Early last year, Daniel Ziblatt coauthored a New York Times op-ed titled “Why Autocrats Love Emergencies.”
His thesis now has great relevance in the time of the coronavirus. “Crises offer … would-be authoritarians an escape from constitutional shackles,” Ziblatt argued with fellow Harvard prof Steven Levitsky (with whom he wrote the influential book How Democracies Die).
Think of the autocrat wannabes among today’s democratic leaders who have shown great impatience with checks on their power, such as Donald Trump, Israel’s Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. With emergency measures in place, it’s easy to imagine their temptation to expand personal power at the top.
And yet, a few months into the crisis, the picture is far more complicated. Rather than veer toward authoritarianism, many Western leaders — including Trump — have been surprisingly passive. Others like Netanyahu and Orban have used the virus as an excuse to continue their longtime assault on democratic norms.
Israel is a particularly fascinating case, where three elections in a row had failed to produce a viable majority to form a new government, despite the health crisis. Facing trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, with opposition leaders calling on him to step down, Netanyahu used the coronavirus as an excuse to shut courts, in the dead of night. This conveniently delayed his trial for two months.
He also authorized Israel’s internal security services to use massive amounts of cellphone data secretly collected to combat terrorism to track coronavirus carriers for 30 days, without the approval of parliament. While many countries are using cellphone data to track the virus, Israel is apparently the only democracy using its security forces to do so.
However, it looked until this week as if there was political pushback against Netanyahu’s machinations: The opposition had cobbled together a bare majority coalition and was set to take control of parliament, despite efforts by leaders of Netanyahu’s party to defy the green light from Israel’s High Court.
It seemed that democracy had prevailed.
Yet, with the skill that has kept him in office since 2009, Netanyahu managed on Thursday to split the opposition and remain in power. Benny Gantz, the opposition leader, was neatly outmaneuvered, agreeing to serve under Netanyahu. Bibi said he was acting at a time of health crisis that demanded “unity” under his leadership.
In Israel, we see a case of a complex democracy with a leader who regularly breaks democratic norms and has shown he will use the virus crisis to obtain his goals.
Hungary is a simpler case – one of several countries in central and southeastern Europe that have yet to fully adopt democratic norms. Foremost among their leaders, Orban has taken control of courts, parliament, and media. Now he is pushing through a draft law that will give the executive branch dictatorial powers for an unlimited period. It would be known as the “law to protect against the coronavirus.” Other troubled democracies could follow his lead.
And then we come to the United States, where the president sees checks and balances as an annoyance and constantly attacks the courts, the fact-based media, and Democratic political leaders.
At a time of crisis, and health emergency, what might happen? Civil liberties advocates were concerned when news broke that the Justice Department had asked Congress for permission to ask senior judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies – as part of a push for new powers during the epidemic.
But lo and behold, a bipartisan group of legislators rejected this idea. The chief strategist for Rand Paul (R., Ky.) tweeted in agreement with a strong critique from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.). Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) tweeted, “OVER MY DEAD BODY.”
And despite his insistence that he is a “war president,” Trump has been resistant to acting like one. He has set no national strategy, left states mostly to fend for themselves, and refused to make serious use of the Defense Production Act to force private and defense industry to produce desperately needed health equipment. He has deferred to health experts even as he has disdained expert advice for the last three years.
“National crises, including epidemics, provide opportunity for leaders who want to consolidate power to do that,” Ziblatt told me. “What’s puzzling is why Trump responded by being quite passive.”
His thesis: “It reflects a strong democratic opposition, with a small d, and constraints built into the system. Federalism is a kind of constraint on the ability to consolidate power.”
I’d add that it reflects a president who is more adept at reality TV than leading the country, and a civil society that is providing brave first responders even as the national government fails to provide them with masks.
The story is not over, especially if the health crisis gets worse. The coronavirus could provide an excuse for voter suppression in the 2020 election. But bottom line: While COVID-19 exacerbates existing problems in democracies, it doesn’t provide the formula for a takeover — provided the public and the system push back.