COVID 19 has introduced enormous uncertainty into peoples’ lives. Uncertainty about health, about jobs, about their established patterns of living. This blog looks at hypotheses about how such generalised uncertainty might translate into democratic politics.
Analysis: the fear of amplification
The discussion starts with hypotheses about the effects on electoral behaviour of the uncertainty created in peoples’ lives by COVID 19. These hypotheses are essentially about the immediate and short-term effects on democratic politics.
The discussion then considers the effect of COVID 19 on the longer-term resilience of democracies. This means looking, not at political swings to the left or to the right, but at the reasons why people might withdraw their acceptance from democratic systems of government in the light of how governments are handling COVID.
The discussion then considers some key conjectures about how the possible short-term electoral effects might interact with the factors affecting the longer-term resilience of democracies. The interaction could either amplify or dampen negative trends. The main concern centres on the possibility that the short-term electoral reaction might amplify longer term sources of disenchantment with democracies. Amplification might lead to what is termed in the social sciences a 'critical juncture' where a turning point is reached or a trend is set - in this case away from democratic forms of organisation.
The short term: hypotheses about electoral behaviour
The first hypothesis about electoral behaviour is that people will simply turn way from involvement in politics. Few politicians have shown any skill in dealing with COVID 19. The Prime Minister of New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern) has been a rare exception. At the other end of the scale, PM Boris Johnson has been seen to be fumbling and clumsy and President Trump in denial.
The ‘turning away’ hypothesis is that competence will be rewarded by voters, as in New Zealand, but the general confusion shown in much of the democratic world, by both governing and opposition parties, is likely to lead to apathy and a turning away from politics. Instead of turning to civic engagement, people will focus on trying to manage their own personal predicaments.
What runs against this hypothesis is that people seem to expect governments to ‘do something’ in response to COVID 19. They will therefore be motivated to participate - as in the US presidential election where turn-out reached almost 70%.
The second hypothesis is that people will react negatively to any perceived incompetence of their government and vote against the incumbent parties. One of the longest established propositions about voting behaviour with empirical backing is that people vote ‘against’ as much as ‘for’. According to this hypothesis, incumbent politicians will be punished at the polls as people express their dissatisfaction with those in charge. In this scenario we can expect incumbents to engage in all forms of ‘blame shifting’ – from blaming the experts to blaming other politicians.
What runs against this hypothesis is that people will judge politicians by other factors as well, including how well they are perceived to manage the economy more generally. If they are trusted with the economy, any COVID effect might be cancelled out.
Turning to the Familiar
The third hypothesis is that in uncertain times, people will not wish to take chances and will turn to what is familiar. This could benefit mainstream ‘centre’ parties and encourage coalition participation in multi-party systems. Biden aimed at the centre left ground in American politics and, in the UK, Keir Starmer has manoeuvred the Labour party away from the far left ground occupied by his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and from Corbyn’s supporters in the Momentum movement.
The appeal of the familiar could also benefit incumbents on the basis of 'better the devil you know'. This hypothesis thus runs counter to the voting 'against' postulate.
Turning to extremes
A fourth hypothesis is that, in uncertain times, people will turn to the (false) promise that there exist simple solutions to complex policy problems and will consequently vote for extremes on either the left or right.
The difficulty for extremist parties tempted to try to cash in on any such mood is that in order to gain electoral traction they need a readily identifiable domestic ‘other’ that they can blame for what has gone wrong. Infectious disease is less easy to monetize in the coinage of extremist politics. There is no easy domestic target. Even ‘anti-elitism’ is more difficult to shape. A rejection of expertise simply looks like a ‘head in the sand’ approach.
What is immediately apparent from this list of alternative hypotheses is that they are not mutually consistent. Apathy is different from extremism, turning 'against' different from turning to the familiar. Empirical evidence that would enable us to choose between these hypotheses is lacking. It is difficult to find a historical parallel. We will only be able to assess the evidence in a few years’ time after a sample of elections can be taken, spread over different settings. In the meantime, however, we should also remain concerned about the longer-term resilience of democracies. Backsliding in democracies was apparent before the crisis. The fragility of democracies seems now even more a matter of concern.
