The article is written in the form of an essay (for Dahrendorf Symposium), speculative in essence, yet based on the new selected evidence concerning peoples’ opinions and attitudes disclosed during the pandemic. It starts with remarks about predictions in social sciences and the complex problems in studying the shocks created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Second part is devoted to major challenges and trade-offs states, governments and citizens have to face currently, focusing on one particular which is crucial for the future quality of liberal democracies, that is a trade-off between democratic norms and values and surveillance practices. The article concludes with a discussion of several issues, which have become more salient during the pandemic, challenging our previous knowledge about them.
Frankly speaking, I don’t know exactly which are the big questions of our time concerning the future of the liberal order. One may also be skeptical whether Ralf Dahrendorf’s dictum applies to the current situation of a pandemic world. This is because Dahrendorf’s concern pertains to the world that is more or less “obvious,” in which we are encouraged to “question authority” and ask unthinkable questions. Well taken, yet the world—as of mid-2020—is far from obvious, authority is being redefined, and it is legitimate to suspect that we might be asking the wrong questions. Dahrendorf is remembered, as well, for his insistence on the complexity of the contemporary world, and this part of his heritage seems to me even more important at this uncertain time than the former matter.
Let me start with the issue of the pandemic-added complexity of the contemporary world and our ability to predict correctly. First, in order to predict, one has to rely on long-term, reliable data. It seems that many, if not most, axiomatic beliefs about what we think and prefer, and how likely it is that we will behave accordingly, are pretty problematic at this critical point in time. Second, numerous accounts have warned us that the mental condition of Homo sapiens of the early twenty-first century is under strain, and the tensions bordering our inability to adapt to the changing civilizational contexts we live in are paramount. To be sure, it is a matter of the sheer speed—and as a consequence, the magnitude—of the innovations haunting us on a daily basis. In the century-old parlance of William Ogburn, the adaptive, nonmaterial culture of individuals and societies lags behind the technical, material culture, creating a gap resulting in social disorganization. The nonmaterial one is resistant to change; the technological-material one is ontologically innovative. Third, the impacts (plural) of the pandemic itself are numerous. Several questions need to be addressed before we will be able to try to depict and understand its nature. Here are a few key questions: (a) Is the virus a “natural” product, or was it created by humans? (b) Which stage of the coronavirus crisis are we at: is it just the beginning, or are we heading toward its end? The corollary of the answer to this last question is readiness to estimate the number of victims of the pandemic; are they to be counted in hundreds of thousands or in millions? It is fundamental to evaluate many other aspects of our behavior during the pandemic. (c) Which countries, regions, or cultures have adopted the best pandemic policies? Is it because of their state capacity, cultural legacies, or quality of the public? Answers to these questions will have a profound impact on future international relations, the relative power of particular countries, and the new world order. Since we hardly know the answers to any of the above questions, we have to be cautious when we speculate on the distant future and the lot of liberal democracies in it.
What follows is thus an exploratory essay that combines description of basic challenges ahead of us, alternatives we have to decide upon, and serious trade-offs to choose from, all seen from the perspective of social sciences.
Several caveats are due at this point: (1) This essay concentrates on what I consider to be important issues of the day, which, however—so far—have been underarticulated in the public debate; I refrain from repeating certain obvious observations concerning the nature and the likely consequences of the pandemic that are frequently and widely discussed.1 (2) The narrative and the genre of this essay will mainly (though not exclusively) present the problems covered as trade-offs or alternatives to be decided between rather than simple descriptions of challenges. (3) A serious discussion concerning the very essence of contemporary social sciences is an urgent matter.
