Afterthoughts on a Cambridge Webinar: “Can our Faith in Democracy Survive the Pandemic?” 

Chaieun Kim, Yearbook Writing Editor-in-Chief

In the past decade, modern democracy has faced some changes and challenges. The introduction of new information and technology, ongoing global issues such as climate change, and increasing awareness of various forms of democracies such as populism have been shifting our expectations of it. To escalate things further, the pandemic appeared out of the blue. In response to discovering the effects of the pandemic on democracy, a Cambridge webinar took place where professors and panelists of Cambridge discussed the current state of democracy and its potential future. The participants were Professor David Runciman, Politics and International Studies, Dr. Roberto Foa, Co-director of the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy, and Dr. Lucia Rubinelli, a Junior Research Fellow in the History of Political Thought at Robinson College.

Professor Runciman began the conversation by inquiring about the change in people’s satisfaction levels with their country’s democracy. Roberto replied that people’s satisfaction levels shot up at the start of the pandemic but then receded soon. However, countries’ decreasing levels diverged based on how well the governments responded to the pandemic. Lucia added a specific example from Italy, where people’s faith in the government increased rapidly initially, but the “honeymoon” ended abruptly, and people’s high distrust and dissatisfaction with politics replaced it. She remarked that this rollercoaster scheme is a typical pattern found during epidemics, but it played out in a saturated time frame during the pandemic.

The reason behind the dissatisfaction with democratic governments had various aspects. Roberto explained that it was mainly due to the government’s lack of control of the disease, inadequate vaccine supply, and the increasing distrust towards government agencies. Youth surveys proved that young people’s trust in other interactive services like businesses had increased significantly over time. This was because society was continually evolving, but politics have practically been frozen in time since the 1990s. The surveys also showed that although the people against democracy had opinions about alternatives, the group didn’t have any consistency in their choices. Some people wanted a technocratic government, some wanted revolutionary socialism, and some wanted direct democracy instead of representative democracy.

Populism was introduced in this talk, as it has been seen as a significant threat to democracy throughout political history. Lucia replied that the pandemic had damaged the way people viewed populism, and it became incompatible with democracy. However, Roberto argued that there were inconsistent effects on populist leaders, just like democratic leaders, regarding how well the leaders responded. To add, Lucia said that ongoing discourse about populism throughout modern history had compared cancerous populist leaders from past and current ones. She argued, in contrast, that the history of democracy involved a lot of populism, and populism hasn’t always been antagonistic to democracy. For example, she refers to the referendum, which has been looked at as a populist institution after Brexit. Although the referendum has primarily been seen as a tool that legitimises the power of caesaristic leaders like Napoleon, it also published a lot of agendas through social democracy thinkers to improve social issues. Lucia asserted that populism isn’t antagonistic to democracy but is a part of a continuum in thinking and exercising democratic power.

Professor Runciman opened up a new question asking whether there was a correlation between people’s voting systems and people’s satisfaction with democracy. Roberto answered with a firm yes, claiming that proportional representation systems had higher satisfaction with democracy than majoritarian morality systems. This resulted because people felt their votes had more political power over the outcome. It was also because the system brought forward coalition politics, which was suitable in an age of social media polarisation. Although for countries with highly fractional electorates, like the 4th French Republic or Belgium, coalition politics was a driver of dissatisfaction towards democracy, Roberto argued that coalition politics still allowed the minority of society to feel represented and allowed the refreshing of political systems.

Lastly, there was a final discussion on the effects of the pandemic on democratic politics. Roberto propounded that the pandemic has expanded the scope of possibilities for politics, such as crazy proposals getting accepted. Lucia also agreed by saying that the pandemic essentialised politics and extended its power schemes but also announced that it led to more severe frustration when politics failed to meet people’s requirements. Hearing this, Professor Runciman further questioned whether these new changes in democratic politics and political systems could be expanded for people to do other things that were thought impossible, such as fighting climate change. In response to this, Lucia remarked that although the pandemic has shown democratic politics that it can do more than what we thought, we still need to be cautious about assuming that it is the same for climate change. She explained how the pandemic brought temporary changes for the people, but fighting climate change will bring permanent changes. She also acknowledged the fact that the effects of the pandemic were found in all parts of the world, while the impacts of climate change were only found in urban areas and cannot be caught in bustling city areas where people mostly live.

In conclusion, the dynamic panel discussion about the current state of democracy internationally and the post-pandemic future ended on a positive note with remarks on further research and debate on these topics. The short, 50-minute discussion allowed the audience to learn about people’s change in satisfaction levels in democracy, the benefits and limitations of coalition politics, the expansion of the boundaries of democratic politics after the pandemic, and finally, the optimistic future for a response towards other existential risks such as climate change.

More of these Cambridge webinars can be found on YouTube for students with further inquiries.

Link to the Webinar