Covid-19 is putting democracies around the world under strain. Elections have been postponed, parliaments shut down, and media systems stretched. Many democracies are developing innovative ways of ensuring that democratic accountability is maintained, with parliaments and press conferences moving online and new systems for tackling misinformation developed. In other countries, however, executives have made what look dangerously like authoritarian power grabs, silencing their critics and assuming new powers that it may be difficult to wrest back from them. This session will examine the emerging patterns and consider how democracies may be changed by the crisis even after the pandemic has abated.
INT: Welcome to this podcast symposium on the politics of Covid-19 from the Department of Political Science at University College London. My name is Jennifer Hudson. I’m Professor of Political Behaviour and Head of Department of Political Science and I’m your host today. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted every aspect of our lives. Understanding the social, economic, political impacts of Covid and how we respond to them in policy terms is vital. The PS Online podcasts are here to help us make sense of what’s going on. Today our focus is on the stress that Covid-19 is putting on democracies around the world. There are signs of strain. Elections have been postponed, parliaments shut down and media systems stretched. Many democracies are developing innovative ways of ensuring that democratic accountability is maintained, with parliaments and press conferences moving online and new systems for tackling misinformation developed. In other countries however, executives have made what looks like dangerously authoritarian power grabs, silencing their critics and assuming new powers that maybe difficult to wrestle back from them. This section will examine these emerging patterns and consider how democracies may be changed by the crisis even after the pandemic has abated. I’m thrilled to be joined by three colleagues in the Department of Political Science today. Dr Thomas Gift, Lecturer in Political Science in Public Policy Economics and Analysis. Dr Nils Metternich, Associate Professor in International Relations and Deputy Head of Department. Professor Meg Russell, Professor of British and Comparative Politics and Director of the Constitution Unit. Thank you very much for joining me today. I’m looking forward to our discussion. Before we kick off, I would like to ask you about a personal reflection that you’ve observed, felt, seen in response to the Covid pandemic. What has surprised you? What has shocked your or amazed you? Meg, over to you.
MR: Well, I think we’re going to have perhaps some quite negative things to say on this podcast, so, let me start with something positive. Adjusting to lockdown hasn’t been easy for any of us, but one of the things has surprised me is just how lovely it’s been in the centre of London. I live quite close to the centre of London. We’re doing walks every day. We’re hearing birdsong. We’re suddenly noticing how beautiful the flowers are in people’s front gardens. It’s kind of created this mindfulness whereby you’re observing the world and enjoying the world in a way that you can’t with the usual hustle and bustle. Although, to put a slightly negative spin on that, I do feel a bit sad that that’s gradually coming to an end, and pollution is going to increase again, and business are going to increase again. So, there have been some good things in this, as well as some difficulties, I think.
INT: Thanks, Meg. You can see the kind of pick up in traffic and activity in recent weeks as we’re slowly emerging out of lockdown. Thomas, what surprised you?
TG: Well, I think the biggest takeaway for me with the lockdown is it’s just caused me to reflect how much value I get from being in a university setting and talking with my peers. I think as academics we’re often used to spending a lot of times by ourselves reading, writing, working on projects, and a lot of my work is collaborative, because I think I naturally gravitate toward joint projects. I like that exchange that occurs with other individuals. And fortunately, I’m still able to communicate with co-authors through email and Skype. But I do miss those in-person conversations, even the ones that don’t directly pertain to my research, because they’re really motivating, they’re really energising and they just remind me of why we’re so fortunate to do the kind of work we do here in academia.
INT: Thanks, Thomas. I’ll intervene here and say I’m impressed at how well the move online has worked in terms of keeping connected and keeping engaged, but I would agree. There’s no substitute for that face to face. Nils, what has surprised you during the pandemic?
NM: What has surprised me most is the sense of community and the sense of community, of course, amongst, professionally among colleagues, but mostly also just in our very local community. How people came out to help each other, to bring food to other households. We had to self-isolate very early, even before the lockdown and we had neighbours doing our groceries, bringing things that we needed. And experiencing that, I think, made a big difference then on how the pandemic was experienced by us as a household.
INT: Fantastic. Let’s take that concept of community and widen it out and think about democracies in Covid. I’m going to turn it over to you, Nils, to kick us off. What have been your reflections on the impact of Covid-19 on democracies?
