Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Politics and Current Events

Read an Excerpt from “Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus” by Danielle Allen

From Harvard professor and leading political thinker Danielle Allen, Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus is both an invaluable playbook for meeting our current moment and a stirring reflection on the future of democracy itself. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated some of the strengths of our society, including the rapid development of vaccines. But it has also exposed our glaring weaknesses, including government failure to develop and quickly implement strategies for tracing and containing outbreaks, as well as widespread public distrust of government prompted by often confusing and conflicting choices—to mask, or not to mask. Even worse, millions of deaths and economic devastation worldwide might have been avoided if governments had been prepared to undertake comprehensive, contextually-sensitive policies to stop the spread of the disease. Looking specifically at the United States’ COVID-19 victories and failures but providing insight for nations across the globe, Allen offers a plan for creating a more resilient democratic polity—one that can better respond to both the present pandemic and future crises. In an analysis spanning from ancient Greece to the Reconstruction Amendments and the present day, Allen argues for the effectiveness of our federalist system when we emphasize collaboration among local, state, and national governments, and for the unifying power of a common cause. But for democracy to endure, we—as participatory citizens—must commit to that cause: a just and equal social contract that leaves no one out and support for good governance.

Over the past fifteen months, Allen ran a historic campaign to be the next Governor of Massachusetts, on an agenda for which the thinking in Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus was foundational. Indeed, while still on the campaign trail, Allen joined Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s GPS to share the ideas in her important new book. Although the campaign is now winding down, those ideas—and the conversation Allen pushes forward in her book—remain as urgent and transformational as ever. Read on for an excerpt from the preface of what Publishers Weekly calls “a trenchant call for reimagining how America functions in a time of crisis.”

When the new coronavirus arrived in the United States in January 2020, it hit an economy, society, and constitutional democracy fundamentally unprepared. As the scale of the challenge became clear, the country simply could not deliver what was needed to confront it. There was a solution, one identified by scholars and policy experts as early as the middle of March and publicly disseminated by the middle of April. That solution was a large-scale program of rapid testing of patients, tracing and testing their contacts, and tracing and testing their contacts again in turn. Such testing also needed reinforcement from a culture of adherence to universal precautions such as mask-wearing, hand and bathroom hygiene, and robust practices of infection control. The massive, rapid buildup of such a public health campaign, as well as the necessary infrastructure to support it, would have interrupted transmission of the virus sufficiently to eliminate it even while keeping the economy open. But the country did not have the relevant infrastructure ready to go and was not able to deliver this mobilization.

Just as the 2008 financial crisis exposed blind spots in how countries had thought about integrated markets through the first stages of globalization, within the first two months of 2020, the spread of COVID-19 revealed that the United States had another gaping vulnerability to globalization. Like opaque securities, pandemics proved to be a dangerous feature of globally integrated markets. We learned that, given the modern structure of travel, transportation, and integrated economies, infectious pathogens travel as easily as the Davos elite.

The near-term challenge of January 2020 was identical to our long-term challenge: how to achieve pandemic resilience—the ability of our social and political institutions to process a major exogenous shock yet keep all essential functions operating, while simultaneously protecting lives, livelihoods, and liberties. The urgency of the crisis meant that we needed to deliver the durable infrastructure of resilience in the form of emergency response. But the near-term nature of the crisis situation by no means required that the response to it should consist only of transient initiatives. Emergencies have always provided opportunities for durable innovation.

Look back to antiquity. The Romans’ Appian Way, their first major road, was built in 312 BCE as a supply line during the Second Samnite War. A crisis response yielded durable infrastructure. Of course, the same kind of thing happened with penicillin and nuclear power in World War II (Conant 2017; Johnstone-Louis et al. 2020). A crisis will by its nature elicit reactive action of some kind. The question is only whether in its reactions a society lays down a foundation for a better future or expends its energies on changeable, flailing efforts. In our own situation, the effort to find a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 is another good example of an emergency yielding a permanent advance. The Moderna variant uses a technology, synthetic messenger RNA, that has never before been used for vaccine production (Garde and Saltzmann 2020). In all likelihood we will leave this crisis with an important new tool firmly entrenched in the health-care toolkit. We could have and should have done the same with the infrastructure of public health.

In this book, I hope to lay the foundation for a renewed social contract capable of delivering pandemic resilience—and, more generally, both justice and health for our constitutional democracy. I hope to offer a durable breakthrough in the form of a fresh vision of the public good.

What exactly is a social contract? A social contract is the set of rights and mutual responsibilities that we have among ourselves as citizens in a constitutional democracy. A social contract is both what’s asked of us as participants in a constitutional democracy and all that is made possible for us by virtue of our participation in that constitutional democracy. What’s asked of us and what we receive establish relations of reciprocity within the citizenry. This book seeks to reset that relationship for a healthy and just future.

Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, where she is also the principal investigator for the Democratic Knowledge Project. Among her many books, she is the author of Our Declaration and, most recently, coeditor of Difference without Domination, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus is available now! Find it on our website, online at any major booksellers, or at your local bookstore.