The covid-19 pandemic presents politicians and policymakers with the most serious public health crisis this century. Global leaders are working without a road map — and their responses often alternate between denial, panic and soothing yet disingenuous messages of reassurance.
This pandemic will pose a major legitimacy test — both for governments in power and for the very systems of governance on which they rely. A wide range of commentators — from Francis Fukuyama to Anne Applebaum to Gideon Rachman and Daron Acemoglu — have weighed in on whether government effectiveness in handling this epidemic will restore or undermine faith in democracy and democratic governance.
Democracies were under siege before the coronavirus
Here’s what we know for certain: The current crisis hasn’t arrived at a good time for the world’s democracies. Our recent report shows how satisfaction with democratic governance had already eroded during the past decade. Even before the novel coronavirus outbreak, public confidence in democratic institutions was at a low point in the United States, Southern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, as this figure shows.
In the early weeks of the outbreak, it seemed that authoritarian China — rather than the democracies of the West — would be discredited by the disease outbreak. Reports emerged that local officials had hushed up initial medical reports, indirectly causing the country’s most severe recession in decades. Commentators were seriously discussing if this could be the beginning of the end of the regime — as Mikhail Gorbachev famously said of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet by early March, China was touting its capacity to conduct effective containment policy. Many of the world’s major democracies, in contrast, are floundering to contain and suppress the coronavirus.
Citizens expect their leaders to handle crises well
Our data show that public faith in democracy depends heavily on how democracies handle policy crises. That’s what makes it so important that democracies are ultimately successful in containing the current pandemic. By drawing upon aggregated, multisurvey data sets from the HUMAN Surveys project that combine all results on democratic legitimacy within a single repository, we constructed a quarterly trend series for satisfaction with democracy, using data from over 4 million respondents, 25 sources and 170 countries between 1973 and 2019.
This allowed us to see how democratic publics respond when their countries fall into recession, or are hit by policy crises — such as the 2011-2012 euro crisis or the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe.
In general, poor crisis performance leads to lasting civic dissatisfaction. That’s not a promising sign for public confidence in democracy in 2020, amid reports of covid-19 overload in health-care systems, economic contraction due to social and travel restrictions, widespread job losses — and reports that elected politicians have misled the public by ignoring the advice of scientific advisers.
Will faith in democracy rebound?
So is this the beginning of a new systemic crisis for democracy in general? Perhaps. Yet our research has discovered two additional findings, and a partial silver lining.
First, trust in democracy has tumbled sharply in the past, and then recovered. Here’s an example. Back in the 1970s, Western Europe experienced a crisis of legitimacy almost as severe as the current one. And yet, satisfaction with democracy rebounded from the late 1970s until the early 2000s. The second oil crisis of 1979 marked a low point and then European democracy recovered, as shown in the figure below. Perhaps the coronavirus crisis of 2020 will mark another low point.
Second, a minority of countries have bucked the negative trend in democratic satisfaction of recent decades. It’s interesting to note that many of those same countries have mounted an effective coronavirus response. Where public institutions are effective, this reinforces confidence in the democratic system as a whole. Democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan have implemented rapid and effective responses to the pandemic — and may be reaping the rewards, as President Moon Jae-in’s landslide victory in last month’s South Korean elections shows.
Finally, there is the possibility that dealing with the novel coronavirus will dent the rise of populism, as voters become disillusioned with the performance in office of leaders such as President Trump or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and return to establishment parties and policy experts. Already, there are tentative signs that some publics are becoming more favorable toward democratic governments following scientific policy advice, and toward medical and public health authorities in general.
Once our next round of pooled global data on democratic attitudes has been processed later this year, will the results indicate a new phase of democratic malaise, as pandemic-related blame and division set in? Or will there instead be signs of an unexpected recovery in public faith in democracy? Stay tuned.
Roberto Stefan Foa is University Lecturer in politics at the University of Cambridge, and co-founder of the Centre for the Future of Democracy.
Andrew James Klassen is founder of the HUMAN Surveys project, which merges and harmonizes public opinion surveys from around the world, and an affiliated researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.