Reader’s Forum – Frank Fear on Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus

“Everything Seemed Fine Until It Wasn’t”

By Frank Fear

Frank Fear

Over one million Americans have died from COVID-19—16% of all deaths globally in a country with 4.5% of the world’s people. The catastrophe demands careful and cogent analysis, and Professor Danielle Allen does just that in Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus. And one of the best ways to sense-make is to filter America’s devastating COVID-19 experience through an interpretive frame of reference. Dr. Allen uses a constitutional democracy framework to analyze why America was ill-prepared to respond to COVID and how we might improve our national response in future times of crisis.

“The pandemic has taught us a dark truth,” Professor Allen concludes (p. 89). America was neither prepared nor capable. Americans were in jeopardy, especially the least among us, with everybody, everywhere, trying to figure out how to cope and where to turn. Most noticeable was the lack of coordination between the Federal government and the states, and the inability to get needed goods and services organized and distributed efficiently to the public. And the harmonic balance among what Professor Allen calls “The Three L’s”—Lives, Livelihood, and Liberty—was fractured (p. 5). Lives (safety and security) and livelihood (economics) came in conflict, as did personal rights vis-à-vis collective responsibilities.

Rather than draw on a wellspring of commitment and resolve in a time of crisis, our highly polarized America—a land of partisanship and differences—pushed and pulled in different directions. Public officials carped and squabbled, “contempt media” (p. 102) ruled the airwaves, and “Facebook Warriors” battled on social media.

How could this happen? The answer, I believe, is the book’s greatest gift. And Professor Allen’s use of the constitutional democracy frame makes it so. Here is my take on why.

America’s founders went through the arduous process of figuring out what they wanted America to be and how it should function as a constitutional democracy. Then they handed over the system, trusting that subsequent generations would protect, affirm, and improve it.

In Professor Allen’s words, a constitutional democracy is “a set of institutions that give people the chance to do things well” (p. 54) and help democracy flourish. It does so by the way it is structured and operates, delineating what it means to have majority rule and minority rights, checks and balances, freedom of expression, among many things, and what is involved in exercising citizenship, including civility, open-mindedness, tolerance for diversity of thought and people, and compromise.

We know that many Americans are committed to protecting and renewing what the founders created. However, other dynamics (contrary in intent and outcome) are also apparent in America today. Professor Allen’s treatment early in the book helps bring those dynamics into focus in the way she distinguishes negative and positiveliberties (pp. 11-12).

Negative liberties are “those rights of free speech, rights of association, rights of religion and so forth, that permit us to chart our own course toward happiness, based on our own definitions of the good.

Positive liberties are”those opportunities we have in our political institutions (to participate) as decision-makers, as voters, as elected officials, and as people who contribute to the deliberations of our public bodies.”

Through the exercise of negative liberties, we are free to seek outcomes that align with what we view as valued ends. Through the exercise of positive liberties, “we have a chance to shape our collective world together” (p. 12). In a constitutional democracy, Dr. Allen continues, we should not choose one liberty form over the other because “fuller flourishing,” in her words, “requires the protection and exercise of negative and positive liberties.”

Both liberties are rights, as in the right of free speech and the right to vote. There is also the matter of responsibilities. In that regard, the person on the street is likely to interpret negative liberties as a collection of personal rights and interpret positive liberties as rights and responsibilities with the collective in mind (e.g., voting as a right and responsibility).

These distinctions are helpful because they helped me understand more clearly how and why efforts are underway to hijack our constitutional democracy. It involves imposing on the collective a partisan-informed preference regarding how we should live as a society. While it is my right to refuse to wear a mask, I also seek to impose my personal choices on the collective. Examples abound, including school children will not learn about Critical Race Theory, women will not have the ability to have an abortion, there will not be restrictive gun control, etc.

To achieve those outcomes, partisans have figured out ways to use the structures and processes of a constitutional democracy for political advantage—even if the intent and mechanisms of that system are manipulated and abused in the process (e.g., gerrymandering). Incursions on the system are coming from within the governance system and external pressure on it. Either way, the outcome is the same—to undermine, subvert, and commandeer our constitutional democracy. The actions are justifiable in Machiavellian terms because the ends justify the means. Politically, as Saul Alinsky once put it (to paraphrase), “Do what you have to do and then wrap it in moral clothing.”

I have just described an academic way of delineating what progressive activists are fighting against across the country.

What can be done to readjust America’s constitutional democracy to align with our founders’ intentions? Professor Allen writes expressively about the importance of common purpose, which she defines as “an affective connection to a common enterprise” (p. 20). A socially galvanizing force, common purpose (and resolve) is what America had 80 years ago when it fought wars on two fronts simultaneously. A generation later, it had it again when America decided to go to the moon, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

But common purpose is difficult to come by these days. Yes, there have been times when America has come together, 9/11 is one, but not with a shared commitment to common purpose. Professor Allen ends her book with a list of objectives toward that end (pp. 101-102), and I applaud and endorse each recommendation. But what is missing in America today is not a dearth of ideas about what needs to happen or how to get there. It is whether these is shared commitment to the very idea of common purpose, including whether America would be better off with it. I do not see that commitment.

Even if it were to bubble up as a priority, I do not believe we have the kind of leadership today (elective, organizational/institutional, and grassroots) to activate a common purpose. That is not to say that kind of leadership is non-existent. I have experienced it at the organizational/institutional level and (from time to time) in other contexts as well. But invariably, it is a minority approach from the government to the grassroots. evident here and there but unsustainable over time.

Why is that? There are at least two reasons—one is evident, and the other became abundantly clear during the pandemic.

First, leadership these days is mostly about getting ahead (“winning” to be more specific). We select our leaders with that in mind, and that interpretation of leadership has a significant impact on what American’s views as “a good leader” and “good leadership.” Common purpose is not about winning. Instead, it is about being, that is, who we are as a society, and our collective values, aspirations, and goals.

Second, we are victims of the conditions we experienced during the pandemic. Each person is on their own, and we should only expect limited and episodic public support in times of crisis. While many of us complain about America’s penchant for preferring “me” over “we,” the pandemic experience reinforced a me-first ethic.

So, what is the bottom line? Until enough Americans believe that what I have just described is no way to live—and is a rotten tagline for our society—the current situation is not likely to change. The only viable strategy is to continue doing what many Americans are doing currently: organizing and fighting against forces that seek to disable America’s constitutional democracy.

Professor Allen’s contribution helps stoke the fire of activist resolve, and it also gives us a roadmap for the future—should we ever walk in that direction.

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society.

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Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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