COVID-19 Requires More Democracy, Not Less
Archon Fung argues in the Boston Review that when our leader’s policies fail us, we must act as leaders ourselves.
In a pandemic it is natural to wish for decisive leadership from big government authorities guided by the best science and medical expertise. It is tempting to set aside democratic niceties — questioning authority, raising alternative perspectives, vigorous debate, disagreement, and experimentation — in favor of trusting leaders and experts. Echoing this widespread notion, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote recently in the Atlantic that “what matters” to success in dealing with COVID-19 is “whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state.”
But the idea that we must sacrifice our democratic impulses in favor of strong central authority is dangerously misguided. Maintaining a robust participatory democracy is the best way for Americans to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and to rebuild our society in its wake. In a vibrant democracy, citizens oriented toward the common good do their part to make society work well. In this pandemic, that means that each of us needs to do our part to stop the disease and to help figure out the best ways for our communities to move forward.
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Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research explores policies, practices, and institutional designs that deepen the quality of democratic governance. He focuses upon public participation, deliberation, and transparency. He co-directs the Transparency Policy Project and leads democratic governance programs of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School. His books include Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency (Cambridge University Press, with Mary Graham and David Weil) and Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy (Princeton University Press). He has authored five books, four edited collections, and over fifty articles appearing in professional journals. He received two S.B.s — in philosophy and physics — and his Ph.D. in political science from MIT.