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Liberal Democracy Vs. the Corona Crisis

Eirikur Bergmann is Professor of Politics at Bifrost University, Iceland, and Director of its Centre for European Studies. He is the author of Neo-Nationalism: The Rise of Nativist Populism and nine other academic books, and three novels.

The Corona Crisis might prove to be the most vexing calamity humans have faced since the Second World War. The virus reaches all corners of the world and so does the economic and political predicament that follows. This is a multi-phased and multi-layered quandary, and it disrupts many of the most vital structures of modern societies. Although Covid-19 is a global outbreak, it still prompted a highly nationalistic response in many places. As I will explore in this article, the characteristics of the current crisis are in many ways reminiscent of those that previously have led to a rise of nativist populism – the Neo-Nationalism which defines much of contemporary politics in the West.

Fragmented world

Governments around the world responded in various ways to the disease. Some imposed draconian lockdown measures, even suspending traditional human rights. Restrictive measures taken by many governments – mainstream and populist alike – have also raised significant concerns regarding democracy and human rights around the globe. Many of them in effect violated the principles of liberal democracy. Other governments limited their actions to only issuing general guidelines to the public and urging for caution. In several cases, chaos reigned. The vastly differing and sometimes contradictory response to the same core problem illustrates a highly fragmented global system, a weakness which unscrupulous populists might attempt to exploit. In Hungary, for example, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz government went for a quick power grab, almost completing the transformation to authoritarianism.

According to contemporary history, these are precisely the sorts of circumstances in which Neo-Nationalists can find success. History indeed teaches that socio-economic crises tend to pave the way for populistic nationalists to seize the moment and place themselves as saviours of the people/nation against both an external threat and the domestic elite.

Liberal democracy

After two devastating world wars the West embraced a new system of liberal democracy. In addition to increased systemic cross-border state co-operation and pooling of sovereignty, the post-war liberal democratic system rested on shared values, including the rule of law, firm division of power, free trade across borders, respect for human rights, wide reaching civil rights, unbiased and professional administration, and a free and independent media. This was the liberal aspect of the post-war democratic order installed to protect individuals and minorities from oppression by the majority. These basic rules of liberal democracies were respected across the political spectrum and the system indeed celebrated human diversity. It actively and persistently countered collectiveness.

Three waves

Over three distinctive waves in the last half century nativist populist political parties have, however, contested this post-war liberal democratic order. On the canopy of these waves they have since travelled from the fringes and to the mainstream in European and American politics. All of these waves were ignited by crises.

The first rose in Western Europe in the wake of the Oil Crisis in the early 1970s. The second began after the fall of the Berlin Wall, first mainly in opposition to migrants from Eastern Europe from seeking work in the West. Far-right populism travelled east in the 2000s, when a promise of prosperity accompanying new-found liberal democracy was failing to materialize in many places. The third wave was triggered by the Financial Crisis of 2008. Via the Refugee Crisis of 2015 in the wake of the Syrian War anti-immigrant and far-right populism found foothold even in Germany, where such sentiments had always been suppressed after the devastations of Nazism.

Prior to the Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 we had started to witness a new counter-wave emerging, a kind of anti-populist pushback against the nativists and their populist gale. However, with the new crisis deepening, nationalist sentiments are mounting once again.

Two caveats

In the current crisis, populists around the world are faced with a caveat – two, actually. First, populists are now in power in many countries. They are thus no longer solely placed as challengers positioned on the outside from the ruling elite. In many countries, they are in fact the ruling elite. Reverting to the traditional populist tactics of attacking the ruling elite from the periphery might thus be more difficult this time around.

Populists in power have indeed found difficulties in navigating through the crisis, and their response has been somewhat erratic in several places. Both Donald Trump in America and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil attempted to place themselves as outsiders, for example defying lockdown measures of local and regional governments. They flirted with several conspiracy theories of both external evil and internal traitors, and they blamed everyone but themselves. Numerous examples like these existed of populists in power undermining proper and professional administration when dealing with crises. It can be argued that erratic decisions and a lack of coherent and coordinated policymaking served to deepen the crisis.

The second caveat is found in the nature of this crisis. Around the globe, populists tend to offer simple solutions to complex problems. They are also prone to dismissing the wisdom of specialists and discrediting established knowledge. Both Trump and Bolsonaro scorned scientific warnings around the disease and dismissed most concerns raised by experts. This unifying characteristic of populists might prove problematic to overcome in this particular crisis, as Covid-19 is a complex global quandary which there are no simple solutions to. Only via unified cross-border effort of world-leading scientists can a remedy be found to this truly global crisis.

The tide is high

However, although these conditions around this current crisis might disrupt the populist message, and thus hinder an otherwise unrestricted rise of Neo-Nationalism, nativist populists might still be able to bypass these difficulties and find a way to blame the faulty situation on their classical culprits, external evil and the traitorous domestic elite.

As I document in the book Neo-Nationalism: The Rise of Nativist Populism history teaches that a crisis of this magnitude can lead to the rising of a tide which becomes arduous for the mainstream to control. Bearing in mind the forces that have triggered the rise of populism in the wake of previous crises, it is not all too difficult to imagine that the current calamity might be of a magnitude that could allow populistic politicians to leap over the caveats discussed above and stretch towards another surge of Neo-Nationalism.

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