Democracy
in the Shadow
of Coronavirus

"This Virus is a Great Gift to Autocrats who Want an Excuse to Accrue More Power"

Professor Larry Diamond, one of the leading global experts on the rise and fall of democracies, is concerned primarily about the well-being of the free world. "Freedom and democratic checks are under great risk," he says in a special interview with Shomrim, in which he also expresses hope that the unity government in Israel will also give birth to a constitution.

Illustration: Moran Barak

Omri Assenheim, Palo Alto

April 8, 2020

"Even you must admit the situation is confusing; it throws things into disarray," I say to Professor Larry Diamond.
"Explain," he asks.
"You see," I try, "because of the uncertainty created by the coronavirus, it’s hard to determine whether processes that supposedly damage democracy are necessary in order to gain control of the situation or whether they are merely being used as an excuse for power־hungry leaders."

"Take, for example, three political decisions made in Israel, which apparently result from the situation: first, the decision to announce the closure of the courts in the middle of the night; second, the decision to temporarily close down the Knesset and prevent decisive deliberation; third, the decision to use technological means to monitor citizens, allegedly to contain the spread of coronavirus. Do you consider such actions legitimate given the current madness?

As before every answer, Diamond remains silent for a few moments, weighing up his words. This time, his silence is short־lived.

Prof. Larry Diamond. "It doesn't mean democracies will die, but they do come under stress". Photo courtesy of Stanford University

"The first two decision were, I think, completely unnecessary except as very temporary measures. And when I say temporary, I don’t mean months but two or three weeks at most. I've had quite successful discussions with colleagues in conference settings as large as the Israeli Knesset, so there is no reason why the Knesset and even a body as large as the [US] House of Representatives or even the British House of Commons can't rapidly develop safe technology enabling deliberation and voting from a distance."

"This crisis is going to test societies and political systems more seriously than anything since World War II, at least in the United States. Obviously, Israel has had existential struggles since its creation, but even for societies like Israel, I think this is another battle for survival just like 1967 or 1973."

"And come on, give me a break, Israel is one of the most technologically adept and innovative countries in the world. There's probably no country in the world that has a higher per capita concentration of digital innovation talent than Israel. So if you couldn't come up within a couple of weeks with a workable formula for the Knesset to meet and vote virtually, it's not because it's not possible, it's because somebody didn't prioritize it enough."

Looking at the political reality in Israel over the last few years in light of the coronavirus crisis, what is your biggest fear about what is happening here?

"Well, my biggest fear is different now than it was a few weeks ago. It's now that freedom and democratic accountability will gradually or even quite rapidly diminish far beyond what is necessary to fight the virus because of the natural tendency of rulers in general and particularly in such situations to accrue a surplus of power while skipping over such things as transparency and accountability. Add to this the unique Israeli angle in which the prime minister feels besieged by the rule of law, and that is without considering your usual everyday problems which won’t just disappear.

Elections in the days of coronavirus

"Concerned citizen" is an appropriate label for Larry Diamond, though perhaps doesn’t reflecting enough these days. He is 68, asthmatic, and thus in the most immediate risk group for coronavirus, but something else, larger than even his own health, seems to be keeping him up at night. Diamond, a professor of sociology and political science at Stanford University, a man seen in the United States and around the world as "a doctor of democracy" ־perhaps the number one world expert on the rise and fall of democracies – is concerned primarily about the well־being of the free world. Even his own country.

From his home in Palo Alto, Diamond is using the current situation to fight against an initiative that is already being whispered quite loudly in Washington, DC, namely, to postpone the US presidential elections, currently scheduled for November 3. The battle will not be simple. In early April, for the first time in American history, the Democrats announced the postponement of the national convention in which their primary candidate is traditionally announced from mid־July to mid־August.

"Freedom and democratic checks and balances are under great risks. It's just a natural dynamic. It doesn't mean democracies will die, but they do come under stress, and these kinds of warlike emergencies do facilitate the concentration of power and the bid to expand power by actors with bad intentions."

