“Corona as threat to democracy 2020” triggers countless entries on Google. In the Anglo-American world, the opinion sections run over with pieces like “The Virus Comes for Democracy,“ or “Can the Democracies Survive the Coronavirus?” Paul Krugman, the oracle of the New York Times, reveals to a shuddering audience: “Authoritarianism may be just around the corner.”
Now look across the Atlantic. Europe’s prolific doomsters are hardly known outside America’s postmodern humanities departments. But on the Continent, these opinionators are celebrated as “philosophers,” as purveyors of Insight and Meaning who can see farther than the hoi polloi. Invoking corona, the prominent Italian cultural critic Georgio Agamben knows that “a society . . . in a permanent state of emergency cannot be free.” Ours “has sacrificed freedom for the sake of so-called security reasons, condemning itself to a permanent state of fear and insecurity.”
Another darling of the feuilleton—Europe’s print playground for the intelligentsia—is Slavoj Zizek, a peripatetic seer who teaches between Ljubljana and Seoul. He predicts the “end of the world as we know it.” Only a “new communism” plus global governance can save freedom. An equally voluble German sage orates: “The Western system will become as authoritarian as the Chinese one.” And why? “The ‘securitocracy’ will grab power under the cover of the ‘medicocracy.'”
How do such clairvoyants on either side of the Ocean know when ordinary mortals are not gifted with prescience? Exhibit A is Viktor Orban’s Hungary. The Prime Minister has deployed corona to emasculate the parliament; he now rules by decree—just like Hitler, who rammed the infamous “Enabling Law” through the Reichstag in 1933.
Running across the op-ed pages, this indictment has just one little flaw. Hungary’s descent into one-party rule by Orban’s Fidesz dates back to 2011. Corona is but the icing on the Dobos Torte, a Hungarian specialty. Same in Poland, where the Kaczynski brothers began to dismantle the rule of law as early as 2006. To make a simple logical point, corona cannot explain today what was unleashed yesterday.
Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, or Britain’s Johnson—leaders of settled democracies—do not copy-cat Orban. How do you stage a putsch in a liberal polity where the habits of democracy are so deeply entrenched and secured by a jealously guarded separation of powers?
Merkel et al. have decreed painful and economically damaging controls for their citizens, but without battering the constitution. Elections may be postponed for the sake of social distancing. They are not being canceled as a prelude to autocracy. Accuse Donald Trump of blundering and loud-mouthing, of firing ornery officials by the hundreds and relying on agitprop networks to spread fake news. But he cannot be charged with masterminding a creeping coup d’état. Is he going to deputize the National Guard to force governors to open up their states’ economies?
Yes, but. What if the COVID crisis keeps claiming ever more lives? Couldn’t it happen here, to recall Sinclair Lewis’s eponymous semi-satire of 1935, as fascism was raging through Europe? Since the future (outside of fairy tales) is opaque, we might consult history to get a grip on reality. It does not confirm the impending death of liberal democracy.
Start with the United States, where the number of fatalities has grown into the world’s largest. Add that by custom, Constitution, and law, American Presidents enjoy enormous executive privileges compared to other Western governments. And Trump’s predecessors certainly used them copiously in times of national calamity.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, a core principle of Anglo-American constitutionalism. A Federal court struck the order down, but Honest Abe ignored it, invoking the enemy inside the gates. Still, the proscription of unlawful imprisonment was back after the Civil War.
After Pearl Harbor, two War Powers Acts gave Franklin D. Roosevelt almost dictatorial prerogatives, leading to censorship and the internment of Japanese-Americans. The Supreme Court got into the act, and in December 1944, FDR rescinded the exclusion order. During the War, the United States turned into a Soviet-style command economy, with the Feds alone taking more than one half of GDP. After 1945, the share fell back to the normal 20 percent. Freed from its shackles, capitalism rebounded with renewed vigor.
In the Korean War, Harry S. Truman nationalized the steel industry. The Supreme Court smacked him down. No, Mr. President, you cannot seize private property without congressional approval. Truman tucked tail.
What about the European democracies?
Britain: Winston Churchill, the wartime strongman, was promptly deposed in the election of 1945—enough was enough. He spent the next five years in Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Following re-election in 1951, he resigned peacefully in 1955. Strong democracies have no place for potentates.
Italy: In the 1970s, the terrorist Red Brigades went on a killing campaign. Yet no Mussolini—in spite of 75 murders and 14,000 acts of violence. Today, no Blackshirts roam the land, the hardest-hit victim of COVID-19. Enforcing the shut-down, premier Conte’s Carabinieri respect the rule of law.
Germany: Also in the 70s, the Red Army Faction terrorized Germany, slaying officials and hijacking airliners. Liberty seemed to hang in the balance, and yet chancellor Helmut Schmidt honored the parliament and the constitution.
In short, national emergencies in the West do not breed despots, nor the grasping security state. But couldn’t it still happen here, as the death toll keeps mounting? Predicting an authoritarian takeover, the merchants of angst ignore four critical points.
First, the liberal state gives far more than it grabs. In sharp contrast with the 1930s, when mass misery fueled the rise of tyrants, the Western welfare state delivers trillions in cash and liquidity to ease the pain and safeguard the economy’s future. This is supply-side politics to the max. Why, then, hanker for latter-day Benitos or Adolfs?
Second, the so-called security state does not wear jackboots. It is armed not with bayonets, but with the consent of the governed, which is another word for “legitimacy.” Thus, according to an April poll, 93 percent of Germans approve of the partial lock-down. Three out of four Canadians approve the government’s handling of the crisis. According to Pew, 83 percent of Americans have confidence in their public health officials.
Third, manifest trust does not deliver a blank check, and the elected know it. The check is a loan, imprinted with a warning: “Your emergency powers, as in war, come with a sunset clause. We, the people, are the sovereign. Our prior rights are as unalienable as is the rule of law. We are not selling our birthright for a vaccine.”
Israel, a beleaguered democracy, nicely underlines such conditionality. In mid-March 73 percent believed that Binyamin Netanyahu was “managing the crisis responsibly.” The next four weeks revealed his machinations to ride to a new term on the back of corona, and the figure dropped by almost 20 points. Meanwhile, the number of those who suspected him of exploiting the crisis “out of political calculations and interests” doubled.
Finally, the freedom of the press. In a real top-down system like China or Hungary, the muzzled media run on the leash of the state. They cannot expose malfeasance or manipulation, nor hold the mighty accountable. In the West, they do. All told, the history of the democratic state and the current facts might suggest to the masters of column-y: “Think again.” Plus: “Argue, don’t insinuate in order to score a quick point in the battle for attention!”
So, when to start wallowing in worry? When the truncheons bang on the media’s doors. When parliaments and courts are neutered. When information is suppressed as in China. Viktor Orban and Xi Jinping are the West’s future only in the imagination of instant-opinionators who would rather be wrong than unheard.