NM: Well, at the very beginning of the pandemic, I sent an email to our students saying that we live in a country, in a democracy where we have governments that can deal with these pandemics and are equipped to deal with these pandemics. And why we usually think democracy should be equipped, is because we believe that democracies have incentives to invest in public goods. So, democracies, on average, invest in healthcare, they invest in transport systems. They invest in all these services that are important when these catastrophes hit. And the reason why we see then democracies, is because politicians are accountable to their voters. They have delivering public goods as a very effective way to provide benefits to potential voters and while it is true that democracies, a democratic system on average have dealt better with the pandemic that autocratic systems, we have also seen important differences between democracies. I think we have seen these differences, particular in three areas, and that might explain why democracies have responded differently and how also citizens have responded different to policies that governments have enacted. So, one is, and I think this will come up again in our conversations, is the level of polarisations. So, democracies have seen increasing polarisation in recent years, which means increasing parts of societies are unwilling or unable to trust their opponents to make decisions. And you’ve seen initial protests against lockdowns. There were early displays of mistrust against the government and the state more generally, and trust is something that is fundamental for when it comes to the delivery of policies in these pandemics. And so, polarisation also affects how successful governments can actually be in challenging such a pandemic. The other point that I think the Covid-19 pandemic raised is the degree to which populism or white ring movements might sort of either increase problems with the pandemic or again also how it might have consequences for them. So, democracies such as the United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, Brazil, they’ve seen an increase in right wing, anti-immigration and nationalist and even sort of racist governments over the past years, and if some of these countries have particular difficulties in protecting their citizens from Covid-19, how will this affect these populous governments and right wing parties in the future and we might come back to that. And then finally, I think what the pandemic has also shown is that, especially in democracies that display high degrees of inequalities have issues with dealing with the pandemic. And inequality, in the last year, has been the major challenge for democracies. We’ve seen increasing inequalities that challenge the legitimacy of democratic states because some—the average citizen no longer benefits from the system as they have been in the past, and Covid-19 has particularly highlighted ethnic and race-based inequalities, seen in high death rates and high unemployment rates. And then of course, the killing of George Floyd has raised the salience of such racial discrimination across the world. So, there is a fundamental question, or fundamental questions that arise for me, that is how can we bring—after this pandemic, how can we bring democratic societies together, even when they face polarisation, populism and inequalities? And at the end of the day, will centrifugal or centripetal forces benefit from this pandemic?
INT: Thanks, Nils and I think that is the big question is, is which direction will we be pulled? I want to pick up on the comments at the end of your statement there around the killing of George Floyd at the hands of four Minnesota police officers. This has led to global protest and renewed awareness of racism and racialised inequalities. May I ask, what’s been your personal to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests?
NM: I think I would like to start with the famous
NM: quote from Martin Luther King, form 1959, where he says “If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest strategy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” And I think that’s something that sort of motivated me to personally ask questions like have I done enough? Where do I witness racism and remain silence? What racial stereotypes am I holding? What is my role as an academic studying protest, inequality, democratisation and discrimination? And also, why is our political science department, at a global university like UCL, predominantly white?
INT: Those are important questions, and I think that we’ve probably all been reflecting on those. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the global reaction to the killing of George Floyd took place during the Covid-19 pandemic?
NM: No. I don’t think there’s a coincidence. I think the Covid-19 crisis, initially, and I think that’s sort of based on my own experience that I highlighted at the beginning, initially triggered centripetal forces. People came together as a country, as a city, as a community, as families. I think everyone has experienced that, and we also see this in higher approval ratings for government leaders in democracies, and even in highly polarised democracies, you can see across the board, that initially, approval ratings for government leadership went up. However, as the Covid-19 crisis continued, existing issues that I mentioned at the beginning; inequality, polarisation, populism, because further pronounced and that I think is especially the case in the US context. So, take populism as an example. In the Covid-19 crisis, if we look at the data, we can see a particular weakness of more populist leaders in democracies. Just to take a step back, populism, usually we can think of this as being characterised by challenging the legitimate authority of the establishment and that populist leaders believe that the only legitimate source of authority rests with what they would call the people. And I think that this anti-establishment bias, that also expresses itself, for example, in an anti-science bias, for example, denying climate change, has certainly contributed to a slower public health response and a weaker, clear leadership from the very top of government against the pandemic at early stages. And therefore, the Covid-19 pandemic posed a challenge for populist leaders, because unlike denying climate change, ignoring scientific evidence around Covid-19 has lead to direct and immediate human suffering visible to everyone. So, it is much higher to deny, for example, the legitimate authority of the scientific establishment, or other existing establishment in these circumstances. And so, while I’m optimistic that citizens with less populous governments will turn further away from populous and right wing parties, and I think this has been shown, for example, from the context of Brexit, where the EU countries, or also the election of Trump, EU countries very much turned away from right wing parties, when they saw these kind of negative right wing outcomes, and afraid that existing populous governments, especially those that thrive on very polarised societies, there it will be fundamentally very difficult to change current policies. So, I think in those, it will be sort of a shift in that direction.