I. Let me start with the new situation and the role of the social sciences. The most fundamental and prospectively vital question pertains to their, broadly speaking, relative utility—vis-à-vis the natural sciences, will they prove valuable and functional in practical terms?—in assisting decision makers to implement constructive (pandemic) policies. If they don’t, their already questioned status might deteriorate further. When we look at the reaction of universities and other academic institutions, the endeavors of the social sciences have been fast and thorough, though due to the very nature of the unparalleled blow from COVID-19 to all aspects of our lives, the research itself lacks the typical rigor and methodological reliability. The social sciences have to defend their reputation by showing their usefulness not only vis-à-vis the natural sciences but increasingly in relation to the big data of the IT giants. Moreover, the key issue that the social sciences have to face in the near future is their mega-paradigmatic assumptions—COVID-19 seems not to be a purely endogenous problem but rather a clear example of anthropocentric imperialism and its side effects. At the end of the light is a tunnel: the social sciences will have to reconsider the role and place of humans in nature. The current pandemic and the essential problem of climate change will certainly be one of those key trade-offs.
The empirical social sciences are pretty much concentrated on testing and revealing frequencies (how many people hold which views), yet at this point in time (in fact, always) another sociological criterion—the intensity with which people hold their views and the potential to translate them into behavior—seems to be of utmost importance. Our reports about pandemic development, trade-offs, and alternatives that have to be decided should scrupulously take into account the frequency-intensity distinction, which will allow both for better understanding of the new phenomena and for crafting of adequate policies to be implemented.
It is imperative that the social sciences currently orient themselves more toward empirical recording than tasks of theory development, and that they be mobilized to analyze and explain citizens’ opinions and attitudes, even if those are clearly prejudices, stereotypes, opinions driven by parties’ heuristic cues, or manifestations of conspiracy theories’ fake news. The public’s attitudes and opinions have to be first identified and only then analyzed and theorized. The topics to be covered range from opinions about coronavirus development and policies implemented, and people’s readiness to comply with restrictions, through assessment of the new conflicts and the development of fragmentation of societies, to the macro issues of the role of the state in the new circumstances. The more ambitious should seek to answer the question of where to look for real deep causation and how to distinguish it from the impact of potent contextual factors. At an even higher level of abstraction, the legitimate question is, Should the pandemic developments and their consequences be treated mainly as fate or as arising from human choice?
In more detail, we have to be able soon to identify and distinguish between those public issues that are controversial and those that manifest a high degree of consensus. Equally important is the focus on causality rather than correlation. Moreover, the social sciences should meanwhile (during the first phase of the pandemic) concentrate on the triggering “causal mechanisms” of the phenomena under scrutiny, yet ultimately the academic world and curious publics at large will call upon us to reveal the “causal depth” of the studied phenomena. These two goals rarely go together smoothly. The social sciences have to track the new social conflicts and the enhancement of pandemic-driven inequalities, and also to chase those parts of populations that are exposed to and more likely fall victim to fake news. Briefly: the big question is whether the pandemic experience will boost the meritocratic and scientific as key orienting “tools” and values in our societies, or whether there will be a backlash toward religious dogmas, gossip, and prejudice. In order to be capable of achieving this task, the social sciences themselves have to revitalize their positivistic, empirical, behavioral traditions and relegate the speculative legacies of constructivism, hermeneutics, phenomenology, interpretivism, and narrative-discursive approaches to a more marginal status. While at times the latter are extremely helpful in pilot studies and in the phase of conceptualization and operationalization of the research, all—to a different degree—encourage people to claim there is no “truth” or “true interpretation of reality.” To be sure, two specifications are due at this point; first, the remark above on the phenomenological, interpretative, et cetera, approaches pertains mainly to cases in which poorly prepared scholars or ideologically oriented public intellectuals are making (ab)use of its selected results. Second, people’s subjective definitions and interpretations of the world, even their illusions, are important and can be treated as “facts,” yet only to the extent that they need to be taken care of analytically as objects of our research. A significant number of humans “interpret” the earth as being flat. They offer us “sophisticated” phenomenological narratives of what they believe in. So? Shall we organize global trade, air traffic, and the like in accordance with this insightful narrative? It is this social sciences tradition of rejection of facts, objectivity, causality, and empirical proof that has contributed—among other phenomena—to the vibrant occurrence in the public domain of widespread bullshitting, fake news, and post-truth narratives.