Alongside this battle for his home turf, Diamond is also keeping a sharp eye on what is happening in the rest of the world, including Israel. "The current crisis is going to test societies and political systems more seriously than anything since World War II, at least in the United States. Obviously Israel has had existential struggles since its creation, but even for societies like Israel, I think this is another battle for survival just like 1967 or 1973. What is different is that no matter how tough and existential those two wars were, I don’t think you worried about whether the prime minister was going to die – a risk which is now entirely possible given members of his staff have tested positive for corona."

"And the other thing that occurred to me is that this could be a great gift to autocrats who want an excuse to accrue more power. Just look at the Hungarian Parliament: it has just given Victor Orbán a blank check to basically rule by decree with no constraints."

Why do democracies become so fragile in such extreme scenarios?

"It is the same psychological and sociopolitical dynamic that exists during times of war. People are scared, there is a massive existential danger, and there is thus a need, or it can be claimed that there is a need, for a central authority to make decisions quickly and decisively. Freedom and democratic checks and balances therefore are at great risk. It's a natural dynamic; it doesn't mean that democracies will die. They didn't die during World War I; they didn't die during World War II. Israeli democracy didn't die during or after the most severe challenges to your survival. But this situations do put democracy under great stress, and these kinds of warlike emergencies do enable leaders with bad intentions to increase their power."

"And if you don't have a prime minister like Golda Meir or a president like, Abraham Lincoln, who insisted on not suspending the 1864 elections (which took place at the peak of the Civil War), if you don't have leaders with a strong commitment to democratic norms and procedures, you are skating on very thin ice."

Allowance for power-hungry leaders

Diamond’s career – most of it spend at Stanford University since his days as an undergraduate during the 1970s – can be split in two. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Europe, he followed with astonishment the burgeoning of democracy around the world. However, since the start of the twenty־first century, and all the more so since the 2008 financial crisis, these fruits of freedom have started dying, slowly but surely. Diamond has coined this process "democratic recession," just like the economic slowdown that occurs during financial recessions.

Diamond estimates that the economic recession now knocking at our doors, and already felt in some places, will deepen the current democratic recession. Leaders will demand and receive more power, borders will close, and tensions between countries will grow. As in 2008, the leading successful democracies will be too busy to monitor and levy sanctions on places that will leverage the crisis to limit liberty. No less important, the so־called success of a totalitarian country like China in dealing with the virus could benefit power־hungry leaders.

"We wouldn't have a global pandemic now if they [the Chinese government] hadn't grossly mismanaged the initial science of contagion due to their authoritarian insecurities and fears and suppression of freedom of information. If China was a democratic and transparent state, this probably would never have become a global pandemic."

Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. Maybe democracy really isn’t the right approach for dealing with such a crisis? Maybe our desire to safeguard human rights is not suitable for dealing with such a global pandemic?

"I don't think that fits the evidence. South Korea and Taiwan have done a remarkably good job of managing the crisis. It’s not freedom and popular sovereignty that interfere with effective management of the crisis; it's incompetence and a lack of effective early intervention and government coordination."

"China seems to have returned to normal, but we actually have no idea what's going on in large parts of the country. We have no idea how many people died from this illness in China or how many people were infected, because there is no freedom of information there. And if they had shared their information earlier on, we might have prevented this… We wouldn't have a global pandemic now if they hadn't grossly mismanaged the initial science of contagion due to their authoritarian insecurities and fears and suppression of freedom of information. If China was a democratic and transparent country, this would probably have never become a global pandemic."

Still, look at the images from Italy. People are stealing from shops, confronting police officers. How can citizens continue believing in democracy when they have no cash to buy bread? When everything around them is collapsing?

"Look, survival always comes first. Maslow's hierarchy of needs explained the expansion of democracy in earlier decades and it can help us now to understand the retreat of freedom in a crisis. People need their basic needs of safety, security, and health to be met first. It's hard to value freedom, creativity, and self־determination when your survival and your family’s survival is at stake. So obviously we’ve got to make sure that the cashless economy continues to work or there will be total chaos."

