The COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to a significant decline in democratic values across the globe as many countries have taken aggressive and authoritarian steps to attempt to curb the virus.
If you haven't been living under a rock for the past two years, that's probably not much of a surprise. Still, a new report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a global nonprofit based in Sweden, offers a comprehensive look at the worrying trend of democratic erosion—a trend that has been helped along by the pandemic even though its roots go deeper.
"The world is becoming more authoritarian as non-democratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression and many democratic governments suffer from backsliding by adopting their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, exacerbated by what threatens to become a 'new normal' of Covid-19 restrictions," the IIDEA warns. The number of countries that are becoming "more authoritarian" by the group's calculus is three times the number of countries that are moving toward democracy. This year is the fifth consecutive year in which the trend has been moving in that direction, the longest uninterrupted stretch of pro-authoritarian developments since the IIDEA started tracking these metrics in 1975.
That trend predates the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, but governmental responses to the virus have made things worse.
A number of democratic countries—the report specifically mentions the United States in this section—have implemented COVID measures "that were disproportionate, illegal, indefinite or unconnected to the nature of the emergency," according to the IIDEA report. Those include travel restrictions and the use of "emergency powers that sometimes sidelined parliaments."
The last two years have indeed been littered with examples of previously unheard-of government powers on display in the U.S. That includes everything from statewide lockdowns in which governors decreed which businesses were "essential" to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the backing of both the Trump and Biden administrations, making it nearly impossible for property owners to evict deadbeat tenants. It took until this month for the U.S. to reopen its border with Canada for supposedly "nonessential" travel, even though there was probably no good justification for closing the border in the first place.
Outside the U.S., places like Austria and Australia continue to rachet up authoritarian restrictions on public interactions and economic behavior—even for people who have been vaccinated. According to the report, 69 countries have made violating COVID restrictions an imprisonable offense, with two-thirds of those countries being ones the group considers to be democracies. Albania and Mexico have the most punitive laws on the books, allowing prison sentences of 15 years and 12 years, respectively, for violating pandemic-related protocols.
More than 20 percent of countries have used their militaries to enforce COVID controls, which the report warns could contribute to "the normalization of increasingly militarized civil life after the pandemic." Meanwhile, 42 percent of countries have rolled out voluntary or compulsory apps used for contact tracing, which may be effective in curbing the spread of the virus but create concerning new opportunities for government surveillance in a post-pandemic world. Of particular concern to IIDEA are the eight non-democratic regimes (Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Singapore, Thailand, and Turkey) where those apps have been made mandatory for all smartphone-using residents.
Meanwhile, some public health officials in America are wishcasting for even more aggressive restrictions. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, recently praised the "really strict lockdowns" deployed by China—a country that no healthy democracy should be using as a model for good policy making.
But while COVID-19 has been the acute cause of much democratic backsliding in the past two years, the IIDEA report indicates a more insidious threat that lurks behind the pandemic: "The rise of illiberal and populist parties in the last decade is a key explanatory factor in democratic backsliding and decline," the report states. Those parties seek to obtain power so they can dismantle checks on government authority, including freedom of expression and policies meant to protect minority rights.
Indeed, as Reason's Stephanie Slade has pointed out, some of the leading advocates of America's turn towards illiberalism are now quite open about their embrace of authoritarianism. This tendency to embrace "will-to-power" politics amounts to declaring that "what matters above all else is ensuring that our tribe is dominant." That's not a good signal for democracy, or for the preservation of human freedom.
The will-to-power also serves to paper over the nonsensical aspects of their ideas. Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), for example, wants to give the Commerce Department more power to decide what products can be lawfully bought and sold in the United States—despite the fact that he voted against confirming Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. He literally wants to give more power to someone he believes is not qualified for the job. Similarly, left-wing efforts to abolish the filibuster in the Senate are easily exposed as nothing more than a power grab by asking advocates how a filibuster-less Senate would have worked during Donald Trump's presidency—a tactic that Axios' Jonathan Swan recently used to great effect in an interview with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D–Mich.).
In various forms and despite internal inconsistencies, these illiberal and populist sentiments seem to be growing stronger. Expanded governmental powers during the pandemic offer an even more tantalizing prize to politicians who would use the power of the state to direct society in the future.
"As in many other aspects of life, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated and magnified pre-existing political trends while adding a whole new plethora of unprecedented challenges to democracies that were already under pressure," writes Kevin Casas-Zamore, IIDEA's secretary-general, in the preface to the report. "The monumental human victory achieved when democracy became the predominant form of governance now hangs in the balance like never before."