Meanwhile, we know for sure: “no facts—no democracy,” in its liberal version in particular.
II. Trade-offs and alternative choices rather than challenges. As already mentioned in the introduction, real life and the political/public one force us to make decisions. Most of them are complex and arduous—even more so in democracies as the sovereign expects responsiveness from their representatives. What follows is partly based on a recently submitted project proposal2 to be in the field (if successful) in the fall of 2020. The overall idea is founded on the assumption that the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in fairly diverse responses to its challenges by particular EU governments. Not only diverse, but pretty unstable. Initially, most governments have prioritized medical and public health concerns over economic ones; some have moved far in restricting civil rights, while others have refrained from doing so. As a result, states, governments, and citizens at large are currently facing numerous multidimensional challenges and trade-offs, accompanied by unpredictable side effects unknown in the recent past. The major trade-off between public health and economic concerns is only one—even if the most important—among several to be decided both by politicians and by citizens.
A complex trade-off stems from the political decisions to restrict market activities and force certain jobs into lockdown, resulting—along with various other dilemmas—in generating new winners and losers of the market competition; the latter situation being a consequence of unequal ability to use technological innovations that have an impact on new forms of work organization. Another multifaceted trade-off with lasting consequences pertains to the problem of the likely setback to climate change priorities. The more citizens feel their standard of living is deteriorating because of the pandemic restrictions, the less likely they are to be ready to bear additional costs of supporting environment-friendly policies. Additional challenges and trade-offs might definitely spring from the previously existing inequalities and unequal treatment of certain social groups during the implementation of anti-epidemic measures, and the possible deterioration of their already marginalized and vulnerable status. Finally, democratic norms and values are at risk when confronted with the need to enforce compliance and strict control of citizens’ behavior, often with increased surveillance practices. This challenge—depending on its exact version—may mobilize social unrest and resistance to even necessary measures for controlling the spread of the infection.
Let me focus on the last trade-off between democratic norms and surveillance practices as this one might have long-term, unintended (yet at times intended) consequences and side effects for liberal democracies. A trivial reminder of what liberal democracies are is currently frequently, if unexpectedly, needed. So, here we go: Liberal democracy is characterized by three fundamental features: (a) the liberal principle that the state abides by the rule of law and that citizens are protected from arbitrary decisions; (b) the democratic principle that free and fair elections are held regularly and that power is controlled in the interim by institutionalized mechanisms of responsiveness and accountability; (c) a system of checks and balances that ensures that power does not accumulate to a large extent in particular institutions. These three features form the core of contemporary liberal democracies, a core that is, in some cases, supplemented by input-side mechanisms of direct democracy or by output-related commitments to the provision of social justice. Different models of democracies exist in Europe in terms of variations on this core. Furthermore, there are also substantial variations in terms of consolidation and quality.
Within the polities, we have to analyze the trade-off between normative values, rules, and principles of democracies both as acknowledged in principle and as observed in practice, and the attempts made by formal actors to enforce compliance with methods to impose and control the development of infections by enacting strict legislation on and surveillance of the behavior of citizens. In “normal times,” such innovative surveillance practices would undoubtedly have been rejected in practice and perhaps even excluded from the ambit of public debate as excessively illiberal policy options, yet in the current pandemic situation, they are not only observed but widely accepted by substantial proportions of citizens in liberal democracies as the discussions around the various coronavirus-tracing apps show.
The collection of data about citizens in general and groups in particular has been a typical practice of contemporary governance, yet the digital age intensifies the interest of governments in data about citizens, creating a particular tension in the relationship between the citizen and the state in contemporary democracies. The sheer technical ability to transform astronomic amounts of human opinions, preferences, and records of behavior and movements into well-documented data available to a range of institutions, including government institutions, calls for a scrupulous analysis of this relationship and its implications for democratic norms and practices. This is of particular importance in times of crisis, when data collections result in surveillance practices that can be considered useful and successful to contain infections but that are at odds with liberal democratic fundamental principles.