The old problems will not disappear

What has been happening in Italy on a large scale is also happening in Israel but on a smaller scale. The prime minister’s legal cases, which were filling the newspapers and news broadcasts, have now, thanks to the virus, been relegated to the bottom of the agenda. Who cares about cigars, champagne, and bribery charges when you need to send off a form to Bituach Leumi (National Insurance), homeschool your child, and your grandpa is isolated or, even worse, being ventilated in hospital?

"It's unfortunate that Israel wasn't able to pursue accountability regarding the charges of corruption against the prime minister with more vigor and intensity early on. This has dragged on for quite a while now. I think it's unfortunate that the prime minister's party, in light of all of the weight of the evidence, didn't ask him to stand aside in favor of a candidate whose integrity wasn't in question."

"It's unfortunate that Israel wasn't able to pursue accountability regarding the charges of corruption against the prime minister with more vigor and intensity early on. This has dragged on for quite a while now. I think it's unfortunate that the prime minister's party, in light of all of the weight of the evidence, didn't ask him to stand aside in favor of a candidate whose integrity wasn't in question."

"I could offer many more elements of the political drama of the last few years in Israel that I think are deeply unfortunate, but they say that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones and we Americans are certainly living in a glass house now in terms of the lack of accountability and the abuse of power by our elected leader, including the fact that he hasn't released his tax returns, and I could go on and on. So each of our democracies has, I think, basic questions about the balance of power, checks and balances, transparency, and accountability that we need to address, maybe through legal and institutional reforms."

"But the point is when you are dealing with a crisis like this, both in Israel and the United States, it's not a plausible time to address this matter of reform. The urgent institutional reforms questions in the United States now are not whether the president should release his tax returns but how are we going to have elections at all in the face of a pandemic that is likely to either continue or resurge by our November 3 election. Of course, the answer is that we can't, unless we institute the ability of all voters to vote by mail for free if they wish to do so. How are we going to have our two party conventions in the summer if there is still a risk of transmitting the virus, particularly when people are jammed together in close quarters, as they inevitably would be in a convention? And again, the answer is we're going to need the parties to be prepared to convene virtually."

"And then you've got the question of how is the US House of Representatives, the Israeli Knesset, our Senate, or any other representative body going to even meet, discss, and pass legislation when the face־to־face interaction of doing so can put them at physical risk of contracting a potentially deadly virus. This is even more complicated in the United States than in Israel because of our vast distances. Again, the answer is we must, on an urgent basis, institute procedures for distant voting and deliberation of the House of Representatives and the Senate. We have got to get smart here and deal with the urgent questions first."

You said that democracies will not die. The thing is they’ve collapsed in the past and today they are slowly dying until they are, in effect, dead. In Israel, there is a debate between those who think that our democracy is being slowly boiled in hot water until it dies without us noticing and those who claim this is an exaggeration born out of hatred for Netanyahu. Where are you in this debate?

"I wouldn't say that democracy has died in Israel, but I think there are clear signs of diminishing accountability and a decline in the power of the rule of law because the leadership is trying to use every available instrument to frustrate the investigations."

"There is also extreme polarization around the prime minister's immunity and political survival, and many other things that I won't go into such as expanding the settlements and the Occupied Territories. That is the reason why The Economist and other journals have indicated the decline of Israeli democracy during the Netanyahu years… And there are many Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora who can see the dilemma that Israel cannot be a Jewish state, a democratic state, and Greater Land of Israel all in one."

"And when the coronavirus crisis ends, and it will, in a few months or 18 months or whenever, that dilemma will still be there. And it may, I fear, have been aggravated by certain opportunists taking advantage of the cover of this public health crisis to advance their agenda for a Greater Israel. And no one in Israel should be under any illusion about the damage that this is doing to Israel's standing in the world, in Europe, in the United States, and elsewhere. It isn't viable in the long run, and this is my greatest concern after the crisis subsides."

Unlike the United States, Israel does not have a constitution. Does this affect the ability of a democracy to survive in an extreme scenario such as this?

