Don’t Let the U.S. Response to the Coronavirus Crisis Do More Damage to Democracy

President Donald Trump stands in the press briefing room on April 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis will have a profound effect on the world, including potential threats to democracy both at home and abroad. For more on how authoritarian regimes around the world have responded to the coronavirus crisis, see “Authoritarian Regimes Seek To Take Advantage of the Coronavirus Pandemic” by James Lamond.

The coronavirus pandemic has driven countries around the world to use defensive measures to expand government power. Some of these steps raise new questions about the right balance between protecting individual liberties and advancing the society’s common good.

The United States, like some other democracies, faces additional hurdles: a set of preexisting conditions that had already debilitated our political system before the onset of the coronavirus. Just as people with underlying medical conditions are more susceptible to harm from the virus, the public policy crisis prompted by COVID-19 may be more acute in democracies battered by recent illiberal trends.

Democracy throughout the world has been under strain for more than a decade. According to Freedom House’s recent annual report, 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of democratic decline. Formerly democratic governments such as Turkey and the Philippines have backslid into soft authoritarianism, often fueled by right-wing populism and xenophobia. Places once viewed as central to the democratic order such as Hungary and Poland have seen erosions of civil liberties and the rule of law as leaders use crony capitalism, attacks on media and civil society, and a politicized justice system to strengthen their grip on power.

Against this backdrop of a global democratic recession, countries such as China and Russia have sought to reshape the international system. Their strategies include aggressively touting the superiority of their political models and using “sharp power”—that is, efforts to influence and manipulate the information environment in other countries—to enhance their own standing in the world and undermine confidence in democratic institutions.

These autocratic countries have used technology and economic statecraft to extend their reach beyond their borders, often with the goal of immobilizing open societies by sowing mistrust and discord. We have witnessed this with the spread of disinformation in advance of elections—as Russia is known to have done in Europe and the United States.

The coronavirus crisis—a life-and-death matter for all countries—will further test democracies’ resilience. Over the next year, China will double down on its efforts to downplay its initial failure to curb the spread of the virus and present itself as a model global citizen capable of helping to stop the contagion, for example, by providing medical supplies to other hard-hit countries. Russia will continue to exploit existing political dysfunction and societal divisions inside democracies, including spreading disinformation about the origins of the virus.

These countries continue to target America, and their efforts have intermingled with our politics in dangerous ways. Divisive us-vs.-them politics, compounded by foreign interference in U.S. elections, have raised new doubts about the legitimacy of our institutions.

The COVID-19 crisis intensifies this challenge; the United States has now become not only the epicenter of the virus globally but also one of the primary sources of misleading information. Some prominent supporters of President Donald Trump have attacked medical officials whose expertise is vital in the crisis. The president himself has offered false or irresponsible assessments of the best way to fight the pandemic such as a claim in February that the United States was “very close to a vaccine” for the virus.

The ways in which our democratic system responds to the moment will send a broader message to the world about whether or not democracies can meet the great challenges ahead in the 21st century. COVID-19, like climate change, is a threat that knows no national borders.

America should watch closely and learn from what’s happening in other democracies recently stressed by illiberal trends, where leaders have taken emergency measures that could further weaken the checks and balances in political systems. Some examples raise cautionary red flags, such as Hungary’s National Assembly granting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán virtually unchecked power in the name of fighting the virus. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin voiced concerns in March when his country’s speaker of Parliament prevented key parliamentary votes from taking place, which Rivlin said harmed “the ability of the State of Israel to function well and responsibly in an emergency.”

How should American political leaders and other influential stakeholders respond to this new, more acute phase in the global struggle of ideas?

First, the United States must produce results in a way that reinforces America’s democratic values. Success in containing the damage to public health and the economy is essential in making the case that democracy is a better model for the world. How the United States conducts the debate over policy choices matters. The tone and quality of the debate should focus on preserving and building the respect, credibility, and legitimacy of all governing institutions. Making Congress a full partner in implementing the $2 trillion economic relief package—including ensuring it has strong oversight powers over how the Trump administration performs—is an important part of reinforcing the checks and balances in our system.

Second, the United States must counter misinformation. Leaders need to call out and counter dangerous misinformation campaigns by foreign powers—and domestic voices, too. A good start would be for the president to establish a declaratory policy outlining U.S. responses to foreign interference, for which CAP has previously advocated, and establishing a task force that can address disinformation efforts in real time. Likewise, news organizations and technology and social media companies need to do a better job of highlighting and countering misinformation, just as Twitter did recently in suspending the account of a conservative website that was promoting an idea to intentionally infect more people with coronavirus.

Finally, the United States must safeguard the November elections. Congress should invest more in efforts to defend America’s elections and make sure they are held in a timely, safe, and transparent way. The $400 million for coronavirus-related electoral security measures that Congress authorized in the stimulus package represents a good start. However, it fell short of more comprehensive measures such as no-excuse mail-in voting.

It is understandable that some states made the decision to postpone their primary elections as social-distancing measures to counter the coronavirus were being implemented. However, it is critical that those primary elections occur and the November elections are held on time. States and the federal government should begin taking steps immediately to prepare for the November elections.

America needs to conduct its domestic response to the coronavirus in a manner that signals to the world that democratic systems of government continue to represent the greater good for societies. To be strong in the face of foreign autocrats, the United States must be strong in its democracy at home.

Brian Katulis and Trevor Sutton are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.