What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About American Democracy

What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About American Democracy

What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About American Democracy

A conversation with Danielle Allen about the strengths and faults of federalism during our health crisis. 


For many people, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that democracy in the United States is fundamentally broken. With the exception of vaccines, the government has failed to help develop and quickly implement strategies for tracing and containing the outbreaks. As the economy ground to a halt during last year’s lockdowns, unemployment swelled, as did food insecurity and debt. Covid further exposed the country’s deep socioeconomic disparities: The health and finances of Black Americans and other minorities were most affected by the pandemic, and the move to remote learning at the majority of the nation’s schools forced many women to drop out of the workforce for lack of child care. Moreover, Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump has done little to ease widespread public distrust of government, as demonstrated by the continued divide over masking and vaccines.

So it’s little wonder that some critics blame the federal system and a strong culture of individual rights for the United States’ inability to meet the challenge of overcoming the virus. The question naturally arises, then, as to whether US democracy can deliver solutions to the health and economic problems presented by a rapidly moving pandemic. But according to the Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen, it can.

In her new book, Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus, Allen argues that federalism, rather than being a problem, offers solutions to what ails democracy today. In particular, she embraces what she calls “cooperative federalism.” Consider, for instance, contract tracing programs: They are most effective, Allen argues, when managed by people trusted within the community in which they operate. “While American distrust of national government has risen continuously over the last few decades,” she writes, “trust in local government remains high.” Contact tracing programs that protect privacy are best introduced at the local level; the federal government can help design the IT infrastructure, but it’s reasonable, Allen says, to leave the use of that infrastructure in the hands of local authorities. For Allen, cooperative federalism suggests that the federal government should focus on the big picture: setting overarching goals and identifying promising practices for how best to respond to the pandemic. In contrast, states, counties, cities, and local governments should concentrate on “the nitty-gritty”—contact tracing, testing, treating the ill, and supporting those who are isolating.

But how can the US government facilitate such cooperation and coordination, especially given the widespread distrust of federal organizations, not to mention the deep ideological divides that mark contemporary politics? For this to happen, Allen believes it is necessary for the nation to renew its social contract, which allows for a sense of common purpose and resilience.

The Nation spoke with Danielle Allen about her new book, the Trump administration’s failures in managing the pandemic, the idea of cooperative federalism, how the country’s social contract can be renewed, and the efforts of the Biden presidency.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Well before the pandemic erupted, political scientists and pundits lamented that US democracy had entered into a state of crisis. Many said this was due to the Trump presidency and its challenge to liberal democratic norms. However, you argue that it was the pandemic itself that “revealed that our social contract was fundamentally broken.” What do you mean by this? More specifically, in what sense did the pandemic reveal that the real challenge we face with Covid is something beyond the political dysfunction of the Trump administration?

Danielle Allen: What exactly is a social contract? A social contract is the set of rights and mutual responsibilities that we have among ourselves as citizens in a constitutional democracy. A social contract is both what’s asked of us as participants in a constitutional democracy and all that is made possible for us by virtue of our participation in that constitutional democracy. What’s asked of us and what we receive establish relations of reciprocity within the citizenry. The pandemic revealed that our social contract is fundamentally broken. Our society includes people who are being asked to follow the law and to pay taxes but who are not in return receiving the opportunity and security promised by our arrangement of mutual rights and responsibilities. The elderly and essential workers, for instance, were left badly exposed to the pandemic and suffered terribly. We have seen disparate impacts on communities of color, because underlying foundations of health have not been adequately established for low-income workers. When this crisis hit, the society that promised to protect all did not in fact protect many of its members.

Pandemic resilience requires public health infrastructure, of course, but also a healthy social contract—good governance and bonds of solidarity and mutual commitment within the population, connected to love of country. Solidarity is the resource that enables people to make small sacrifices of liberty so as to avoid harm to others with whom they have a social bond. We convey our love of country through acts of solidarity to the other members of our polity. The Trump administration did not deliver good governance, but neither did we the people deliver resources of solidarity.

DSJ: Your notion of a social contract presupposes what you describe as a common purpose—one necessary for effective Covid strategies and policies. Do you really believe a sense of common purpose can be realized, especially given the political divides in this country?

DA: Both Australia and Germany, with federal systems, succeeded in the early crisis stages in responding to the virus. Neither democracy nor federalism was the problem. In Australia, the government established a nationwide crisis-response cabinet drawing on members from both parties. Federalism, for those countries, was an asset and could have been of great value to us if we had taken more deliberate and well-considered advantage of its resources. When common purpose can be established, then federalism permits flexible and contextually specific implementation. So how do we establish a common purpose? That is the foremost purpose of our legislature, of Congress. So given the dysfunction of Congress and its now extremely rigid polarization, we do have a problem.

The ancient Greek word for civil war was stasis. In modern English, that word is typically taken to mean being stuck in place. Those meanings go together. What the Greeks understood is that when a society is completely riven by division, it gets stuck in place. In the impossibility of working together, people turn to violence. If we’re going to position ourselves to have our legislature do its work of synthesizing and developing a common purpose, we need to get it unstuck. I think the most efficient way of doing that, at this point, would be to abolish the filibuster. Legislation needs to move so that people can be held to account for the decisions they take, and so that we can restore productive dynamism in our politics.

