Before the coronavirus, our democracies had stopped responding to people. What comes next is up to us

Our collective crash course into the topsy-turvy new world of pandemic feels like it’s been going on forever — but it’s been just a little bit more than a month. We don’t exactly know how to navigate our way around this strange new reality, but we all sense that nothing will ever be the same. Contemplating the economic upheaval and the scenes of chaos in hospitals from Milan to New York, the whole idea that the covid-19 pandemic could shift our societies onto a better path may seem not just fanciful but downright callous. Yet, as we familiarize ourselves the world the virus is shaping, we shouldn’t lose sight of this as a moment not just of tragedy, but of unique opportunity.

To understand why, it’s worth looking back on the work of the most influential political scientist most people have never heard of: Mancur Olson. A professor at the University of Maryland until his death in 1998, Olson built his reputation during the 1960s through the simple, penetrating analysis found in his book, “The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups,” dissecting in detail why some groups manage to come together politically and others don’t, and how that explains almost everything about political life.

Olson explained why small groups with intense interests on a given policy question had a built-in advantage in open political systems, and how that advantage slowly built up into governments that were “democratic” yet consistently ruled against most people’s interests. A half-dozen coal companies, for instance, might each stand to make a $100 million windfall from relaxing air-quality regulations. They’ll find it easy to band together to lobby Congress for that policy change, and they’re likely to achieve it, because the losses to human health will be thinly dispersed among millions of individual people, each of whom may only suffer a few hundred dollars worth of health damage: not enough to prod them to organize politically to counter the coal barons.

Back in 1982, Olson spun out his insights into a breathtakingly ambitious theory of political decay. In “The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities,” Olson argued that the longer a democracy remained stable, the worse its policy outcomes would be for most people. The reasons are straightforward: political stability creates the perfect conditions for special-interest groups to band together and lobby for policies that benefit them narrowly, while dispersing the costs across everyone else.

If it were just the coal companies doing it, that would be one thing. But Olson’s insight was that when a democracy remained stable for a long time, that process metastasized, spreading across policy areas and gripping the political system as a whole. Slowly, over time, special interests would come to capture more and more areas of policy, each time pushing politicians to adopt policies that made sense for them, but not for the country as a whole.

Olson described the resulting dysfunction as “democratic sclerosis” — a hardening of the political system under simultaneous pressure from a baffling array of special interests, all coming forward at once to press politicos to grant them just one more special favor, one more loophole, one more tax break or regulatory goodie.

Walk down the street in downtown Washington and you see the tell-tale signs of Olson’s dystopia on every block. Every imaginable group in the country and around the world — from the American Hospital Association through to the Armenian National Committee of America — has set up shop there. Each retains a phalanx of lobbyists commensurate with its financial clout, each focused narrowly on its tiny slice of the policy cake.

Eight decades of democratic stability have turned the United States — and many advanced democracies — into Olsonian nightmares of institutional sclerosis where normal people’s policy concerns can hardly be heard over the din of lobbying by the special interests.

The implication of Olson’s work is that it will take a big, world-historical crisis to shake such a system out of its stupor. A crisis deep enough and immersive enough to upend the conventional wisdom about what is politically feasible. A crisis that insinuates itself into the intimate lives of almost everyone, that bulldozes old certainties and spit-roasts yesterday’s sacred cows. A crisis on the scale of a major war.

A crisis very much like the one we’re living today.

Already, we’ve seen conservative politicians line up to approve trillions of dollars in spending to backstop the payrolls of thousands of companies: the kind of radical gesture that would’ve been beyond parody on Valentine’s Day. And that’s just the start. If the novel coronavirus can turn Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) into a crypto-Marxist in a month, how far might it go over the next two years?

The reality is, we have no idea. That’s the danger of this moment, and its exhilaration. Amid the heartache and tragedy, the pandemic opens up spaces of political possibility in ways scarcely imaginable without it. The Olsonian sclerosis that had defined our age is receding. What will take its place is up to us.

Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan political commentator and contributing columnist for Global Opinions. He is chief content officer of the Group of 50.

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