It will be years before political analysts are able to definitively assess how the coronavirus pandemic influenced U.S. democracy. Was the pandemic a decisive factor in President Donald J. Trump’s electoral loss? Did it contribute to the intensity of racial justice protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd? Did it accelerate the mainstreaming of misinformation and conspiracy theories?
Democracy in the United States was ailing long before the arrival of COVID-19, but the pandemic was an opportunity for U.S. leaders to demonstrate unity, strengthen institutions, and model competent governance in response to an existential public health threat. Instead, they responded to COVID-19 by deepening divisions within U.S. society, and the pandemic became inextricably intertwined with the powerful mix of politicization, misinformation, and polarization that was already suffocating the public’s trust in government and in one another. The pandemic also created new constraints on government transparency and accountability.
There may, however, be a silver lining that could strengthen U.S. democracy in the longer-term. COVID-19 inspired innovations in voting modalities and collective action, leading to record levels of voter turnout in the 2020 elections as well as new forms of civic activism. As the pandemic recedes, will these positive trends continue?
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