Of pandemics and protests: democracy renewal

6 mins read

Is there a connection between the corona crisis and the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by police officers?  Well certainly one can’t prove causality.  But I do believe the pandemic has served as a microscope on festering social ills, inequities, and discrimination in U.S. society, just as Floyd’s killing has highlighted institutional racism. The pandemic put into sharp focus the fact that many Americans work paycheck to paycheck, gig to gig.  They are a broad mix of servers, retail workers, musicians, travel agents, babysitters, fast food cooks, etc. For man, losing a job in February can mean eviction in March.  America lacks robust social safety nets, unemployment insurance, let alone a decent minimum wage to allow workers to accumulate savings.  Americans also lack universal healthcare so once unemployed, often lose health insurance.  “Shelter in place” in itself embodies privilege.  Working from home is a luxury, and for the unemployed, staying home requires savings.   So the pandemic is not the “great equalizer” some have touted.  It is unequal in its impact, hurting the waitress more than the hedge fund manager, and ballooning the population of the poor and vulnerable. 

As the economic fallout is unequal, so is the pandemic’s impact on elections. Just as communities of color are disproportionately targeted by voter suppression efforts insincerely aimed at “preventing fraud” during elections in non-pandemic times, they have also been more likely to face long lines, fewer poll workers, and unsafe conditions during recent elections in Wisconsin and Georgia. The disease itself also does not affect people equally.  We are witnessing a horrifying discrepancy in the number of African Americans hospitalized and dying from the virus.  Though representing only 13% of the American population, one-third of deaths from corona are African Americans.[1]  Experts attribute this to poor pre existing health conditions.  But this is linked to systemic factors like lack of universal healthcare, sub-standard access to care, and deeply entrenched (and well documented) racism in health service delivery. 

As my father often said, the worst folks are those who “were born on third base but think they hit a triple.”  We are not all on first base here with an equal opportunity to hit the ball and round the bases.  Baseball metaphors aside, we of course knew this before corona.  But the pandemic has brought all these gaping inequities and system failures to the surface.  The social contract in the democratic process is broken. Democracy has failed to deliver. The deal was that we would elect representatives who would represent us, the public, and pass legislation to ensure our well-being, opportunities, and equal protection under the law.  If they did not, they would not be reelected.  The elite capture of our system has thwarted that elegant theory.  Our representative bodies do not look at all like our country.  Congress is mostly comprised of old, white men, many of whom are millionaires.  Voices of women, communities of color, youth, poor are absent.  Add to that an electoral college, and egregious gerrymandering, that allows the minority to rule the majority.  Political parties, gatekeepers of power, are also not inclusive and stuck in another century, simply meaningless to many younger Americans.  The influence of money has shifted accountability from voters to the Koch brothers and others who fund campaigns and lobbyists to ensure their tax cuts and deregulation.  Americans have been bubbling with a combination of fury (“drain the swamp!”), which was successfully manipulated by, and led to the Molotov cocktail of, Donald Trump, and despondent apathy – democracy ain’t working for them.

The world watched aghast as a police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes, killing him in broad daylight while the other officers aided and abetted.  Did corona make this happen?  Obviously not, as extrajudicial killings of black men and women by law enforcement happens regularly and deep systemic racism in our institutions – particularly, though not exclusively, police and justice systems – is a long-standing reality.  The protests that have erupted are also not entirely new – we get angry and then somehow attention is diverted. The broken system churns onward, we continue to elect leaders, despise Congress, and so on. 

But I am hopeful that this combination of the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd has struck a demand in all of us, that we will not go back to the way things were.  I wonder if the frustration about the pandemic’s unequal impact didn’t help motivate protesters?  Or perhaps being stuck at home spending more time watching news could have galvanized some. Either way, could it present an opportunity to rebuild (build for first time, really, given that it has never been there for swaths of the population) the social contract between state and society?  The fact that even the GOP passed socialist policies such as unemployment insurance, minimum basic income, and access to free corona virus health care was quite something.  (Albeit, many have already shifted to a “law and order!” agenda.)  Another crisis will certainly come, and perhaps we realize now we must have a responsive, representative state, strong safety nets, and a resilient population to weather it. 

This requires not just “addressing” social and economic inequality and racism with modest, trim-at-the-edges reforms but full-scale democratic renewal. It will require finally committing to political finance overhaul, rethinking political parties, and electoral reform.  It’s a call to enhance accountability, oversight, and public participation in legislative bodies to deliver responsive policies to citizens. Yes, that could lead to wiping out existing policing as we know it.  It could mean the Yang Gang’s universal income.  It should most certainly mean universal health care.  It is also an opportunity to energize the demand side of the democracy equation through resilient communities — ones with social cohesion, trust in local leaders, and resistance to disinformation and manipulation. We could explore new types of community safety bodies, investments in local social infrastructure from girl scouts to rec centers, and comprehensive civic education and media literacy campaigns.
The optimist in me needs to believe that all this pain, the pandemic and sustained protests, whether linked or simply overlapping, will jolt us out of complacency and inspire us to fight for democracy.

Laura Thornton – BIOGRAPHY

Laura Thornton leads and manages a portfolio of programmes that supports democracy world-wide through the development and application of global comparative knowledge resources and tools, supporting democratic reforms, as well as actively contributing to shaping the global and regional policy agendas by bringing the democracy lens and perspective to debates at that level.
This portfolio includes Electoral Processes, Constitution-Building Processes, Political Participation and Representation, and Democracy, Assessment, Analysis and Advisory Unit—a unit responsible for the Institute’s work on citizen-led assessments of democracy—and the integration of Gender, Diversity, and Conflict sensitivity into the work of the Institute.
Prior to joining International IDEA on 1 April 2020, Thornton joined the National Democratic Institute in 1998 and served as a global associate and senior director in Georgia since 2014. In Georgia, Thornton managed multiple complex programmes including public opinion research and disinformation research and analyses, technical assistance to parliament and local government bodies, security sector reform and oversight, civil society advocacy, political party democratization and development, and election monitoring, analysis and reform efforts.
As director of multiple Asia regional and country programmes, Thornton has published, spoken, and trained extensively on election observation techniques, parliamentary oversight, political party development, and good governance reform, including writing a book covering eight countries in Asia, Political Parties in Asia: Promoting Reform and Combating Corruption (published 2001). Under her leadership in Cambodia, NDI spearheaded a variety of complex programming, being creative about prying open the limited democratic space available and providing information to the public. The NDI organized weekly constituency dialogues for parliament, produced election research and monitoring studies, built the capacity of political parties, and spear-headed advocacy programmes for marginalized communities. She served as country director in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and managed and evaluated Institute programmes in Bangladesh, East Timor, India, Indonesia, North Korea, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and has monitored elections in more than 15 countries.
Thornton’s career encompasses design, implementation, management, and monitoring and evaluation of a broad range of programme activities, including: women’s political participation; quantitative and qualitative research; political party development; parliamentary outreach and oversight; campaign and political finance reform; technical electoral analysis and advocacy for electoral reform; and multiparty parliamentary and candidate debates.
Before joining NDI, Thornton worked as a consultant for the Democracy and Governance unit at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as a survey researcher in Serbia and Kosovo. She also worked for women’s health and political advocacy organizations in Thailand and the United States. Her academic background includes degrees, course work, publications and research in international history and development, comparative government and political science, and gender issues. Thornton earned her master’s degree from Princeton University in public and international affairs.

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