A Global Contagion and Chronic Threats to Democracy

Andrew Kahrl and Melody Barnes

In recent years, concerns about threats to democracy have often been couched in the form of a metaphor: contagion. Researchers, analysts, and activists have issued dire warnings of the threats posed by fascist, populist, and authoritarian movements spreading, like a disease, throughout the bodies of democratic societies and institutions. Indications of democracy’s vulnerabilities to attack abound. In 2017, the Economic Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to the status of “flawed democracy” due to what it described as “a sharp fall in popular confidence in the functioning of public institutions.” In March, the non-partisan organization Freedom House reported the fourteenth straight year of democratic decline around the world.

Now, democracies face an actual, global contagion that’s laid bare problems and conditions that have gone untreated and threaten the long-term health of democracy itself. Just as it has to human bodies, COVID-19 has exploited longstanding weaknesses in societies and governing systems and threatens to compound existing inequities. The unfolding efforts to contain the virus, care for its victims, and address the economic fallout will not only test the capacities of health care and economic systems to meet public demands and deliver on their promises. It will also necessarily generate new ideas and approaches to ensuring public health and economic security for all. Around the world, the beliefs and practices of democratic societies and institutions are not only being challenged, but out of this experience, reimagined and transformed.

In the weeks to come, the University of Virginia Democracy Initiative will publish a series of essays that explores the implications of the pandemic on democracy, broadly conceived. We’ve invited UVA scholars, Charlottesville community members, and others to begin a conversation, and through their essays, call attention to under-examined issues and looming challenges, draw new connections, place current public discussions and debates in a new light, and offer ideas for a path forward.

We aim to bring the insights, perspectives, and expertise found across the university and throughout our community to bear on the current moment and the challenges ahead. Authors will challenge us to consider a variety of issues – from our strained and dysfunctional system of federalism to the role corporations and the state play when citizens’ needs must be met in a time of crisis. From our tense and essential relationship with China to the implications for democracy when social distancing aggregates more power in the hands of the media.

We believe this work is at the heart of what a public university should do and the Democracy Initiative’s mission. Research universities and academic institutions such as ours have long been at the forefront of developing new approaches and disseminating new ideas that are critical to a healthy, functioning, and democratic society. In our classrooms, offices, laboratories, and gathering spaces, we challenge ourselves and each other to locate the intersections and hidden connections linking individuals, communities, and societies to institutions, structures, history, and the natural world. It is more important than ever to find new forums and modes to address and find answers to problems old and new.

Universities shouldn’t exist as ivory towers on a hill. While we are a place for reflection and theory, we must also be a place for engagement and action. While we encourage the study of democracy, we must also model the practice of democratic culture. Ultimately, research universities must probe underlying issues and provoke deeper interrogation, as well as instigate the kinds of spirited debates and actions that are critical to a healthy democracy.   

That is particularly true, here and now. The current crisis reveals chronic challenges with which this community is painfully familiar. Indeed, while COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate health and educational disparities, state violence, food insecurity, homelessness and other generations-old challenges, it did not create these problems. As a public university whose own history embodies the ideals, shortcomings and contradictions of democracy in America, the University of Virginia holds a special responsibility to confront these legacies and its impact on how citizens are experiencing this pandemic.

But as goes our community, so go communities across the country and around the world. Social division; distrust and disillusionment; dysfunctional, sometimes corrupt, often sclerotic institutions; historic and widening inequities; a public square that rejects civil discourse and deliberation; and, strained liberal democratic alliances are among the chronic ailments that fuel the rising threats to democratic principles and institutions. Our work demands that that we engage one another and those beyond this community to not only wrestle with these issues but shape debates and agendas to eliminate them. Democracy is not inevitable. Its future will be determined by our ability to address both the chronic and crisis challenges facing us, today.