The surveillance practices of the state and the IT companies are by now well documented and analyzed. The novel phenomenon that springs from the pandemic is the surveillance practices citizens themselves exercise and experience. In most countries, one witnesses a widespread grassroots mobilization and activity aimed allegedly at preventing the spread of the virus, which adds to our knowledge about informal social-control mechanisms in the making. People are more likely and more willing than before the outbreak of the pandemic to monitor the daily routine behavior of their fellow citizens and neighbors and intervene, if need be.
Informal social control is a well-established phenomenon across social sciences disciplines, anthropology and sociology in particular, as a real existing mechanism crafting social cohesion and order, created via individuals’ socialization to conformity with rules, norms, and values. The problem we’re currently faced with is the newness of these recent informal social-control mechanisms, which derives—so far—from the lack of axiological foundations: the rules are new, the norms are vague, and the values are contested. As a consequence, this widespread phenomenon itself creates a new reality in which privacy, discretion, and confidentiality acquire an ambiguous new quality. It is tightly linked to the other trade-offs of the pandemic age mentioned at the beginning of this section, in particular the issue of inequalities (old and new), the fluctuating divide between winners and losers, and the treatment of particular minorities and other excluded groups. One possible side effect of this new informal social control practiced by our compatriots will most likely be a selective and messy labeling of vulnerable groups and individuals, contributing to collateral manifestations of social marginalization—a new social order in the making? At this point (in my view, at least), one should refrain from attempts at depicting the macro picture of future societies as there are far too many unknowns in the equation. However, we ought constantly to monitor and examine these new phenomena as they might heavily contribute to a paramount social change and add to the complexity of our social environment that Ralf Dahrendorf was so preoccupied with.
Overall—and back to the main topic—the necessary research activities rest on the key assumption that the surveillance practices are not simply disparate initiatives by particularly “inquisitive” institutions at particular moments in time but are systemic features of twenty-first century capitalism. The clash between democratic norms and the expansion of surveillance practices in recent months as a result of pandemic conditions is only a new and particularly heightened manifestation of a problem that has been with us for a long time but has accelerated during the last two decades and in particular since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis. Current developments in the introduction of surveillance practices constitute not a new phenomenon in principle (though it seems to be new in size and speed) but rather a contextual factor of an old problem.
The phenomenon of surveillance practices is a systemic one. Recent publications either suggest that it is embedded into the logic of capitalism itself or point to the fact that it is a source of substantial profit for market giants. Regardless of how we explain its origins and nature, it is a mechanism that creates a sociopsychological reality external to most individuals, who are not—whether or not they believe themselves to be—active creators of this reality. The operation of this surveillance-dominated market might transform human opinions, preferences, and beliefs into a corpus of data that provides a rich source of information on human behavior. These data can then be exploited to create new preferences and/or to mitigate existing ones, which might be in conflict with democratic principles, such as the rule of law or the notion of checks and balances. Furthermore, the general societal interest in the exploitation of this corpus of data might be in conflict with citizens’ right to privacy.
What, then, needs urgently to be studied in order to arrive at a reasonable package of knowledge that can be translated into policy recommendations in liberal democracies in Europe?
First, we need to provide a detailed description and interpretation of the varying laws governing surveillance in the EU polities as well as more general and at the same time detailed interpretation of constitutional and other legal provisions related to the issue of the freedoms and rights of citizens. Second, we need thorough new examination of citizens’ opinions and attitudes on democracy, privacy, and surveillance practices, and their legitimacy (how much legitimacy is attributed to the state as actor versus the IT giants as actors) during the COVID-19 pandemic. This data ought to be combined with citizens’ knowledge about and behavior concerning contemporary technological devices, data-gathering procedures, and surveillance practices in particular by collecting survey data over time. Third, it should reliably relate this information to contextual variables and event data.