Longer political resilience: ‘support stress’ and ‘demand stress’
Initial commentary on the impact of COVID 19 on democratic politics has tended to highlight the perceived eclipse of liberalism as governments intervene in the economy in ways unprecedent in the post war period. However, a left/right continuum is not a suitable way of measuring concerns about resilience. Democracies should be able to handle either swings to the right or to the left. For the purpose of measuring resilience there is a highly relevant distinction that was made long before COVID times by the American political scientist David Easton between political systems that buckle under stress because of waning support (‘support stress’) and weakness that arises from unmet demands (‘demand stress’).
Support stress: the reaction to ‘Command and control’
There are two main indicators that democracies are showing signs of ‘support’ stress.
First, many of the policy responses to COVID rely on ‘command and control’ measures around the wearing of masks, observing social distancing, or curfews, or restricting assembly. Most people are able to distinguish between the abnormal policies required, even in democracies, in times of civic emergency, compared with policies in normal times. Nevertheless, observance of command and control measures has been uneven to say the least and actively resisted in some cases. The uneven reaction can be seen as a sign of ‘support stress’.
Secondly, the combination of poorly performing political leaders and peremptory domestic policies appear to be taking their toll on confidence in democratic structures and trust in democratic politicians. Evidence is already coming in of a decline in trust. That too can be seen as a sign of ‘support stress’.
There are also two important symptoms of demand stress. First, the experience has illustrated once again the fraught relationships between politics and expertise. Politicians have not performed well in explaining what has been necessary and judging what is acceptable to public opinion. Arguably, experts have also not done well in explaining their reasoning to the public and in separating their professional advice as epidemiologists and public health officials from what they think politicians want to hear. The result is that systems have not responded as effectively as they might have done to the demands placed on them.
Secondly, the crisis has triggered a massive shift from choices that can be left to the market to what gets decided through the collective choices of politics. Huge increases in government spending, deficit financing, and public sector debt all involve a shift towards the collective. In addition, the flaws in health care systems and, in particular, in systems of long-term care have been exposed.
There are other aspects of the crisis, yet to be played out, that will also involve the collective choices of politics. Almost certainly, governments will be heavily involved in deciding what is to be saved, what merged, and what let to go under, in both the financial and non-financial sectors. The 2008 crisis was followed by the Dodd-Frank legislation in the US, and similar measures elsewhere, targeted at the structure of the financial sector. As the dust settles on the COVID crisis we are likely to see a similar need for a review of the structure of the non-financial sector, and in particular the structure of on-line platform businesses. The COVID crisis has magnified an already unhealthy market dominance by the big players. How effectively these choices will be managed is very unclear.
There are three main conjectures about how short-term electoral responses might interact with the sources of longer-term weaknesses in democracies. The first, is that an electoral reaction of apathy and a turning away from civic engagement will amplify the sources of ‘support stress’. People will be even less inclined to trust governments and even more likely to ignore the various command and control measures.
The second conjecture is that an electoral tendency to vote against incumbents will be stabilising. Governments that wish to be re-elected will have to listen to the electorate and will have to ‘up their game’ in responding to the demands now being placed on the collective mechanisms of politics. If they do ‘up their game’ in order to stay in office, then faith in the efficacy of democratic politics will be restored.
The third conjecture is that if governments fail to meet the demands now placed on them, then the electorate will turn to extremes. Unmet demands and extremism will be mutually reinforcing.
The arrival of vaccines should reduce the need for ‘command and control’ measures and thus diminish the sources of support stress. However, we still need to be concerned about the capacity of democratic forms of government to manage the demands now placed on systems of collective choice. In the meantime, we can applaud voters who vote against the incompetence of incumbents. It is exactly what is needed for the long-term health of democracies. If democratic governments 'up their game' and electorates punish those that underperform, then the 'critical juncture' marking a trend away from democratic forms of government will be averted.