grab was soundly rejected across party lines. Orbán and Putin would not have tucked tail.

The trickiest case is Israel. Here, Benyamin Netanyahu has indeed played the coronavirus card to the max, trumpeting in so many words: How could he be denied the prime minister’s office when COVID-19 had breached the nation’s borders, inflicting all-out war? He tried everything in the book, as if coached by his good friend Vladimir Putin. He sought to cow, if not outflank, the courts and the Knesset, and he won at least another 18 months.

So, is Israel ripe for a strongman? Let history answer. Surrounded by a sea of enemies, no Western democracy was more predestined to degenerate into a “garrison state” than Israel. Such a Moloch would have to sacrifice liberty on the altar of security. Yet after seven decades of war and terror, a historical record, Israel has not. Instead, it has vaulted from a third-world country into a regional superpower blessed with both wealth and democracy.

Cynics might quip that Israel’s problem is too much democracy. Or as the old joke has it: “two Jews, three opinions, four parties.” And five new ones next week. Hence kaleidoscopic coalitions, no solid majorities, and wondrous opportunities for callous tacticians to bend the institutions to their will—with or without a pandemic. For all of Netanyahu’s shenanigans, the good news is the vast distance separating Israel from the neo-authoritarians. Netanyahu has dented the institutions, as he has done in the past 10 years; he has not damaged, let alone demolished them.

The past, at any rate, should give pause to the prophets of doom who conjure up an Erdoganized West. Since only the Daniels and Isaiahs were gifted with foresight, the prediction of democracy’s demise is as dependable as a surefire tip at the races. History is a more reliable guide. Let’s run through the list of democracies that withstood the lure of authoritarianism amid deadly national crises. Nowhere did catastrophe trigger collapse.

United States: Given its 230-year-old constitution, America’s descent into fascism has occurred only in fiction—like in Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Yet even in these novels, the good guys prevailed. America’s past offers a reassuring message. Donald Trump’s predecessors regularly failed to break the constitutional mold during the country’s worst national tragedies.

In the midst of America’s most deadly war, Abraham Lincoln imposed censorship and suspended habeas corpus, a pillar of Anglo-Saxon liberalism. A federal court struck the edict down, but Lincoln kept harping on the enemy inside. The point, though, is that the ban on arbitrary detention was back after the Civil War. Real authoritarians don’t return what they have.

After Pearl Harbor, the War Powers Acts granted Franklin D. Roosevelt unprecedented license, enabling him to decree censorship and the internment of Japanese Americans. Even before the Supreme Court intervened in December 1944, FDR nixed the detention order. After 1941, the United States turned into a Soviet-style command economy, with the Feds taking more than one-half of GDP. After V-J Day, the share declined to the normal 20%, and the free market bounced back with renewed vigor.

In the Korean War, Harry S. Truman nationalized the steel industry. The Supreme Court smacked him down. Even in war, seizing private property demanded congressional consent, the court ruled. Truman obeyed. All these examples add up to a reassuring story.

Britain: In WWII, legislation placed all “persons, their services and their property at the disposal of the Crown.” So, forget the Magna Carta. Winston Churchill was granted the most sweeping emergency powers in modern British history. Yet after victory, the electorate promptly ejected him from 10 Downing Street. The time for strongmen was over.

Italy: In the 1970s, the country was shaken to the core by the terrorist Red Brigades. Going on a killing spree, they scored 14,000 acts of violence. Yet no Mussolini II. Neither is there one today, as Italy is aching under Europe’s toughest lockdown and the third-highest death rate, surpassed only by Belgium and Spain. In Madrid, there is no Franco in the wings.

Germany: Also in the 1970s, the Red Army Faction terrorized the country with murder and kidnapping. Just a quarter-century after Hitler, liberty seemed at stake. Yet, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt circumvented neither parliament nor constitution. Nor did the courts unhinge due process to catch and convict the culprits.

The moral of this tale should calm the angst-ridden who see authoritarianism lurking just around the corner. Emergencies in the West, the record shows, do not lay low constitutional walls; it is not safety über alles. Parliaments and courts may currently convene by Zoom only; they do not issue blank checks to the executive.

Those learned crystal-ball gazers who predict the end of the liberal state overlook two critical points. First, the 2020s are not the 1930s, when mass misery gave rise to Fuehrers and Duces. While Depression II is rearing its head, the modern welfare state provides trillions to soften the pain. It supplements wages and props up failing industries. When government delivers, there is no need for Pied Pipers.

Second, entrenched democracies rely not on force, as in China, but on consent, as reflected in so many polls measuring high approval rates for COVID-related restrictions. Radical parties are not on a roll; in hard times, those at the helm actually are the beneficiaries of trust. But consent is conditional—like a loan to be called when the need subsides. The people, the real sovereign, are not willing to trade inalienable rights for total safety. Nor are they endlessly docile.

To wit: Throughout the West, governments are yielding to vox populi, and so lockdown restrictions are being lifted from Tel Aviv to Toronto in the fourth month of the pandemic. If Western rulers were indeed out to strangle democracy, they would stoke fear and dramatize the state of siege to justify untrammeled control. Instead, they are loosening up, returning liberties to the people. Power-hungry politicos would increase repression.

Predicting doom is more fun than celebrating the good news, and in the battle for attention and op-ed space, it is better to be wrong than unheard. Prophecy is not given to ordinary mortals. But the great unwashed have eyes and ears. They recognize cheery realities by heeding Yogi Berra’s advice: “You can observe a lot by just watching.” There are no potentates in the pipeline.

Josef Joffe, a fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former editor of Die Zeit, teaches international politics and security at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

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