For many people dissatisfied with their country’s Covid-19 response, blame does not stop with the government. Democracy is also faulted, according to a survey conducted in 12 countries across four continents.
We all know that the pandemic has taken a large human and economic toll. In the United States, for instance, more people have died from Covid-19 than US soldiers during both World Wars. Many more people’s livelihoods were, and still are, threatened. In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, US President Joe Biden declared that political leaders ought to show that democracy “still works”, by delivering for the people during the worst pandemic in a century. The fear is that bad crisis management could weaken citizens’ support for democratic norms and institutions. This, in turn, may embolden authoritarian-populist politicians eager to dismantle democratic checks and balances.
But how serious is the threat that the pandemic weakens popular support for democracy? In theory, there are plausible arguments for why the crisis should matter relatively little, especially in rich and established democracies, as well as for the opposite case. What do the data say? We are part of an international team of scholars from universities in Europe and the United States that conducted a comparative survey to investigate public evaluations of leaders and democracy in the Covid-19 pandemic.
A survey of 12 countries on 4 continents
The survey was of 22,500 people and includes nationally representative samples from 12 countries on four continents. An experimental component of the survey exposed people to different information about how their country is doing in the pandemic compared to other countries or other historical episodes. This survey design enables researchers to analyse how people use information about the pandemic to assign blame or praise to political leaders and political institutions.
Our analysis reveals that people do not only blame the current government when things go badly during the pandemic. Citizens’ dissatisfaction with the management of the twin health and economic crisis also leads to dissatisfaction with how democracy works in their country.
On average, a one percentage point decrease in satisfaction with the president (or prime minister) due to information about the pandemic decreases satisfaction with democracy by about half of a percentage point. This means that there is a fairly strong causal linkage between evaluations of the incumbent government and the functioning of democracy in the crisis. (Detailed results of the study are reported in the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper series.)
These results run counter to the view of democratic politics that blame stops with the elected government. US president Truman famously had a sign on his desk saying “The Buck Stops Here”. Relatedly, a common theory in political science is that people unhappy with the performance of the government should simply vote for a different candidate or party in the next election – without questioning the rules of the game. But our results indicate that in the pandemic, for many people, blame does not stop with the president or prime minister. They also fault democracy as such.
This is not necessarily an irrational response. The pandemic has provided an unusual window for ordinary people into how well they are governed in a situation where their lives and livelihoods are immediately threatened. Media coverage has been intense, and the dual health and economic nature of the crisis focuses public attention on a broader set of issues and political leaders than during normal times. Overnight, health ministers and health officials, from Anthony Fauci in the US to Jens Spahn in Germany and Fernando Simón in Spain, became television fixtures, alongside the more familiar faces of presidents or prime ministers. State governments also played a visible role in making key policy choices in many countries. As a result, people may re-evaluate the whole political system. At least in part, the buck is passed on to democracy.
The good news is that people who are dissatisfied with how democratic regimes have handled the crisis typically do not say that they are eager to ditch democracy altogether. Neither rule by experts nor government by strongman leaders has become significantly more popular. This is sensible. Autocratic regimes did not generally outperform democracies in the pandemic.
But the good news should not lead to complacency. We know from research, such as the bestselling book “How Democracies Die” by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, that democracies need not die in a single dramatic coup. Rather often, they are slowly dismantled by elites, one transgression at the time. This is what political scientists call “democratic backsliding”. The danger is if dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy in the pandemic increases the electoral market size for political elites able and willing to undermine democratic norms and institutions from within.
A more optimistic scenario is that people who become more critical of the functioning of democracy in the pandemic become more engaged in the process of reforming democratic practice. The result may be greater freedom and equality, two pillars of democratic rule. We do not see a lot of evidence for this in the data so far. But the pandemic is still unfolding, so it may be too soon to rule it out.
Michael Becher is Professor in political science at the School of Global and Public Affairs, IE University, Spain.
Nicolas Longuet Marx is PhD student at Columbia University.
Vincent Pons is Professor at Harvard Business School.
A version of this article was originally published in Spanish by The Conversation.