Will the coronavirus defeat the populism epidemic?

The coronavirus epidemic constitutes a new type of threat, one with no defined identity, religion, nationality, or even purpose. It is an enemy, but not one against which people can be incited. Unquestionably, on a personal and interpersonal level, the mark left by the virus will be with us for a long time after the epidemic has passed. The question is whether it will result in the strengthening or weakening of democracy.

Before the epidemic, many people were already concerned by the decline in democratic discourse and the rise of populist leaders and authoritarianism. This historic moment, at which the waning of democracy coincides with the emergence of the coronavirus epidemic, raises the question of whether the epidemic will deal even a greater blow to democracy, or whether it will lead instead to the fall of populist leaders and trends.

In the short term, as governments struggle to cope with the coronavirus in real time, we are observing democratic freedoms being pushed aside by fear. In authoritarian countries, leaders are exploiting the crisis to strengthen their grip. But in democratic countries as well, red lines are being crossed with regard to surveillance of citizens and intrusions into the private domain. The public has largely accepted these steps based on the belief that they are intended first and foremost to protect its welfare. In this sense, the battle against the coronavirus overrides democratic principles.

But a deeper look at populist trends and how they are fueled indicates that the end of the coronavirus epidemic might lead to the ousting of populist leaders, as the waves they have ridden until now begin to break. Accordingly, it is worth examining two central aspects of the phenomenon of populism as it relates to the coronavirus and its aftermath: (1) Xenophobia, anti-pluralism, pro-nationalism, and anti-globalism; and (2) Disparagement of professionalism, and hostility toward elites.

First, we are observing that the instinctive response of populist leaders remains the search for an “other” against whom people can be incited. Trump, for example, has been trying to identify the “bad guy” in the story—initially China, where the epidemic broke out, and more recently, the World Health Organization. Similarly, the populist Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Urban, who has done much to undermine democracy in his country, has tried to use the fact that the first carriers identified in Hungary were Iranian students to fuel the flames of hatred against immigrants.

In Israel, too, attempts to create a united front in the struggle against the virus have led to the labelling of a threatening “other”—in this case, because it was impossible to blame the “usual suspect”- the country’s Arab minority- the ultra-Orthodox public became the scapegoat. Instead of expressing empathy for the difficulties faced by ultra-Orthodox citizens in dealing with the virus (due to their lack of communication channels with mainstream Israeli society, lack of awareness and understanding of the threats of the virus, deference to rabbinical decrees, a life style which includes many communal events, and the poverty and densely populated conditions in which they live), Israeli society turned them into public enemies almost overnight.

Yet, the “other” of the coronavirus does not instill in the public the same anti-pluralist hostility as terror organizations or national minorities, due to its very particular character—this is a virus with no identity, no purpose, about which no prejudices can be ignited, and which does not distinguish one from the other.

While it is true that in the short term, the coronavirus effect strengthens anti-global tendencies, with regard to border closures, limitations on the free movement of citizens between states, and the repatriation of citizens to their own countries, the current crisis has also demonstrated that the coronavirus has no respect for national borders, similar to other threats to humanity, such as the climate crisis. The struggle against the coronavirus has also demonstrated the strength to be found in sharing information and resources among different countries, and the importance of cooperation in scientific efforts to develop a vaccine against the virus and medicines to treat it.

In terms of the disregard for experts as one of the drivers of populism, the epidemic has helped restore to professionals and scientists the pride that has been trampled in recent years by populist leaders, who derided professionalism as a veil for elitism and as a means of maintaining the hegemony of the old elites. If the public in democratic states believes that crises in the future will be truly transnational, such as natural disasters resulting from the climate crisis, they will prefer more level-headed leaders who act in accordance with evidence-based policies, over populist leaders who act on impulse.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus crisis is sparking authoritarian actions, but this will not last very long. Policies based on concealment, denial, and spreading disinformation are unsustainable in the face of disease and death, which are far more tangible than any propaganda message. It is very possible that we are witnessing the swansong of populist leaders, as the messages with which they have until now won the support of “the people” are losing their power.

It remains only to be seen whether Israel is an exception, due to the current chaos in the country’s governance, as the urgent political attempts to form a unity government seem to have insulated Netanyahu from the destructive effects of the coronavirus epidemic.

About the Author
Dr. Dana Blander is a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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