INT: Thanks, Nils. You’ve hit on two really key issues, polarisation and populism. I want to come to Meg first. I’m an American, and when I think of increasing polarisation, I think of the US as a kind of classic case study and a growing wedge between the electorate and the public there. Could you reflect on polarisation here in the UK context? To what extent have we seen a kind of similar degree of polarisation in the US, in the UK, as we might in the US?
MR: Well, we’ve certainly seen polarisation and there are some similarities, but I think also important differences. Of course, we have been through a pretty unprecedentedly polarised period in British politics. In the run-up to the general election in December, the whole Brexit argument, right from the referendum in 2016, or even before that, that dividing line in British politics, between leave and remain became more and more entrenched. And there’s academic work that shows whether you were leave or remain was becoming really fundamental to your identity and politics was very, very acrimonious and divided along those lines. And we had a very, very divisive and quite aggressive and nasty general election. So, then along comes the crisis, and then in some respects, I think it was an opportunity for healing, and in the early stages it seemed like that was happening. There was actually quite a lot of cross-party and within-party agreement, people pulling together, and certainly at the societal level, the things that Nils has spoken about, very pleasing to see among communities, but I think as time has gone on, and we might talk a bit more about why, but as time has gone on in the UK, that has increasingly broken down. And we’re becoming divided again, people are not feeling satisfied with the way that the government is responding. I’m not sure the dividing lines are quite the same as they were, but that coming together hasn’t really lasted, which is a very unfortunate thing.
INT: Thanks, Meg. And if can turn to you, Thomas. I mean, one of the other kind of core issues that Nils was speaking about was populism and the shift to right wing governments that we’ve seen in democracies in recent years. Let’s just get directly to Donald Trump and kind of his populist approach. He ran in 2016 on an anti-establishment, populist agenda. What can we learn? What can we observe in the US in terms of Trump’s handling of the pandemic?
RES: Well, I think that one of the defining traits of many populists who have come to power, is the idea that there are really simple answers to very complex challenges. And I think no-one encompasses that notion more than Donald Trump. So, he campaigned on a platform that the elites aren’t getting the job done and that it’s easy to just come in and make decisions, just cut the trade deal with China, just bring back industrial jobs that have left, just fix healthcare. All these sorts of things he presented as just really easy and that all we need to do is just put the power back in the hands of the people and that he was going to represent all of these values. But I think what we see in a crisis like this is that most of these problems the governments face aren’t easy and in fact, they’re very complex and they require a lot of expertise, a lot of technocratic expertise and a lot of reliance on science and these sorts of things to actually develop effective response and so, one of the things that we heard about Donald Trump throughout the first three and a half during his presidency, just wait until a crisis happens and he won’t be prepared. And I think unfortunately that has been the case, that you’ve seen a very slow response, very flat-footed response, a one that is not supported by a strong belief in experts and that sort of thing. And so, I think that that is a real challenge and to the extent that voters recognise some of these weaknesses. I do think it presents a challenge for him in the upcoming election.
INT: Great, Thomas. I’m going to continue with you and we’re going to keep talking about polarisation. Can you tell us a little bit about your reflections in the US case, in particular?