In greater detail, we need to scrutinize and understand what governments, IT giants, and numerous grassroots university-based or nonprofit organizations are doing to protect citizens from surveillance abuse and to guarantee their privacy rights. Citizens across the European Union are all confronted with key questions like the following: what kind of surveillance and tracking might be accepted because of the health protection issue and the future revitalization of the economy? A detailed focus on the problem of the increasing availability of digital data describing (and, in the following, facilitating the manipulation of) human development, in particular on what is dubbed “data fumes,” is needed. These by-products of people’s use of technological tools are driving a fundamental shift in policy-making from a predominantly data-informed to a data-driven policy-making process. This is a qualitative difference both in attitudes and in behavior.
Of course, it needs to be pointed out that some of the digital surveillance tools compel users to opt in to data collection, although a lot is already decided by IT companies able to follow citizens’ preferences, predict people’s behavior, and aggregate trends. Problems are minor and controllable when aggregate data is concerned. The issue becomes more complex when individual tracking is involved, as happens to be the case with quarantine enforcement and the tracing apps discussed in this regard. Several unique forms of individual-level tracking are being proposed: for instance, to offer immunity passes for those who have recovered from the virus, to check observance of quarantine directives, or to map and control movements of sick persons.
As a consequence, privacy regulations are likely to become more fluid—if not for eternity, certainly for a considerable period of time. We need to monitor those in place before the COVID-19 crisis and see how they changed or are in the process of being changed under the new, unexpected circumstances. As a result, we acknowledge that privacy regulations alone had been losing already to the possibilities of contemporary data-collection giants. Research designs should assume that privacy is more than just guarding personal information that citizens are unwilling to share. Surveillance affects much more—it constrains citizens’ life chances and can limit their rationality and repertoire of choices, frequently in fundamental ways. At the same time, powerful market interests are seeking to monetize what is being called “data exhaust” springing from daily routine online exchanges and to turn it toward their main purpose, which is to influence and alter (if need be) people’s preferences, opinions, and behavior.
Research should seek to answer the question of citizens’ awareness of the dangers posed by surveillance mechanisms at work. To what extent—and compared to what—do they envisage these mechanisms threatening their private lives and, more generally, the quality of our democratic social order? More detailed analyses ought to focus on the class, ethnic, and other stratification differences to which citizens of European democracies are exposed because of where they live, the extent to which legal context allows for monitoring and surveillance practices, and, depending on the level of social awareness of these problems, the extent to which prejudice, misinformation, and stereotypes dominate in particular social settings—and might, in particular, be affected by the varying contextual measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis. Generally, populations are unaware of what happens to their preferences, opinions, and unveiled behavior recorded by market IT giants and governmental agencies. Moreover, there is also a problem of low level of awareness among the implementers of these new technologies, specifically when it comes to the issue of their neutrality of access, understanding of the impacts on society at large, and the unpredictability of the side effects.
In liberal democracies, citizens also face another dilemma: that between their personal freedom and their security. Some citizens consistently prioritize freedom over security, others prioritize the reverse—security over personal freedom—and still others change prioritization depending on the context defined by different notions of security, divergent surveillance practices in their respective countries, or the quality of their democracy and the rule of law. Several questions arise and have to be studied. First, we need to establish how large each of the abovementioned groups is within the different countries and how they differ. Second, we need to explore the factors that change prioritizations in either way. By modeling these various scenarios, we should obtain knowledge about the tipping point for the malleable group and when a majority of citizens would opt for surveillance practices over democratic principles. Third, how numerous is the group that seeks to simultaneously maximize both freedom and security; and what exactly do they opt for, and how do they mobilize or institutionalize? Fourth, an apathetic attitude is a fairly common phenomenon, in less developed democracies in particular. As a consequence, the legitimate question to be asked pertains to the proportion of those who “don’t care” about this trade-off (back to the point on the importance of distinguishing between frequencies and intensities). Briefly, it might be salient or not; it might differ according to the political cultures of the respective countries, to social groups, to political and ideological identities as well as to different periods.