DSJ: You state that the best way of aligning the Covid-19 response to the properties of disease transmission is to lodge authority for key public health decisions at the level of state and local officials. What do you see as the benefits of deploying policy programs on smaller scales?

DA: I remember a conversation in May or June 2020 with a Massachusetts official from the Department of Health and Human Services, who shared that a critical early insight in disease control was that supermarkets and shopping malls, and the patterns of traffic to them, gave the best insight into the nodes and social networks through which disease was spreading. These nodes and networks might or might not align with formal county jurisdictions, and so an overreliance on the formal jurisdictions to try to understand transmission would have led them astray. Seeing the networked structure of social life requires on-the-ground knowledge that is really accessible best to state and local authorities.

A case study is the contrast between Singapore and South Korea. After early success in suppressing the virus, Singapore saw a widespread outbreak which originated from a failure to control the virus within its migrant community; in other words, it overlooked a dense node of social relations in a marginalized community. South Korea, in contrast, moved swiftly at key points to control the spread within specific communities—early on, a large church congregation, and at another important point, communities frequenting a specific set of bars and nightclubs.

DSJ: Let’s transition to discuss the government’s failures in handling the pandemic. Interestingly, you affirm that then-President Trump was right when he said about collective stay-at-home orders, “The cure can’t be worse than the disease.” What did you find right about his remark?

DA: Collective stay-at-home orders were a necessary response to the immediate crisis, because we had uncertain knowledge about the overall shape of the disease. Yet the weapon that could kill rapidly traveling viruses also kills economies. Both viruses and economies depend on active, frequent social interactions. The primary tool in the public health toolbox worked well, it turned out, only against localized epidemics. Localized stay-at-home orders take one bit of the economy off-line at a time, leaving the rest in operation to sustain even the portion temporarily closed. But global stay-at-home orders? They led to the most severe economic collapse since the Great Depression.

Sometimes, when a doctor gives a patient medicine, the medicine turns out to have side effects that might kill the patient. Some cancer patients, for instance, are not able to endure the prescribed course of chemotherapy. When that happens, their physicians change course: They find an alternative way of treating the disease that also preserves the underlying resources for life that the patient needs to fight the disease. Our economy is that set of resources for life that we need to fight the disease. In fighting the pandemic, the job we faced in March and April [of 2020] was to recognize that the medicine we had for this pandemic also had the side effect of killing the economy. We needed an alternative.

DSJ: This connects to your assertion in the book that, given the realities of other possible pandemics, we need an alternative to global or even national lockdowns that can defeat the disease while still preserving a functioning economy. Of course, where socioeconomic inequalities are present, we saw severe disparities in the impact of Covid on African American communities and others. And Trump himself wanted to keep the economy going. How, then, do you envision the balance between preserving a functioning economy and protecting the health of the most vulnerable?

DA: The solution will have to vary from case to case, depending on the nature of the disease and pandemic at hand. In our situation, given the specifics of Covid-19, a far more rapid mobilization of the economy to deliver the infrastructure of testing and contact tracing could have brought the disease to a close in the early stages and shortened the duration of lockdowns and the impact of disease transmission on economic life. Having failed to eliminate the disease in the early stages when that was still possible, we are now in a position where both vaccination and improved therapeutics are the necessary response, and the faster we can mobilize our economies to deliver on both worldwide, the less harm there will be to the most vulnerable.

DSJ: Why do you place so much emphasis on the need to keep public schools open despite community spread?

DA: Public schools were open continuously; the question was whether they were open via remote learning or in-person learning. Over the last decade, there have been lots of studies of remote education, all of which generally confirm that students do better with at least some in-person element. Those studies have focused mainly on older learners—college students and adult learners. In the case of this specific event, we were asking very young kids to try to learn remotely too. It’s just harder, and there are also real mental health impacts from reduced access to social contact. I saw both of these challenges directly with my own children. And this was in a family where we had a full-time babysitter assisting the kids with their online learning. Need I say more?

Hospitals stayed open because of the critical functions they fulfill. Yes, we saw lots of new opportunities with telehealth, but we would never expect hospitals to fully cease offering in-person services. And they were able to open safely because they have the organizational capacity to deliver infection prevention and control in buildings and keep people safe. This is true even with much higher risk levels inside of health settings than in schools. Schools needed support in building up the organizational capacity for infection prevention and control. Hospitals have been developing this capacity for decades. It wasn’t fair to turn to schools and say, “Do this tomorrow,” without offering technical assistance and resources.

DSJ: Given that you wrote this book last year, how do you judge the Biden administration’s handling of the pandemic?  

DA: The Biden administration has done well. They further accelerated investment in vaccine distribution and production, and that has served us well. They set up a Pandemic Testing Board, which my team had recommended, to help build out the infrastructure we need to understand and fight diseases like this through testing tools. They have reestablished baseline functionality at the CDC, even if there is still a long way to go to rebuild that agency. We still need, though, to achieve the modernization of our public health infrastructure. The pandemic showed us that it was badly wanting. My hope is that states will make good use of their Covid relief funding to do just that.

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