Bertolt Brecht believed that Man doesn’t learn from history. Catastrophic events, whether man-made or not, are doomed to repeat themselves. In his brilliant and provoking masterpiece Mother Courage and Her Children, the German playwright addressed the impact of wars on the masses, emblematizing common people through the conniving – if at times pitiable – figure of Mother Courage, a peddler determined to profit off the Thirty Years’ War, plaguing Europe from 1618 to 1648. The violent conflict of the 17th century is a far cry from the crisis we are living, but just like the Thirty Years War marked a watershed in the history of Europe, COVID-19 has the potential to permanently change the global political landscape. In this article, we examine
possible scenarios that might arise as a consequence of the crisis we are going through.
We firstly have to consider a possible populist wave, especially in countries where the pandemic has hit the hardest and government response has been less effective.
Inglehart and Norris (2016) identify economic inequality and cultural backlash as the main drivers of populism, presenting the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election as evidence for their theories. Historically, economic inequality has been brought about by profound technological shocks transforming the workforce. However, with the imposition of stay-at-home orders and national lockdowns, the number of workers filing unemployment claims has skyrocketed. The divide between those who live by the paycheck and the upper strata of society will be widened by the curt reduction in income for the former in contrast to a mitigated impact on the latter, whose economic loss is perceived as relatively less severe.
Furthermore, it is likely that the impact of the virus on economic inequality will not only be that of heightening it, but even more so that of exposing and displaying the real extent to which it plagues societies, thus escalating class cleavage and reinforcing the perception of a good people vs. bad elites dichotomy, a perception that populism feeds off of.
Another standpoint from which a rise in populism seems likely is that of Social Identity Theory. Social Psychologist Henri Tajfel developed this theory to model individual identity in a group. The theory states that in a state of conflict, ‘in-groups’ and ‘outgroups’ are created. Within this divide, individuals show in-group favoritism and discrimination against the out-group. This model is relevant to populism because at its peak, when the common man feels wronged by the economy, an alliance is formed with a populist party, united against a common socioeconomic enemy.
Gennaioli and Tabellini (2018) develop this idea further by explaining how conflicts change the matrices of social identities. As a result, economic catastrophe might change the rich-poor dichotomy of struggle to a nationalist vs globalist agenda. Worldwide closure of borders, competition for the supply of medical resources or the race to find the vaccine for COVID-19 are all factors that could act as fodder to feed nationalist sentiments. Populists could use this in their favor to gain support for their radical claims. Significant empirical evidence has already been gathered, for instance, in Italy, where trust in the European Union has been decreasing since the outbreak of the pandemic because of an impression shared by many Italians -even moderates and previously EU-supporting types – that the EU isn’t going to do what it took to assist its struggling members. It is not clear whether this trend is reverting as the EU’s intervention becomes more accommodating towards the needs of southern member states.
Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory extends to another crucial element of the populist movement: the leader. Understanding the needs of people within the in-group, while presenting a bold front is what cements a populist leader’s success. The modern-day populist leader masters this skill successfully by using social media to his/her advantage. For example, in India, Prime Minister Modi initiated fun “Go-Corona-Go” campaigns via Twitter. These campaigns focused on igniting national pride with home remedies and a colorful culture of celebration – united by which India could ward off the evil of the virus. As a result, 93% of the Indian population trust that his government is handling the situation capably, up from 74% in March. All was forgotten about the months-long bloodshed of religious protests across the country.
At the advent of COVID-19, reliance on the internet and social media as sources for answers are increasing where local governments have failed to deliver. This growing sense of distrust is what populists in Europe are using to their advantage. Relentless attacks by Le Pen on Twitter against the Macron Administration could work in Le Pen’s favor with a growing reliance on the internet for information and public trust in French government falling from 53% to 45% within a week (April 1- April 6). Conversely, while Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte celebrates a 61% approval rating, less than 30% of Italians report confidence in the EU’s ability to support Italy under these times. Populist Salvini benefits from this by using his social media to differentiate Italy from the rest of the EU. Not only does he mirror Italians’ disdain against northern member states but also advertises himself as a devout catholic, an homage to Italy’s historically Catholic roots and still large constituency. This goes to show how through social media, populists are able to construct a digital front that extends to accommodate the frustrations of one’s followers with ease.
