Theorizing Democracy in a Pandemic

in Democratic Theory
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  • 1 Tufts University, USA


The COVID-19 pandemic raises questions about the future of democracy and civil society. Some recent predictions seem to use the suffering to score points in ongoing political arguments. As a better example of how to describe the future during a crisis, I cite the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. King does not merely predict: he calls for action, joins the action, and makes himself responsible for its success or failure. With these cautions about prediction in mind, I venture two that may guide immediate responses. First, communities may erect or strengthen unjustifiable barriers to outsiders, because boundaries enhance collective action. Second, although the pandemic may not directly change civic behavior, an economic recession will bankrupt some organizations through which people engage.

On Theorizing Responsibly

Although I am pleased to contribute to Democratic Theory in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, I would like to begin with some concerns about theorizing in the midst of a crisis. I will then offer two examples of analyses that I hope are closely responsible to the concrete known facts of the moment. Whether these examples constitute democratic theory is a matter for critical assessment, but I present them as a theorist's modest contribution to democracy when some kinds of bolder claims seem irresponsible.

I should first say that I am friendly to theory. My graduate work was in philosophy, and I treasure political thought that is openly abstract and normative rather than purely empirical—as if empirical claims could ever be free from values and broad concepts. In a crisis, we rightly turn to theory to make sense of our altered world and to orient our responses.

One temptation, however, is to use a crisis as a rhetorical asset to persuade audiences of positions one already held. Susan Sontag explores how “Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society [is] corrupt or unjust.” She shows that “to liken a political event or situation to an illness is to impute guilt, to prescribe punishment.” But little actual insight comes from likening a moral or social problem to a disease, or vice versa. “Traditional disease metaphors are principally a way of being vehement” (Sontag 1977: 72, 83).

Sontag's thesis is simple: “illness is not a metaphor, and … the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (Sontag 1977: 3). She adds, “The people who have the real disease are also hardly helped by hearing their disease's name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil” (Sontag 1977: 85).

Although the word “theory” is not synonymous with “metaphor,” I think Sontag's warning applies to both forms of discourse. What is wrong is to use actually sick people as means to rhetorical ends.

Perhaps Giorgio Agamben meant to debunk a metaphorical misuse of the COVID-19 virus when he called it an “alleged epidemic”—really no worse than the flu—that was being used as the “pretext” for a “collective panic” in order to impose “limitations on freedom” (Agamben 2020a). But the virus actually is an epidemic—in fact, a pandemic—and actual people are dying from it. Governmental restrictions on travel and work save lives.

To his credit, Agamben has retracted his original empirical claim that the virus was no worse than the ‘flu. But watch how he immediately switches from declaiming his ability to assess the disease to making the same critique that he originally advanced, still reinforced by the rhetorical gravity of illness:

Fear is a poor advisor, but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see. The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic. The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything—the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick. (Agamben 2020b)

It is tempting to use people's “getting sick” to score points against the social structure that one decries. According to Agamben, Italy's response to the virus demonstrates that “People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don't seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective.”

This claim is deeply rooted in Agamben's thought. But would he say it to a concrete person who hopes to recover from the coronavirus in order to resume the pleasures and satisfactions of everyday life? Would he tell sick individuals that they are examples of how life now lacks all human and affective value?

A second temptation is to make broad predictions under conditions of deep uncertainty. Of course, we would like to know what will happen to institutions and norms. Will a global pandemic make various publics more favorable to social democracy and welfare states by reinforcing the value of governments? Or will people hunker down in narrow groups and resist cooperation at large scales? Will the crisis benefit incumbent authoritarian leaders in important countries, from China and India to Brazil and the United States, who defend closed borders and surveillance? Or will such leaders fall because they fail to handle the crisis? Will people become more cosmopolitan, because all human beings share the same vulnerability in a pandemic, or more nationalistic, because the virus has reached each country (except China) from abroad?1 Will civic engagement move online, or shrink, or return to the status quo once the pandemic ends?

We do not know. And in asking these questions, we can be tempted to conflate normative principles with predications. Optimists predict that their preferred policies and values will at last prevail when millions of people are forced to see the truth. David Roberts argues, “The coronavirus is a brutal reminder of our fragility and interdependence, of how necessary trust and cooperation are to our survival” (Roberts 2020). Pessimists bemoan the likely defeat of their treasured ideals as a result of the crisis. Agamben, for example, predicts that governments will use the virus as a pretext for “putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons” (Agamben 2020b).

Both approaches reflect the same methodological error. Whether you want to defend or defeat the nation-state, capitalism, liberalism, or some form of democratic participation and civic engagement, you should advocate for your stance. You should not conflate it with a prediction about what is going to happen next, unless you have reliable grounds for that prediction. (Will Italy really impose a permanent ban on meetings?)