And again, for the future of liberal democracies, such projects will have to strictly account for, distinguish, and deliver a clear answer on whether such dangers come chiefly from the state or from the market. As of today, it seems that it is the market, not the state, that holds the cards in the surveillance game. Yet because contemporary surveillance activities and institutions are complex, vague and opaque employment of experimental methods aimed at disentangling the complicated psychological and motivational mechanisms that contribute to the current state of affairs is needed. Next, since different groups of people are not targeted in the same way, depending also on whether the surveillance is mainly for policing, commerce, health, welfare, or other domains, it differs in character and sorts populations into categories that are subsequently exposed to stimuli relevant for particular objectives. Vulnerable groups are increasingly and unfairly targeted by those who have the capacity to manipulate people. In this sense, the problem of “data justice” becomes urgent and needs to be analyzed. In addition, one has to account for the clear incompatibility of two temporal developments, the data-driven discrimination that is progressing typically in line with the pace of technological advancement of data processing and the awareness and mechanism of combating such discrimination that are clearly lagging behind (again, along the lines of William Ogburn’s century-old “cultural lag theory” and its consequences).
III. A list of additional challenges, alternative choices to be made, and trade-offs crucial for the future of liberal democracies.
(1) Media autonomy and good quality of journalism are pillars of a well-functioning liberal democracy. Scattered yet repeated data show that with the outbreak of the pandemic, a significant shift occurred in the usage of traditional media, internet, and social media. Many governments and then citizens, fairly early in the pandemic, recognized that they were receiving news about the epidemic and its consequences from clearly unreliable sources. In Britain serious politicians were urging replacing the BBC with social media, bloggers, and—unbelievably—something resembling Fox News. Yet data on consumption of media and confidence in media indicate that actually, in many countries, the opposite has happened: citizens at large displayed another manifestation of the “rally ’round the flag” phenomenon with increased trust in traditional media outlets and increased skepticism with respect to internet and social media messages. This phenomenon most likely has to do with simultaneous growth in confidence in experts, researchers, and science in general, and the phenomenon has to be scrutinized, taking all of these factors together. In a nutshell, it seems that quality journalism has a new, unexpected opportunity to attract attention and win the hearts and minds of average people. If successful, this trend would certainly be good news for liberal democracies as well, restoring part of the lost linkage between elites and masses mediated by trustworthy journalism based on facts… Sounds almost like a miracle.
(2) The quality of governance, state capacity to effectively implement policies, and the condition of a democratic citizenry in a given polity represent another set of problems to be looked at. A year or two from now, we will certainly have the opportunity to look at the globe and assess in more universal terms who has done well and who has failed during the pandemic. The major objects of these evaluations will be states, parties, ideologies, political cultures, and citizens in particular polities. In fact, the concept of state capacity will definitely be back: quality of governance and quality of the administration. Countries differ significantly in this respect. In some, the state has weak prestige in general, while in others, the state or the governing party has behaved in such a way as to neglect the problem. In still others, the ideological belief in the market as a means of solving all problems has a bearing on the pandemic developments. So far, however, as of mid-2020, we have far too many scenarios of pandemic policies, unreliable results among democratic and authoritarian regimes, in weak and strong states, in democratic communities and in those that fall short of being democratic, that it is difficult to see any patterns.