On another front, COVID-19 might lead to a new political era by increasing support for greater government intervention in the economy. Whether good or bad, there’s reason to believe that the scare-phrase big government might be somewhat destigmatized even among conservative-leaning voters.
Legislatures all around the world have passed enormous deficit-financed fiscal stimulus packages aimed at supporting not just businesses and corporations, but also households and working people struggling to make ends meet. What is especially interesting about these measures is that, in several cases, conservative politicians were among the first to advocate for them, seemingly contradicting decades of hard-fought battles against central planning meddling with the free market. Republican Senator Mitt Romney became a visible example when he called for a USD 1000 payment for all Americans.
Surely, it needs to be pointed out that unlike previous shocks like the Great Recession, the current economic contraction didn’t arise from within financial markets and is therefore considered an exogenous shock. Because of this, even traditionally hostile political fronts are supporting government transfers meant to alleviate the toll on working families.
Ideas like Universal Basic Income (UBI) had been growing in popularity even before the COVID-19 outbreak. Former democratic hopeful Andrew Yang rose to prominence with UBI as his signature idea. Surprising most commentators, his campaign didn’t blow away so easily and his interest in automation slashing employment in the US has drawn his competitors’ attention to the issue.
A somewhat related scenario, already taking shape in several countries, is the consolidation of authoritarian power. The world has witnessed Hungary’s Viktor Orbàn’s skillful maneuvers turning COVID-19 into a political weapon. A new act, voted by the parliament, grants the government unprecedented powers with the pretext of managing the emergency. It even enables authorities to imprison those alleged to have spread false information about the virus and thus – supposedly – hindered containment efforts. Several analysts are arguing that Orbàn might be succeeding in tightening his grip to power in a Russian fashion.
It is no mystery that real and contrived crises have always been exploited by despots to strengthen their hold to power, and Hungary might just turn out to be the newest case study, with the EU allowing this to happen under its watch.
Similar dynamics are reportedly taking place in Turkey, where president Erdogan – not new to antidemocratic measures and ruthless suppression of political opponents – is reported to have doubled down on authoritarianism during the epidemic. Multiple journalists have been arrested in recent weeks and hundreds of citizens taken into custody for posting social media content misaligned with the government’s official reports. Similar occurrences, if less outright, have been reported in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Thailand and Venezuela.
The imposition of harsh sanctions against freedom of speech is a heated topic of debate in the age of the internet. Over the past 20 years, the internet has served as a pivotal space for political discussions. Free speech online has allowed for worldwide demonstrations against social injustices and organization of protests as witnessed throughout 2019. Yet this liberty is not enjoyed globally with severe online censorship laws across the Middle East and China. However, in light of the pandemic, the fight for free speech has reached an unprecedented level in China. Citizens are taking a strong stand against Cyberspace Administration of China’s (CAC) internet censorship. The death of Dr. Li Wenliang – the COVID-19 whistleblower – has encouraged millions across China to openly share their frustrations with the government’s management of the situation on local social media, even if that came with the threat of being imprisoned or reported as yet another ‘mysterious disappearance’. While quarantined Europeans came together in their balconies to sing in union, an eerily disturbing parallel was recorded in a quarantined Wuhan, the former epicenter of the pandemic with millions taking to their balconies to scream in agony against the government. As of writing this article, The CAC has suspended more than 18,000 social media accounts speaking out against the CCP in just a week.
There isn’t enough data to conclude which side – authoritarians v. supporters of democracy and free speech – will prevail, but if authoritarian leaders seeking to take advantage of coronavirus end up being successful, we might be left with a more precarious world order, with illiberal tendencies affirming themselves and democracy becoming more vulnerable.
In a moving passage of the great play we referred to at the beginning of this article, Brecht’s Mother Courage finds herself dealing with unprecedented hardship. One of her children has been captured by the Catholics, and when she realizes that only bribery will prevent the troops from executing her son, she famously says “Corruption is our only hope”. In the end, she is not willing to provide the required sum, and her son is killed.
Coronavirus has, in many instances, brought out the best in us. Whether world politics will be able to take the rightful turn and harness that good is yet to be seen, but there’s reason to believe that differently from Mother Courage’s family enterprise, democracy might emerge triumphant after these times of hardship.