We can also be tempted to wish for outcomes that we should abhor. When President Donald Trump minimizes the likely impact of the coronavirus, do you catch yourself hoping that the facts prove him wrong? Each death above the number he has predicted is an actual human being whom you are wishing to die.

Again, there is no such thing as a fact that is innocent of theory and valuation, no “writing degree zero” that lacks metaphor. But we can adopt an ethic of very close attention to known details about our actual fellow human beings, or else we can venture into broader speculations. I think a crisis demands the ethic of close attention and intellectual humility.

The Place of Prophecy

I would acknowledge an important exception. Sometimes, profound theory has emerged in the midst of crises when observers and participants have attained a prophetic voice. For example, following nonviolent protests in Selma, Alabama; bloody reprisals by police and vigilantes; and then a triumphant march from Selma to Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., told his fellow marchers, “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” This was a normative claim, closely followed by a prediction:

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” (Speak, sir) Somebody's asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody's asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” … 

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” (King, 1965)

By itself, the last phrase might be merely optimistic or homiletic—wishful thinking—but it belongs to a body of King's work that is prophetic in the style of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew prophets do not make empirical predictions. Amos does not inform us that justice will soon roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. The Biblical prophets rather exhort their listeners and readers to act right because we can thereby bring about a better world. Amos says, “Let justice roll down as waters,” because we can help make that happen.

As King had written two years before Selma, it is a “tragic misconception” to imagine “there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively … Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation” (King, 1963).

King combines a normative position with a prediction because he is a leader. His leadership gives his words meaning (they are devices to encourage action) and makes him deeply accountable. People literally followed behind him from Selma to Montgomery. They might follow him to victory or to defeat, even to death. They could choose to leave him. Some of them bitterly criticized his tactics even during that march.2 By making an ill-judged prophecy, King could lose his influence and leadership, cost other people's lives, or even sacrifice his own life. He was acutely aware of the stakes.

In contrast, an armchair theorist pays no price for a prophecy gone wrong—and may even benefit from an extra publication. This lack of accountability reinforces our need for deep humility and attention to the facts at hand.

With that caution in mind, I offer two narrow assessments based on two different kinds of empirical evidence.

The View from Martha's Vineyard, March 2010

I write in the midst of the pandemic from the island of Martha's Vineyard, off the eastern coast of the United States. My family and I have a second (“vacation”) home here. This is a very bourgeois way to live and fits a cliché about academics, like me, who work in the Boston area. There is a good case to be made that it is socially and environmentally irresponsible to own two houses. Nevertheless, we have come here—my family and I—to weather the pandemic, an American nuclear family acting like Boccaccio's gentlemen and gentleladies.

To judge by posts on social media and comments on local newspaper websites, we are deeply unwelcome here. The year-round residents of the island are acutely aware that it only has twenty-five hospital beds and three respirators, and anyone who chooses to come here may take one of those scarce spaces from a real Vineyarder.

I am sure I would feel the same way, especially if I loved someone with a special vulnerability due to age or a medical condition. In fact, I admit to not exactly wanting a large number of additional visitors to show up, now that we are here.

Class solidarity and social critique are also involved, since the year-round residents of the island are more likely to be low-income working people than the visitors who have second homes here (notwithstanding economic diversity on both sides).

And yet, the ratio of beds and ventilators to people is higher here than in the Boston area, where we spend most of our time; and Boston must treat homeless people, incarcerated people, and people transported to the city's famous hospitals for specialized treatments, including those who suffer from acute diseases other than COVID-19. It is much easier to be rigorously isolated on a rural island than in a dense city. Thus, I think (acknowledging my own potential for bad faith and bias) that it is ethical for us to be here.

Why would Vineyarders want to deny local health services to perceived outsiders when Bostonians do not object to people being transported into their city for healthcare? I think it is because Martha's Vineyard has an extremely clear border: 11 km or more of seawater that requires a ferry or aircraft to traverse. Elinor Ostrom showed that people are capable of voluntary self-governance and can overcome problems of collective action, but our capacity to do so depends on a list of assets, one of which is “clear boundaries” (Ostrom 2009: 422). Martha's Vineyard's boundaries help its year-round residents to cooperate in striking ways, notably, by maintaining a barter economy during the winter season that relies on trust (a public good). But the same boundary also makes them quick to want to exclude outsiders.

