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Novel Threats is a series of brief conversations with fellows and affiliates of the Reiss Center on Law and Security exploring the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and key national security challenges.

Stephen Holmes on Coronavirus, Democracy and Lessons from History

July 15, 2020

Stephen Holmes

Stephen Holmes is a Faculty Director of the Reiss Center on Law and Security and the Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law at NYU School of Law. He specializes in the history of liberalism, the disappointments of democratization after communism, and the difficulty of combating terrorism within the limits of liberal constitutionalism. In 2003, he was selected as a Carnegie Scholar. From 1997 to 2000, Holmes was a professor of politics at Princeton. From 1985 to 1997, he was professor of politics and law at the Law School and Political Science Department of the University of Chicago. From 1979 to 1985, he taught at the Department of Government at Harvard University. An accomplished author, his latest book is The Light that Failed, winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize.  Full bio

You have written that COVID is an unwelcome challenge for authoritarian leaders, arguing that their toolkit is not well suited to fighting a massive public health crisis that requires technocratic expertise and mundane, demanding health protocols. What of the argument that authoritarian governments may be able to better exercise the kind of controls that are needed to defeat the virus?

Some authoritarian regimes such as China’s have been relatively successful in keeping the pandemic under control but others such as Russia’s have failed miserably. The contrast between Germany and the United States shows that the same holds true of democratic regimes. So it’s almost trivially obvious by now that regime type, by itself, tells us little about why some governments have done well and others, like ours, have produced a disaster of world-historical proportions.

What seems true, on the other hand, is that populist leaders who excite popular support for authoritarian politics by heightening ethnic tensions and distrust of foreigners have, as I recently observed, “met the pandemic with magical thinking, cowardly blame shifting and a weirdly dazed immobility.” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s COVID-denialism is often likened to President Donald Trump’s in this regard. Both of them prefer fictional crises, such as migrant caravans and Antifa conspiracies in Trump’s case, to real ones, especially if managing the real crisis requires deferring to experts, coordinating with partisan rivals and international organizations and following mundane rules such as hand washing and social distancing. This savage plague has revealed the limited power of every political system, bar none. But populists, by convincing their followers that bad news is fake news promulgated by the inner enemy, have outdone all others in transforming a scourge into a society-upending catastrophe from which it will take years, if not decades, to recover. Disappointment with populist leaders already seemed to be growing before the pandemic. But their spectacular failure to meet this crisis will only destroy them politically if their opponents manage to speak to the real or imagined grievances that fueled their rise.

You have written about what you characterize as excesses by the national security apparatus in response to the terrorism threat after 9/11. Are you worried about overreach in the future as the United States and other countries organize to counter massive public health threats like COVID?

I don’t doubt that invasive surveillance systems, put in place to fight to spread of the virus, can be easily repurposed to punish political rivals and crush dissent. On the other hand, it is worth noticing that the various lockdowns, theoretically violating freedom of assembly, have radically diminished the number of, and attendance at, pro-Trump rallies while doing nothing to keep Black Lives Matter protestors at home. That, too, suggests that this pandemic may not be the friendliest environment for populists.

“Liberated from the requirement to provide reasons for its actions, it seems, the American presidency will inevitably take actions for which no plausible justification exists.”

The most significant analogy to 9/11, I would argue, has little to do with violations of private rights. The most fruitful point of comparison, instead, is the way reality checks and even sanity checks were expunged from the decision-making processes adopted by both Presidents Bush and Trump. An ideologically driven faith in the virtues of unmonitored executive discretion, creating a single point of failure, implies a lack of appreciation of how checks and balances can serve to increase the rationality of presidential decision making by forcing the White House to provide plausible justifications for its actions. The most regrettable consequences of unchecked executive unilateralism, under the respective two administrations, have been tunnel vision and an inability to make midstream readjustments once the abject failure of adopted policies became too obvious to deny. Liberated from the requirement to provide reasons for its actions, it seems, the American presidency will inevitably take actions for which no plausible justification exists. 

How will the United States’ COVID response contribute to or exacerbate the trends you discuss in your new book, The Light That Failed, in which you argue that the politics of imitation inherent in the democratization process in Eastern Europe bred resentment and, ultimately, rejection of the democratic project?

Worldwide “I can’t breathe” protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder testify to the resilience of America’s soft power even in the age of the ultimate “ugly American” president. None of these demonstrators would have been moved to demonstrate had a Chinese policeman killed a Chinese protestor. Nor would they have known how to write “I can’t breathe” in Mandarin. This means that, even as America gradually withdraws from its controversial role as a global hegemon, no other country is going to reoccupy easily the evacuated space. Not only has America’s commitment to democracy promotion abroad—fatally weakened by the debacle in Iraq, the failure of the Arab Spring and the populist turn in Central Europe—become an even bitterer joke given the embarrassing malfunctioning of democracy here at home. But the administration’s spectacularly incompetent pandemic response, a national embarrassment in the eyes of the world, has finally put an end to the post-Cold War conceit that America’s political system provides an ideal model that the whole world is obliged or destined to emulate. Nevertheless, even those who have been most critical of U.S. interventionism around the world are not celebrating the global disordering caused by America’s seemingly irreversible inward turning, painfully exemplified by its untimely exit from the World Health Organization. This momentous reshuffling of geopolitics caused by the humiliation and retreat of the United States is unlikely to produce results any less violent than what we have witnessed during the last seventy years.

Who are the political philosophers or American Founders you are thinking about most now, as we grapple with this seemingly novel pandemic challenge?

The political philosopher who speaks most directly, and most alarmingly, to our current dilemmas is Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century North African diplomat and social theorist who, having lived through the Black Death, was convinced that a raging plague could very well lead to the extinction of the human species itself. COVID-19 is not such a plague. But it may be a dress rehearsal.

“[T]he administration’s spectacularly incompetent pandemic response…has finally put an end to the post-Cold War conceit that America’s political system provides an ideal model that the whole world is obliged or destined to emulate.”

If governments should be judged, as Hamilton said in Federalist No. 68, by their “aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration,” then the American Founders would be unlikely to have looked approvingly on the way the White House is being run today. They vested the general government with responsibility for those “enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any” (Federalist No. 14). Responding to a pandemic bound to spill incontinently across state borders would surely count as such a task, one for which, in their words at the Constitutional Convention, “the States are separately incompetent.”

As to our culture-warrior President, he is aiming to polarize the country even further, in pursuit of some imagined electoral advantage, by responding to the country’s painful search for the right way to think about our slave-owning Founders by wrapping them in the Confederate Flag and turning their monumentalization into a litmus test of patriotic Americanism. Persuading the media to focus on flags and statuary, no doubt, is also his oh-so-clever public-relations ploy designed to distract us from his incapacity or unwillingness to perform the most basic function of government, namely to protect public safety and public health.

Novel Threats: National Security and the Coronavirus Pandemic
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