TG: Sure. Well, one of the recurring themes of the Trump administration is just when you think the US electorate can’t get any politically polarised, it manages to do so. So, in terms of American democracy, that’s to me the single biggest takeaway from Covid-19. Unfortunately, the biproducts of Trump stoking partisan and other types of divisions for nearly four years have crystallised in very stark and unsettling ways. So, social distancing, the wearing of masks, even perceptions about the risk of the virus itself, all of these Americans now view largely through the prism of partisanship, and the largely slow response by Washington, which I think owes partly to leadership but also to a lack of underlying state capacity have entrenched partisanship even more. In fact, I think the only point the Democrats and Republicans now can seem to agree on is that there’s waning trust in its core democratic institutions of power to grapple with complex social problems. So, a recent Wall Street Journal poll demonstrating that 80 percent of Americans think the country is “spiralling out of control”, which is a remarkable number. And against this backdrop as Nils already mentioned, we witnessed the unconscionable killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police which has commanded headlines and prompted large scale protest, and that brought to the fore these issues of racial injustices, which were already simmering, given a lot of the data showing that minority
TG: communities were being disproportionately hurt by Covid-19. Exposed larger problems over inequality, discrimination, police misconduct, that are unfortunately so deeply into the fabric of American democracy. So, as we look ahead to what’s sure to be a contentious election, in the United States in November, I think all of these issues will be front and centre.
INT: Thanks, Thomas. And I want to pick up on the US elections in just a little bit, but can we go back a little bit to your statement around partisan polarisation in the US? We’ve talked, and Nils has pointed out, Meg as well, about at the onset of the crisis, we had this coming together, both in terms of government support, cross-party support and within our local communities and that’s been really reassuring. And we see this historically in times of crises, we band together, we rally round the phenomenon in the US, as we might talk about it. What’s different this time with Covid-19 in the US? That period of coming together, of consensus didn’t look to last particularly long in the US, if at all. So, how is Covid-19 different than other crises we’ve seen in the past?
TG: So, that’s a great point, Jennifer and political scientists do refer to these dynamics as rally round the flag effects, and they do emerge typically, when a country faces some sort of an external threat. So, the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the United States, for instance, where both Democrats and Republicans came together to support G. W. Bush, even though some of that bi-partisan unity faded. I think a major reason why Covid-19 hasn’t ushered in a similar outcome is that, first of all, we’re operating at a much more heightened partisan already, in an election year, with a very polarising president. I think even more important is that Covid has simply affected many areas of the country differently, and these effects very much overlap geographically with America’s partisan map. So, just to the nature of the virus, dense, urban, ethnically diverse communities which tend to be democratic in the United States, have invariably suffered far higher infection rates and death rates. And less populous, ethnically homogeneous communities, which tend to be Republican. So, in terms of maintaining lockdowns versus re-opening economies, I think liberals and conservatives are speaking different languages politically, because they’ve literally been experiencing different lived realities. The perception of the threat and what policy makers should do about it is just going to be different if you’re living in New York City versus places like rural Pennsylvania where I’m from, for example
INT: Thanks, Thomas. You know, we pause there on the US elections, but let’s give them some thought now, because they are going to occupy a lot of discourse in the next three to four months. What are the polls saying about this, in particular in terms of Covid-19 and what does that suggest in terms of how are voters responding to, not only Trump’s response, but the kind of larger political landscape in the US? How is that playing out for Trump and Biden now?
TG: Well, if you look at the national polls right now, Joe Biden, I think, does have to feel encouraged. Recent national averages from Real Clear Politics show Biden with about an 8-percentage point lead over Trump in the general election and that’s grown quite significantly just in recent days and weeks. A recent CNN poll even showed that Biden lead Trump by 14 percentage points, which is the largest margin I’ve seen. And 538 just did an analysis a few days ago showing that Biden is also performing well in these key swing states, especially Wisconsin and Michigan, which is of course, where this is election is probably going to be decided and a handful of battleground states. At the same time, I think it’s important to remember that there are still almost five months between now and the election and a lot can happen. Many experts have forecast that Covid-19 could be Donald Trump’s political demise, simply because of the perception that he’s handled it insufficiently because of the depths of the economic downturn and because of the recent protests have really placed a glaring light on how Trump has alienated large segments of the electorate. At the same time, I think we should remember that we’ve heard predictions like this before. We’ve heard that the Muller investigation would damage Trump irrevocably, that impeachment over Ukraine would turn public opinion against Trump and so on. And each time, Donald Trump has managed to weather that storm and largely to emerge with his notoriously loyal base largely intact. So, I think it’s difficult to speculate either way, whether Covid-19 is different than some of these other political challenges he’s faced, and whether Trump can rehabilitate his position in the polls, which have declined in recent days and weeks.