Ostrom's theory makes sense of what we observe on Martha's Vineyard during the pandemic. Voluntary cooperation is valuable and depends on social trust and solidarity, and those assets benefit from a sense of distinctness from outsiders. Her theory suggests a cautious generalization, subject to exceptions and susceptible to being swamped by other factors. I think that people (and peoples) who are able to separate themselves distinctly from outsiders will both manage the pandemic and economic depression better than others and display more hostility toward out-groups. Therefore, we should work to create solutions to problems of collective action that do not involve indefensible boundaries and exclusions.

Analogies to 1918

If we want to predict the near future in order to make appropriate recommendations and plans, it is useful to explore analogies. The most informative analogue seems to be the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which had similar health consequences to COVID-19. (At least, the similarity seems likely at the time of writing.)

One major methodological problem is that 1918 immediately followed the Great War, the Russian Revolution, and the redrawing of the maps of Europe and the Middle East. Therefore, in many countries, it is hard to isolate the effects of the pandemic from other massive changes that occurred within the same year or two.

But the United States serves as an interesting case. Although a belligerent at the end of World War I, the USA suffered only 65,000 deaths out of 103 million people (excluding the 45,000 soldiers who died of influenza). The war was fought far away and caused no changes to the borders or political system of the country. The ‘flu was likely a more significant event than the war for Americans.

And its impact was very limited. During the pandemic itself, 650,000 Americans died; the economy and society were severely disrupted.3 Soon after it passed, America returned to what the next president, Warren G. Harding, called—ungrammatically but fairly accurately—a “return to normalcy.” To be sure, the reformist presidential administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had ended, and the next decade saw conservative Republican presidents; but conservative Republican administrations dominated the entire era from 1877 to 1932. The Progressive Movement continued after 1918 in important states and resumed in force in 1932.

Also, 1918 fell in the midst of the period in which the bedrock American civic institutions of the 20th century—unions, nonpartisan newspapers, civic associations, modern political parties, and social movements—took their modern form (Putnam 2000: 367–401). In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam focuses on national voluntary associations that organized local chapters, which he sees as fundamental to 20th-century civil society. He shows that they expanded their membership steadily between 1900 and 1930. The pandemic of 1918 had no evident impact on their growth (Putnam 2000: fig. 8, p. 54). It appears that people still wanted to associate in the same ways that they had in 1917, and once they were able to venture outside again, they went right back to the same forms of civic engagement that had prevailed before the so-called Spanish ‘Flu. This example suggests that trends in civic and political life may resume once the pandemic of 2020 ebbs.

However, Putnam also shows that the rate of membership in chapter-based groups massively declined between 1930 and 1935 and did not recover until 1942 (Putnam, 2000). In fact, the trend from 1900 to 1950 looks smooth except for one big dip that surely reflects the Great Depression. The ‘flu pandemic of 1918 did not affect civic engagement because it fell during a period of economic growth for the United States. But the Great Depression presumably reduced Americans’ ability to afford civic participation, and many withdrew for a decade.

I see two reasons to worry about the state of civil society today. First, even if people resume the same values and commitments that they exhibited before the pandemic, it looks likely that many countries will face a prolonged recession whose effects on civil society could be comparable to the Great Depression's. In that case, it will be the recession, not the pandemic itself, that does the damage.

And even if the economic recovery proves surprisingly rapid and strong, civil society may be more vulnerable to an economic shock than it was in 1918. The important civic institutions that formed in the early 1900s depended financially on large numbers of members or subscribers whose individual contributions were modest (Skocpol 2013). These organizations may have suffered a financial shortfall in the midst of the 1918 epidemic, but they could count on their members to resume paying dues or purchasing subscriptions as soon as the economy recovered.

In contrast, the civil society of the United States today is heavily dependent on wealthy donors, endowed foundations, and contracts with governments. A severe and prolonged stock market decline could cause widespread bankruptcies of nonprofit groups. It is difficult to foresee how the nonprofit sector will recover—with what new leaders, financial models, objectives, and constituencies.

Not as a political theorist but as someone who serves on the boards of five US nonprofit organizations, I am concerned about this aspect of the crisis. Organizations may not survive until next year if they must cancel their annual fundraising galas or lose their contracts with local school systems. I won't try to predict what will happen to them or use them as examples of larger trends. I do hope to help them, just as I hope to help some of my fellow human beings and keep myself and my loved ones safe.

Right now, theory that assists us in caring for each other seems useful; let us put any other kind aside.



The World Health Organization notes, “The first human cases of COVID-19 … were first reported by officials in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019.” This is not definitive evidence that the virus originated in China, but it appears to have spread from China to other countries (World Health Organization 2019).


The conflict over both strategy and values between King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Selma episode of the Civil Rights movement is explored in Garrow 1986: 396, 404–5, 409 and 423.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus),


Contributor Notes

Peter Levine is Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University. E-mail:

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