"Well, the reason why democracies have constitutions is so that you don't simply rely on the political culture and self־restraint on the part of the politicians. The more holes there are in the constitution, the more you rely on political ethics and self־restraint, and in a crisis, that's not enough. A constitution alone doesn't ensure the survival and health of democracy, but it sure helps. In America, for example, the constitution has helped in the current crisis of the devolution of power, which has enabled the state governors to act when the president was failing to do so and given them a lot of authority. And we have a congress with strong legislative power, so that does put a check on the potential executive abuse of power."

The Supreme Court is between a rock and a hard place in this situation. On the one hand, the executive authority sometimes needs special powers to contain the pandemic, but it could also trample democracy on the way. How should it proceed in such a situation?

"The Supreme Court should focus on defending the constitution or, in the absence of a constitution in Israel, the basic laws. It should not go out of its way to antagonize or offend the executive branch or to elevate technical or trivial issues to crisis proportions. Still, it must defend either constitutional or constitutional־like norms. And if it can’t do that, if it's obstructed, intimidated, or constrained by politicization, this is a terrible problem for liberal democracy. Poland is the poster child for such a situation, and in Hungary, the only reason why there is less tension is that Orbán moved so quickly to paralyze the judiciary."

Israel has been dealing in recent weeks with what is probably one of the biggest political and constitutional crises in its history. Could a crisis like this also create opportunities?

"The worst thing in a crisis is to waste the opportunities it creates. The potential unity government is a perfect example of an opportunity that can develop when the peak of the crisis ends. Look, no one is going to be focused on a constitutional crisis or democratic reform during a public health crisis. So the urgent task overriding all else, except, we hope, other dimensions of national security and civil liberties, is to bring the virus under control and limit its spread as much as possible. But by summer, by June, we may well see the virus abate. There is evidence that the virus slows or ends in hot weather. And once it abates, you will still have a national unity government. Then, I hope, the two sides will use the opportunity to finally put in place what the country has been lacking since its birth: a constitution. But it's not going to happen without public demand; don’t expect it to happen as the vision of one of the political leaders."

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance

How do you do it? How do you safeguard democracy without party conferences? Without voting? Without the ability to convene to protest? When what interests citizens is their immediate survival? It is these very questions that concern Professor Diamond and his colleagues in American academia and political circles, especially the members of the Democratic party. Like everyone else these days, Diamond is dealing with these issues with around־the־clock Zoom calls with concerned friends from the United States and elsewhere, using the famous beautiful facade of Stanford University as his background. Most of his efforts are going toward a campaign intended to convince decision־makers in Washington, DC that the November presidential elections must take place even via digital means such as email and that congressional voting must continue from afar; should they convene physically, "many representatives will die."

"Even Trump, who I see as a malevolent figure, has been sobered by the chaos and shocked into taking much greater responsibility. Many people are going to die needlessly because of his tardiness and his disdain for the urgency and gravity of what was happening; at least he seems to be doing something now. People will be writing about this 100 years from now."

In light of the unprecedented restrictions on the movement of citizens and on congregation, is there anything that citizens who care about democracy can do, except safeguard their own health?

"The obvious answer to your question is yes. You’ve got to keep in mind that, more and more, we run our organizations and express our individual and collective opinions virtually. I mean, we are doing it now anyway. People organize and express themselves online, and so the fact that we are in this crisis should not deter us from continuing to do that. It's now the only way to move issues that we still need to move. If civil society goes silent and voices supporting the rule of law, civil liberties, and liberal democracy retreat from a belief that they need to defer to leaders in the midst of a crisis, we will find ourselves with weakened democracy at best and, at worst, no democracy at all. So I'd say now, more than ever, citizens need to follow the news, monitor their leaders, engage in and convene virtually in their social and organizational networks. They need to speak up and move things through social media, the traditional media, and others. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. It doesn't mean eternal cynicism; it doesn't mean eternal rudeness; it doesn't even mean temporary political polarization. It just means intelligent, careful, and constant skepticism about all attempts by leaders to increase their power and a readiness to question and challenge unjustifiable claims."