Tyrants Hate a Plague

But Covid cripples democracies too. Which system works best against a pandemic?

Police detaining a demonstrator in Prague during a protest against Covid restrictions. (Photo: AP/Petr David Josek)

[An excerpt from his upcoming book, Is it Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic]

In the opening scene of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the eponymous hero struggles to identify the cause of a plague now laying waste to his city, Thebes. As it turns out, the outbreak was not only provoked by his own actions but can be wiped out only by his own death or banishment. Re-read today, this story suggests that “the god of plague” can destroy any ruler who stakes his reputation on defeating it. Could this be why so many leaders obsessed with projecting an image of their own omnipotence have met the current pandemic with magical thinking, cowardly blame-shifting, and a weirdly dazed immobility?

More than any other crisis, a public-health emergency can induce people voluntarily to accept restrictions on their liberties in the hope of improving their personal security. Invasive surveillance systems and bans on freedom of assembly have been introduced and accepted around the world with little public pushback. And the striking example of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has given himself the power to rule by decree and destroy political opponents in the name of combatting the virus, gives us grounds to fear that the current health crisis (and the economic downturn that it has set in motion) can embolden other populists in their quest for unchecked power. But are the restrictions on individual freedom imposed in response to Covid-19, restrictions that disallow not only anti-government protests but also strutting military parades and strident pro-government rallies, genuinely favorable to authoritarian concentrations or seizures of power?

Political theorists are right that authoritarian leaders thrive on crises and that they are fluent in the politics of fear. Yet not all crises are amenable to authoritarian solutions. Nor does every form of public fear accrue to the benefit of political power. The crises that authoritarians most enjoy are those that they have manufactured themselves, or that at least permit them to showcase their imagined strengths. Carl Schmitt said that dictators aspire to wield the power of God to work miracles. But the Almighty is never asked to solve problems thrust upon Him by an unpredictably changing world that He has not created and over which He exercises minimal control.

Only by displaying their unconstrained freedom to choose which crisis warrants a response can leaders project an image of godlike power. Covid-19 has eliminated this freedom to choose. In pre-Covid Russia, President Vladimir Putin could easily “solve” one crisis by conjuring up another. He managed to reverse the decline of his popularity following the protest movement of 2011–12 by dramatically annexing Crimea. In pre-Covid America, long before he assured the public that the coronavirus would soon miraculously disappear, President Donald Trump recklessly dismantled the federal government’s emergency-response capacity on the apparent assumption that only emergencies of his own imagining, such as migrant caravans from Mexico, would occur.

As a seemingly unstoppable crisis that has riveted the attention of the global public, Covid-19 deprives authoritarian and authoritarian-minded leaders of the chance to manufacture a “better crisis.” Far from citing the coronavirus crisis to justify an increase in power, a high-profile slew of populists and autocrats have strenuously and ridiculously denied the very existence of the pandemic. Among them we find the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro; the Belarusian strongman, Alexander Lukashenko; Turkmenistan’s autocratic president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov; and the Nicaraguan dictator, Daniel Ortega. A professor of international relations in São Paulo has labeled them “the Ostrich Alliance.” But they are not the only aspiring tyrants who, afraid of appearing helpless in the face of a raging plague, have plunged their heads into the sands of Covid denialism.

Political leaders in general prefer “enemies” who can unconditionally surrender to anonymous “threats” that need to be managed over time. Would-be dictators, in particular, find it more rewarding to pose as “deciders” than to do the hard work required of “problem-solvers.” The former allows them to vaunt their I-alone-can-solve-it unilateralism, while the latter requires them to cooperate with others, to freely admit their own mistakes, and to spend the time needed to master complex and evolving situations. Flashy stunts by men-of-action must give way to slow and laborious efforts by anonymous professionals.

It is not only that authoritarian leaders despise crises that they do not freely choose and which require them to stake their prestige on cooperatively resolving problems that, at the outset, are difficult to understand; they also spurn “exceptional situations” that compel them to respond with standardized rules and protocols rather than with ad hoc, discretionary moves. Mundane behaviors such as social distancing, self-isolation and washing hands are the best way to stop the spread of the disease. The leader’s strokes of genius, inviting thunderous applause, are perfectly irrelevant. Worse still, the palpable courage of ICU doctors and nurses makes phony heroics in presidential palaces appear even more pathologically narcissistic than before.

Unlike democratic leaders, who can suffer defeat on a policy initiative and still manage to govern, authoritarian leaders follow the maxim: “never show weakness.” This is yet another reason why Covid- 19, which gives no signs of abating anytime soon, has proved particularly unwelcome to rulers obsessed with projecting an image of indomitable power. That the virus is indifferent to governmental edicts is obvious. Even worse for the optics of authority, citizen compliance with phase-two government orders to restart the economy is much less deferential than citizen compliance with instructions to keep their families safe.

