By Leah M. Clifford
In Dr. Danielle Allen’s book, Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus, she is trying to weave together the facts of the coronavirus pandemic. What did and did not occur through a lens of jurisprudence to create a framework for pandemic resilience. She draws on the works of Thucydides, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton bringing together a broader image of what the United States Democracy should look like in a health and economic crisis and what lessons COVID-19 can teach us.
Crises, those awful, wonderful chances to illuminate and unify often expose our worst failings as a society. COVID-19 was a catastrophic confrontation of those failings, which almost all Americans can agree on in some way or another. Unfortunately, most feel that there is a long road ahead to sustainable, positive political and social change, myself included. The virus’s silent transmission is synonymous with the silent legitimacy crisis that was already unfolding prior to the lockdowns and economic disruption. Equally, the explosive and pervasive nature of the disease crippled our already frayed ability to recognize and fathom any form of intelligible discussion that would lend itself to the mending of our county’s partisanship.
The virus’s silent transmission is synonymous with the silent legitimacy crisis that was already unfolding prior to the lockdowns and economic disruption.
Drawing from foundation era history, I found Dr. Allen’s inferences highly refreshing. This is how we ought to be taking advice from the founding fathers! We should be engaging in rich political and philosophical discussions about what values are at stake, especially when there is so much to lose. Of course, this message is often lost in the echo chambers of the loudest political speakers. Both parties reference the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. However, this is only to incite repugnance at assumed transgressions from the “other” side. During the height of the pandemic, we saw this with Democrats and Republicans represented in what solutions they chose to endorse to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. According to Dr. Allen, Democrats chose the “freeze” stance, which was to lock down the country and effectively freeze the economy in order to preserve life, health, and happiness. Republicans chose to “surrender” to the virus, wanting to keep the economy open and let the virus run its course because life, health, and happiness will suffer greatly if we don’t. The states vacillated quite wildly between both options, while Americans, as a collective whole, were forced ”…to contemplate, openly or secretly, the abandonment of others” (Chapter 4, pg 90).
This conflict persisted with no real improvement and was then exacerbated by the presidential elections looming in 2020. Instead of focusing on sustainable efforts to reduce stress on the country, political leaders moved away from effective policy conversations that addressed their real democratic responsibility. They moved into the land of knee-jerk reactions, securing foot-holds in ideological polarization while the media continued to promote chaos and incite anger (a topic I wish Dr. Allen explored more). Consequently, Americans continued to, and still, suffer the effects of COVID-19.
I can understand why some critics of Dr. Allen’s novel believe that its scope is too broad. The issues COVID-19 exposed are real, complex, and span across numerous sectors of our already disenfranchised society. Dr. Allen concedes this point, “Mortals- moving in temporal cadences- can repair frayed social bonds only with the speed at which trust can be grown.”(Chapter 1, pg 30).
No health or economics expert has all the answers. No political party or leader has them either. What we need is to begin pulling back the lens of anger and fear, so we can begin to believe and trust the machine of democracy again. Then the nuts and bolts work can be smoothed by the “oil of public acceptance”. I highly recommend this book for its basis in political theory, and for it opening the floor to more discussion about the topics it holds. I am excited to hear Dr. Danielle Allen speak further on this book during the Politics for the People virtual discussion on Tuesday, June 21st at 3 to 4pm.
Leah Clifford lives in Saratoga Springs, NY and is an Administrative Assistant at Independent Voting.