INT: Thanks very much, Thomas. I want to bring back Nils and Meg into the conversation, and we’ve been talking a lot about polarisation. Nils, you have been spending some time thinking about this. The evidence is clear, academic research has done a pretty good job of documenting degrees of polarisation, causes of polarisation. What to your mind, are the questions that academics should be asking in terms of understanding the ways back from polarisation? What are your thoughts in terms of how do we stop this process? How do we rebuild so, that we are moving in the opposite direction than we have been in the past couple of years?
NM: I think there are two points from my perspective, that are important, but I want to focus on the latter one. So, the first one I think is institutional reform. I think that institutional reform to more proportional systems allow more voices into, for example, the parliament and can take away some of the polarisation that exists. However, I want to go back to one of the main points that I made about inequality because I think that inequality is very important to understand polarisation. So, if we usually think about how political systems, we thought, at least as political scientists, that usually political systems would work is that voters vote along a very simple left/right dimension. So, basically voters to the left would prefer more redistribution and voters to the right would prefer less of that. So, if you have an increased inequality in a country that would mean that technically if you only vote long economic incentives, you should move to the left, you should prefer redistribution. And I think that polarisation in a way is a way how some parties figured out how to govern this inequality to their benefit, and that is by introducing other dimensions into the political space. So, by introducing, for example, social values into the political space, making—bring in identity concepts that can polarise beyond this left/right divide. I think that is a major source of having seen some of this polarisation. So, I think tackling inequality in societies will be a major issue in then also being able to address polarisation in societies.
INT: Thanks, Nils. That is fascinating, and I think something that we’re all going to be having to address and consider as a community of political scientists. Meg, can I come to you and ask about your thoughts on leadership, particularly in times of crisis? We’ve been talking about Trump in the last few minutes. What are you reflections and views of leadership here in the UK?
MR: Well, I think this connects to some of the things we were already talking about in terms of political style, polarisation and populism. Like Trump, Boris Johnson has been quite a divisive leader. He came in the back of a sort of pro-Brexit wave. His style was quite adversarial and aggressive, but at the same time, he is kind of a good times Prime Minister. He likes to be upbeat. He’s in his element giving a humorous after dinner speech and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, where what’s needed is to pull the country together and to be very, very serious and also to do things like listen to the science. I think this has been a challenging environment for him. Of course, not aided by the fact that he himself came down with Covid-19, was hospitalised. We then had a concern about whether there was a vacuum at the heart of government and I think that ever since he came back, the government hasn’t really recovered, in part because of yet another thing that happened that was rather unique to the British case, the whole Dominic Cummings affair, where his chief advisor was found to have broken the lockdown. And that absolutely drove public opinion away from the government. Johnson’s ratings have sunk. And in contrast, we have a Labour leader, who was thought of as perhaps being a little bit dull, not so, charismatic, but if there’s one word that people use over and over again for Keir Starmer, it’s forensic. He’s very, very careful and meticulous and very serious and I think that the government is suffering from a problem that the style of the leader, the populous leader—and of course, one of the things about populous,
MR: the key thing about populous is that they, as we said, see the world in terms of corrupt elites and a pure people, and what you need a time like this is for people to trust elites. So, if you build it up so, that people shouldn’t trust politicians and then things get tough, you shouldn’t be surprised when people flood away from you and lose faith in what you’re doing. So, I think this is a difficult time to be a populist leader. It’s a difficult time to be a leader per se, but it’s not an easy situation for populist leaders.
INT: That is fascinating. Meg, let me take you, since we were talking about kind of leadership and executives, to parliament. And can you give us your thoughts and reflections on how parliament, particularly here in the UK has responded on this crisis?