Covid-19 also compels leaders to share both power and the political limelight with epidemiologists and other experts. In the Covid-19 world, a political leader risks losing all credibility if he continues to reward personal loyalty over technical competence, dismisses mask-wearing as an expression of political correctness or pontificates from the stage without being accompanied by medical specialists. Up-to-date information and professional advice are what matter to a frightened public. More rhetorically hyped xenophobia and political polarization have marginal appeal at best. This must be especially grating to leaders who have risen to power by dismissing all discomfiting information as political and ideological. Contrary to their basic instincts, many would-be authoritarians are being forced by the pandemic into a system of power-sharing and even podium-sharing that they may inwardly despise but cannot politically avoid.

A final feature of the current pandemic that causes problems for aspiring authoritarians is the global nature of the crisis. The ubiquity of the disease makes it possible for people to compare the actions of their own governments with the actions of other governments around the world. Success or failure at flattening the curve provides a common metric, making cross-national comparisons possible and putting strong pressure on governments that had previously succeeded in insulating themselves from public criticism. The opening provided by easy government-to-government comparisons gives citizens a capacity to grade their government’s performance. This is a problem for authoritarian regimes and authoritarian-minded leaders, who previously got away with staged “performances” supplemented by the silencing of whistle-blowers and critics.

We are in the midst of a long-term crisis. It is therefore too soon to make any definitive judgment about which governments have dealt most effectively with the unfolding pandemic and its radiating consequences. But we can already see how some of the world’s most prominent populists and authoritarians are being swept to ruin by the god of plague, just as Sophocles would have led us to expect.

In trying to guess the direction of change, many other commentators have become preoccupied with whether democracies or authoritarian regimes deal better with the pandemic, even though it is clear that the nature of the political regime is not the critical factor explaining success or failure in containing the pandemic. As Rachel Kleinfeld has argued, “While some autocracies have performed well, like Singapore, others have done very poorly, like Iran. Similarly, some democracies have stumbled, like Italy and the United States, while others have performed admirably, like South Korea and Taiwan.”

In Kleinfeld’s analysis, the main factors that determine a nation’s success at containing the Covid-19 pandemic are governments’ previous experiences of dealing with similar crises, the level of social trust in a society, and the capacity of the state. In her view, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, though politically diverse, learned the right lessons from the SARS epidemic in 2002–3 and developed speedy tests soon after the coronavirus began spreading, in order to try to get ahead of the virus. All three countries had emergency laws that permitted the extraordinary right to track where infected individuals had been, and they relaxed privacy regulations to spread that information widely and alert people that they had been exposed to the virus and should be tested. Finally, they relied on heavily enforced quarantines to slow the spread of the outbreak.

All the countries that effectively beat back Covid-19 have high levels of public trust in their institutions; the success of governmental social control depends more on voluntary compliance than on enforcement. Although China, Singapore and South Korea have quite different political regimes, all three are in the top ten countries in the world when it comes to public trust in government. And only governments that are trusted by their citizens can effectively maintain an onerous lockdown.

Conversely, in authoritarian Iran and democratic Italy, the public’s low trust in their institutions has made the introduction of social distancing more problematic. Political polarization and low trust, according to Kleinfeld, also at least partially explain the difficulties the United States has had in dealing with the crisis.

A government’s capacity—its ability to intervene successfully in areas ranging from communication and health provision to quarantine maintenance and equipment manufacturing—is the third critical factor that Kleinfeld thinks has determined a successful response to the crisis. This capacity is only loosely related to a country’s GDP or the character of its political regime. It is the quality of the bureaucracy that is decisive rather than the size of the budget or even the amount of health spending.

Kleinfeld’s research demonstrates that, while the coronavirus pandemic intensified the competitive propaganda between democratic and authoritarian systems, the global response to the coronavirus blurred the borders between different types of regimes. Democratic regimes were just as willing to violate the privacy of their citizens as authoritarian ones. At the same time, it was clear that authoritarian rulers were just as interested in the responses of the public as democratic politicians who fear the next election.

In the words of political philosopher David Runciman, “Under a lockdown, democracies reveal what they have in common with other political regimes: here too politics is ultimately about power and order.” In the days of the Covid-19 lockdown, all institutions and all public functions were divided between essential and non-essential ones, between those that you could send home and those who you could not afford to send home. Unfortunately, in this divide, parliaments ended on the non-essential side, and one of the legacies of the Covid-19 crisis will be a further decline of the role of parliaments at the expense of the executive power. The proliferation of contested elections could be one more outcome of the crisis. It is yet to be seen whether democracies or authoritarian regimes are more effective in the second wave of the pandemic. But it is the internal transformation of both democratic and authoritarian regimes, rather than transition to democracy or tyranny, that will be the real political legacy of Covid-19.

In other words, the change that Covid-19 brings is not a new version—either authoritarian or democratic—of “the end of history”; what it may bring is a less ideological but a more unstable world.

The political scientist Ivan Krastev, a member of Persuasion’s Board of Advisors, is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies. His new book, Is it Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic, will be published on Oct. 29 by Allen Lane.