(3) The persistence and prevalence of conspiracy theory interpretations of the world is yet another crucial factor in the equation predicting future scenarios for the fate of liberal democracies. Conspiracy theories have been with us for centuries, yet this does not mean we have to refrain from efforts aimed at fighting or mitigating them. The twentieth-century history of European isms should alert us to how dangerous and costly mainstream passivity can be. The spread of conspiracy theories among the public creates a direct threat to liberal democracies; it is almost a universal part of the repertoire of populist and other radical parties of the day. Individual “carriers” of conspiracy theories reveal fairly typical features that are at odds with liberal democratic requirements. Serious research tells us that their beliefs spring not from mental disorders or sheer inability to think logically but rather from the context of alienation and social disconnection, resulting in lack of social identification and deep distrust of the outside world. They consider the world to be a dangerous, unpredictable place and regard themselves as vulnerable to the hostile out-groups, which are numerous and influential. The list of their constitutive features is much longer, but their essence is as sketched above. During the pandemic, a plethora of conspiracy theories mushroomed. Some claim that a deliberate political decision was made to get rid of elderly Chinese or to restructure the world order. Others claim that the challenge created by the virus is deliberately amplified by some governments to allow for tighter control of the populations, et cetera.
The problem liberal democracies are faced with in this respect is that we have no clue about how to effectively fight conspiracy theories. Because the elites and representatives are seen by them as the very source of disinformation and untrue interpretations of reality, elites’ messages about the facts and truth are unlikely to be effective, as the more people in authority aim at persuading conspiracy theorists about the truth, the more these activities are considered to be a proof of the conspiracy. Times of shocks and rapid changes, such as the time we are living through today, offer even more fertile soil for conspiracy theories because of—again—the sheer time needed for responsible academia and research to come to terms with the “ontology” of the virus and the adequacy of the measures implemented to fight it. Researchers need a year or two; conspiracy theorists know the truth right from the beginning. The intrinsic human inclination to avoid insecurity and ambiguity and to seek what psychologists call “cognitive closure,” even if via crude simplifications and apparently contradictory answers, is a potent force hardly to be mitigated by rational discourse. Seen from a subjective angle, these theories give people a sense of control, agency, and the prestige of belonging to in-groups. Briefly: this challenge will be of the utmost importance when the antivirus vaccine becomes available. How strong and persuasive will the arguments of the antivaccination camp be? Moreover, conspiracy theories are not uniform; there are many offering a wide array of “interpretations” and “explanations,” at times they are supported by powerful market interests… (You see how easy it is to unconsciously join them.) At this point, I doubt we have a clear policy on how to deal with these and related issues, issues that are crucial for the future success of liberal democracies.
(4) Serious reconceptualization of the representative basic bond is ahead of us. There are old problems with the quality of representation and its many new manifestations, some clearly outside the traditional elite-mass linkage, along with new problems that the current pandemic context might change for good. First and foremost, in extraordinary times additional power is entrusted in the executive branch for the single reason that governing by decree is speedy (which is an obvious necessity during a pandemic) and also because the executive branch has at its disposal the organizational and logistic tools essential for effective combat and mitigation of real hazards. At the same time, it raises serious questions about the quality of the accountability mechanism—first because pandemic times are times of temporariness, rule negotiability, and—if you will—a permanent state of becoming coupled with reorganization of many domains of our lives. In such circumstances, it is easy for the executive to call for flexibility in applying traditional accountability criteria to their actions, and to count on approval by a significant part of the population. Second, it indeed is difficult to employ traditional criteria of political evaluation because there are so many unknowns in the delegation-responsiveness-accountability equation. For one thing, as has become clear in the first few months of the current pandemic, its very nature fluctuates and results in real, deep uncertainty about how to proceed, what policies to implement. Moreover, in some instances, politicians have decided to “selectively abdicate” and make room for key decisions to be made by professionals—doctors, epidemiologists, biologists, and economists. In such cases, the epidemic-related problems are, in a way, left to professionals, which is another complicated version of the classical “trustee” relationship—in this instance, between politicians and professionals.