MR: Sure. We’ve talked a lot naturally about governments in the crisis, but parliaments are my key research interest. They’re absolutely central institutions to democracy. They hold ministers to account in public. They agree to policies. They represent citizens and through all that, they legitimise political decisions and we’re now in a period when governments all over the world have taken unprecedented emergency powers, meaning that parliamentary oversight of those decisions is really essential. But parliaments also have key features that make it very, very hard for them to operate during the crisis. Most obviously they are meeting places where often 100s of people come together, travelling for the length and breadth of the country to get there. So, they could easily become hubs for infection. Around the world, parliaments have responded in different ways to this challenge. The worst idea of all would be to respond by shutting parliament down. In the UK, there was some talk of that at the very beginning, but thankfully that soon ended. Some parliaments have limited their business to focus only on the most urgent coronavirus-related matters. Some of them have limited participation by members, so, that there’s a smaller number of members participating, maintaining social distance rules. But a lot of parliaments have also responded by moving their business online. I think that all of these responses have thrown up some big questions and challenges about how we do politics. So, if we decided to limit business to only urgent business, who is it who decides what’s urgent? If we decide only a limited number of members can attend, who decides which members can attend? If these decisions are taken by government, by party leaders and whips, that becomes quite problematic in terms of accountability and democracy. And in the UK, we’ve seen a really nasty row about the ending of virtual proceedings, which has been brought about because the government in the UK has such a lot of control of parliament’s agenda. Virtual proceedings can resolve some of the challenges, but they also raise some trick questions of their own. So, they can be seen as progressive in some ways. They can widen involvement to members who, for example, are struggling with caring responsibilities or living a long way away. So, we may see some pressures to retain some of these arrangements in parliament after the crisis. But also, parliaments do a lot of their business normally informally through networking and kind of corridor conversations. If you retain virtual participation, that could raise some difficult challenges for how parliaments do what they usually do best. So, some quite fundamental questions about how we do politics and what parliaments themselves are there to do.
INT: Meg, you mentioned that a row broke out over the arrangements for the virtual parliament here in the UK. At the start, it looked like Britain was doing really well, in terms of putting these virtual arrangements in place, and then that seemed to fall apart. Can you explain what happened there?
MR: Yeah. I mean, I think at the start, the UK was really a world leader here. People were looking on impressed. The staff of parliament did an amazing job to get business online very quickly. We saw some very impressive leadership from the speakers of both of the chambers, and we saw people coming together on a cross-party basis, realising there was a serious problem that had to be resolved to get parliament back up and running. And in the initial stages, it seemed to work pretty well, but then I’m honestly not sure why. I think it maybe because the party whips, particularly on the government side, were finding it hard to control people, because everybody was dispersed around the country. The government, which has control over the parliamentary agenda, decided not to allow parliament to renew the virtual arrangements. So, they wanted to bring it back to everybody having to attend and this became really acrimonious. The opposition parties were really opposed to it, a lot of government back benchers were opposed to it. By ending the virtual arrangements, a lot of people were excluded. Some of the people most vulnerable in the crisis, who were shielding because of their health conditions or their age, or who had childcare responsibilities etcetera. We went from being a world leader to a situation where we were doing something quite shameful, in shutting out some parliamentarians from essential decision making, and that has created a really sour atmosphere and a really bad impression, I think for the British public and also for people looking on around the world. Those queues around Westminster have been seen as rather sort of humorous and made the Westminster Parliament look a bit of a laughingstock. I think this is a real shame. It’s part of the decent from a good kind of consensual cross-party approach the crisis, to a much more polarised divisive politics, which I think has in part come about just because, as time has gone on, the situation has become more and more difficult. The number of deaths in the UK has been very high. A lot of people are angry and frustrated. Some people want to get the economy moving again. There’s just lots and lots of division between the parties, but also inside the governing party.
INT: Meg, you talked in your statement about the lessons learned during the crisis, and how these might cause us to ask really profound questions about how we do politics, how parliaments work. Could you say a bit more about why and what might these conversations look like as we emerge from the initial kind of response to the crisis?
MR: Well, I think if you look at what parliaments are, as I said, fundamentally they are places where people meet and they’re democratic spaces where you follow the principle of equality of participation. Everybody having equal rights to participate in the same way. The introduction of the kind of hybrid arrangements that we’ve seen, with some people dialling in and participating virtually has ended both of those fundamental things. But as I said, it’s also opened up opportunities for some members, that some members may actually want to hold on to some of these arrangement. We see that from some members in the UK, from the most distant parts of the UK. But in other bigger, larger democracies, look at places like Australia where it takes five hours to fly from one side of the country to the other. I think people are going to start asking some really big questions about whether we should retain some virtual arrangements, whether that might actually strengthen in some ways representation. But I think that, if you think of the way that we work, we all go to conferences, normally and it’s a cliché that all of the most important business is done in the coffee breaks, not in the formal sessions. And I think you can draw some parallels with teaching here as well. All of those important discussions that we have outside of the classroom with each other and with our students, and parliaments are like that too. So, if parliaments become places where people are absent and they’re not engaging on an equal basis, in the same room, then that is fundamentally challenging to what we do and the way we do democracy.
