“We seldom have leaders as wise, accurate, and just as we wish,” Archon Fung, a professor of citizenship and self-government at Harvard, wrote in the Boston Review, but democratic engagement can check their power and compel them to serve us better. Relinquishing the process of democratic deliberation in favor of centralized authority, he argued, means surrendering citizens’ orientation “toward the common good [and to] do their part to make society work well.”
Read: America’s patchwork pandemic is fraying even further
Cognetti, Elorza, and other mayors are betting on the potential of technology to draw citizens into the process of governance. Perhaps with enough outreach and education, technology can increase citizen participation—-and passion.
But in the current crisis, it was the small number of camo-wearing, assault-rifle-toting protesters in Michigan who most effectively made their presence felt. President Trump insisted that the Michigan protesters were “very good people”; the threat they posed led to the abrupt cancellation of the state’s legislative session.
Such protests remain exceptional, but they point in a worrisome direction. “There is a rough consensus in political science that governments in crisis tend to veer toward the extreme right and authoritarianism,” the Northwestern University political scientist Jeffrey Winters told me.
Kristian Blickle, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, studied Germany in the grip of the influenza pandemic, from 1918 to 1920. He found that the German cities where the most people died spent the least per capita on their inhabitants in the years just after the pandemic. These were also the places where right-wing-extremist parties did especially well in elections a decade later. His findings, Blickle wrote, show “that pandemics may not only affect the provision of public goods, but that they may have a direct effect on extremist voting.”
If Blickle’s study has lessons for states and localities facing deep cuts to revenue and services now, one might be that democracy is best maintained when governments have the capacity to serve their constituents. That would seem to argue for a federal aid package big enough to save state and local governments from making the deepest cuts now—and capable of fending off the rise of extremism.
But any such package would have to make its way through the U.S. Senate, where Mitch McConnell has already expressed his skepticism. “One possible way to understand Mitch McConnell’s reluctance to offer aid that he believes will overly favor so-called blue states,” Winters said, “is that the right is worried about what the big federal relief packages Congress has already passed show, namely that big government can redistribute wealth and improve lives. And that Americans have the power, through our government, to make such giant redistributions happen.”
For now, state and local governments face a worrying mix, with revenues in steep decline, expenses skyrocketing, oversight disappearing, and democratic participation dropping. If they’re going to meet the needs of their people and bolster public faith in the democratic experiment, they’re going to need help from the federal government—and greater engagement from their constituents.