(5) In the discussion of the trade-offs and challenges mentioned above, I did not (for reasons of space) touch upon the general conflicting norms and values enshrined in our basic laws and constitutions, independent of the current pandemic. Yet they are numerous. Let me address just two that originate from a rights-based approach to democracy. First, democracy is a complex, time-consuming, and demanding system; not only are its institutions in a tangled relationship that deliberately slows down decision-making processes, but it is also crucial to recognize that efficiency and functionality of the political systems are equally important, which creates systemic tensions. Second, currently politics needs to find a new balance among divergent fundamental rights: for instance, when majority rule—an outcome of a fair democratic process—clashes with human or minority rights. This issue is particularly salient in an era of backsliding into authoritarianism in some formerly consolidated democracies. As a corollary, we are faced with another real-world alternative concerning democratic governance and stability: the choice between procedural correctness of our polities and their economic output efficiency, which pretty often requires resolute decisions. In the globalized world, the executive branch is increasingly under time pressure to make proper decisions, a circumstance that frequently forces it to evade procedural requirements of the constitutionally specified decision-making rules. There are many such key dilemmas. In a stealthy environment of democratic decay, such decay often manifests itself in the form of “salami tactics” and small “adjustments,” which, however, amount to huge disruptions affecting foundations of the existing democratic political order at the aggregate level. Besides, a sustainable, rights-based democracy requires that citizens are knowledgeable about their rights, about constitutional provisions and the institutionalized procedural norms, and, last but not least, that they are ready to defend them and hold politicians accountable in case violations occur. In less affluent societies, in fragile democracies, and among poorer social strata, political clientelism can, however, effectively discourage citizens from acting against political malpractice.
Predicting has always been a fairly suicidal behavior; in times of global shocks, forecasting is almost impossible. The current pandemic situation has enhanced the already too rapid civilizational development of the last few decades, leaving humans with very limited means to adapt to an environment that is changing multidimensionally. To be sure, the essence of the species we happen to be is inadequate for the sheer speed at which change is taking place. Besides, currently we are speeding toward the unknown and the uncertain.
On the flip side, a more positive view allows us to believe that such (rather fallacious) predictions are a valuable historical record of our way of thinking and reasons for interpreting why certain predictions failed. One reason being, paradoxically, that the predictions were correct and the actions taken adequate and effective.
A serious concern has to be spelled out at the end: academia and experts should undertake an effort to monitor the “path dependency” mechanism of current policies proposed and implemented. Temporary solutions, not to mention institutions, tend to freeze, revealing dysfunctional features, thus contributing to social disorganization and new social problems, and also to what is called in the literature “second-generation social problems”—that is, acute troubles arising from the very existence of an institution established for problem-solving, which itself creates new, unexpected problems, irrespective of whether it is able to effectively crack the initial evils or not.
Radoslaw Markowski is professor of political science at the Center for the Study of Democracy (director), University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warsaw, and PI of the Polish National Election Study. He is a recurring visiting professor at CEU, Budapest, and has been a visiting professor at Duke University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Rutgers. Markowski specializes in comparative politics, democracy and democratization, party systems, and electoral studies. He has published in peer-reviewed journals including, among others, Electoral Studies, Party Politics, Political Studies, and West European Politics. His main books are Post-Communist Party Systems (Cambridge University Press, 1999, coauthor), Europeanising Party Politics? (Manchester University Press, 2011, coeditor), and Democratic Audit of Poland (Peter Lang, 2015, coauthor). An expert of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), Bertelsmann SGI project and Dahrendorf Forum at the Hertie School of Governance, Markowski is also a member of the editorial advisory boards of a number of academic journals, among them European Journal of Political Research, Political Studies, Populism, and European Union Politics. He is a steering/planning committee member or PI of several worldwide and pan-European projects: Comparative Study of Electoral Studies (CSES), European Election Study (EES), European Social Survey (ESS), three projects within the Framework Program 6 and 7.
The psychological consequences of social distancing and closure, the economic costs of the shutdown of businesses, the pandemic-driven innovations in online learning and communication, and the like are widely discussed both in academia and in the media. They are indeed very important and, as such, should be taken seriously; however, because they are widely debated, I will refrain from repetition.
The project is a collective good and effort; in this essay I present mostly—though not exclusively—the part I have taken responsibility for.