INT: Thomas, I want to come back to you because Meg has talked, quite a lot, about the oversight role that parliament plays here in the UK. In the US it’s different. Parliament does, Congress does a bit of an oversight role, but federal state structure in the US has a different set of dynamics. How have some of the state responses to policies or to Trump, in particular, been interesting or challenging during Covid-19?
TG: So, we’ve definitely seen some interesting tensions raised over authority between Washington DC and the states over who holds power, and early on, Donald Trump received considerable criticism for his claim that he had total authority over when states locked down and when they opened up. And in fact, previous statement that he’s made suggest he thinks that Article 2 means he can do anything he wants, which of course, is not true. In reality, many of these decisions are relegated to the states and so, governors, at the state level, exercised discretion. But one of the things about this is that in large part, it’s been pegged to national level politics, in the way that this has been framed largely as a partisan issue. So, there have been some rigorous studies already showing that even controlling for other factors, like demographics, Republicans were slower to lockdown and now they’re being quicker to open up. It’s the opposite for Democrats. Some of that may make sense just due to differential infection and mortality rates. But it does mean that we see lots of variation in terms of policy at the state level.
TG: And of course, states are interconnected because people are mobile, they travel and so, what a governor does in Florida has implications for the people of Georgia or what a governor does in Virginia has implications for the people of Maryland. So, I think some governors have operated more responsibly and more effectively than others, but this intra-dependence between the states means that all their fates are connected and to Meg’s point, this is largely happening within the context of this very partisan atmosphere, which has exacerbated some of these challenges.
INT: Nils, I want to take us back to the beginning. You drew a differentiation between responses to Covid from democracies and autocracies, and we’ve talked a little bit about the use of emergency powers and the response to the pandemic. Thinking ahead, what are some of the challenges, what are some of the differences we want to be aware of and think about when we think about taking back control of some of these emergency powers and how do they differ or what will the challenges be when we think about democracies versus autocracies?
RES: Yeah, so, I think we already see in democracies that the degree to which the executive can grab power depends on the role of the parliament, the willingness of supreme courts to enforce the rights of the parliament, and then there is also this variation that was just alluded to, which is to which degree is a country decentralised that has federal structures, that have also powers that the central government cannot simply grab. In autocracies, there’s of course, an issue that on average, the parliament is weaker, the rule of law is weaker or non-existent and that there are usually less federal structures in place that can challenge the national state. However, there is important variation in autocracies in the degree to which the executive can be held accountable. So, there is, for example, party-based autocratic regimes are more responsive to their citizens and are held more to account than, for example, personalist regimes. And we can also see that in the degree to which public good are delivered by different kinds of autocratic regimes. So, if I would have to make an educated guess here, is that those power grabs, especially happening around in personalist regimes are those that are likely to stay for a long time. Whereas those power grabs that are done in party-based regimes, they’re more likely to be temporary and return to levels that we’ve seen before.
INT: Thomas, Meg, and Nils, thank you very much. Those were all the questions that I had for you, but as we’ve been doing with our Covid-19 symposia, we’ve invited questions from our SPP students, and I have two of these that I want to put to you. Nils, I want to come back to you here. One of the questions we have is what should the UK do to promote democracy overseas during Covid-19?
NM: Well, I think that the concept of promoting democracy in another country has sort of definitely not been received positively in the past. However, I think that the past years have shown that democratic countries rely on the existence of other democratic countries to actually combat global challenges. So, in situations like this pandemic, I think it is very important that you have democracies that have all the features that usually help dealing with these pandemics. For example, transparency, the ability to have structures in place that serve the public good, that are held to account. And so, I would say, from a global governance perspective, it is necessary for democratic governments to support democratic movements across the world. And so, there is a range of tools that people think are at the disposal, and I would argue that especially in the sort of changing economic circumstances in the coming years, I think there will be opportunities where democratic governments can provide incentives for institutional changes happening in other countries. I think that, for example, the European Union is a perfect example, where there were clear benefits, economic benefits provided for institutional reforms in other countries, for example, to be able to join the European Union. And while some of them have not been successful, I think that general move, I think should be happening in the future.
INT: Our second question asks, could a new international project be enacted to create online voting software for all countries as a contingency in case of another pandemic situation? And should it? Now, Meg, you’ve talked to us about UK parliament and its innovations in going virtual, challenges notwithstanding at the end. What do we think about an online voting system for countries, for citizens to participate?
MR: I think that’s a great question, but if I can just start by coming back to the previous question on leading the way around the world. I think one of the things that the UK can potentially do is act as an example, an exemplar of good practice and it’s just very disappointing that we started out doing that, I think, and then the ending of the virtual parliament sent out a really bad signal in terms of disenfranchising some MPs from decisions. And what we’ve got to now is a kind of compromise position, where those MPs unable to attend can cast their vote by proxy, but most of them have given their proxy votes to whips. So, this situation has strengthened the party machines at Westminster, and actually I think we’ve seen quite a lot of that in parliaments around the world. I was rather proud that Westminster had not gone down that route and now we have. So, setting an example would have been good. But that does link up because a lot of that is about voting, to the question of online voting. I think both in parliaments and outside parliaments, this crisis is going to be kind of a trigger for innovation. It’s going to speed up people thinking about innovation. I think in the population at large, online voting is quite a challenging project. It’s not my particular area of expertise, but we haven’t seen many cases of it around the world. There are lot of concerns about security, obviously, about transparency. How do you observe an online election if you’re looking at a fledgling democracy and you want to send in election observers? How can you be inclusive when many people don’t have access to the technology to vote online, and the people who don’t, may be in certain social groups and that could be discriminatory and then how to you maintain trust in an online system. I think there are some big challenges, but I also think we don’t know where we’re going with this, if we are going to be entering subsequent waves, it’s also very important that we don’t get in the habit of cancelling elections. So, I think those people who have been thinking about these kind of innovations are going to be thinking a lot harder and a lot faster about whether there are fixes that we can introduce in some places and we may see experiments more quickly than we otherwise would have done.
INT: Thanks, Meg. Thomas, I’m going to come to you for the last word. Reflections on online voting systems and it might be useful to weigh in on some of the discussions in the US that have been going on around the primaries in some of the states, and I’m thinking here in particular about the big political battle in Wisconsin that happened recently.
TG: Well, it’s certainly the case that there are big debates going on about whether the United States is prepared generally for an election in November, and so, there has been a lot of talk about expanding access through mail-in ballots and whether the integrity of elections can be ensured in that context. And this also fits into a broader debate that has been happening between Democrats and Republicans for some time, namely Democrats charge that making it harder to vote through voter ID laws and so on, disproportionately disadvantages poor minority voters, which tend to be more supportive of the Democratic party. Republicans combat that by talking about challenges associated with fraud and so on, which, to a large extent, I don’t think have been supported. So, Trump has made a big deal about this in the upcoming election, saying that if a lot of states move to mail-in ballots, that this could really call into question the legitimacy of this election. And I think his general impulse there that any attempts to make voting easier and more inclusive tends to hurt Republicans. However, I don’t think that is necessarily the case in this particular instance, particularly because
TG: one voting block that actually may be most affected by this is older people, who may be less likely to want to go to the polls in person. And some of these groups, depending on the state, support Donald Trump. It’s not quite as straight forward, but there are big questions. The Wall Street Journal just did an analysis about this a couple of years ago, about whether the United States really is prepared for this upcoming election. You can think about worst case scenario outcomes that might emerge. If there’s one state or two states or a handful of states where there are real questions about whether all the votes are being counted and how that process unfolded. So, absolutely a big question for the United States as well as other countries around the world.
INT: Thank you, Thomas. This has been fascinating. I want to thank my colleagues for their incredibly rich thoughts. We must leave it there. So, my thanks to Thomas Gift, Nils Metternich and Meg Russell. This has been the last podcast in our series this term looking at the Politics of Covd-19. If you would like to listen to earlier podcasts in the series, search online for UCL Political Science and then go to PS Online. We’re going to take a break over the summer, but we’ll be back in the autumn and no doubt, still looking at Covid-19, but a list of other issues that have challenged us in the last weeks, inequality, racialised inequalities and how we respond economically to the crisis. I would like to thank Alan Renwick, Colin Probost, Christian Schuster and most of all Abi Turner, who helped put together this series for us. But for now, it’s goodbye from me, Jennifer Hudson, and from all of us here at UCL Political Science Department, goodbye and stay safe.
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