Soon after the coronavirus began spreading widely around the world, a dominant narrative emerged about its likely effect on global politics: the pandemic would reinforce autocratic governance. And dozens of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning leaders, from Cambodia to Hungary, indeed quickly seized the moment to amass more power, undercut institutional checks and balances, and restrict citizen freedoms in ways that exceeded public-health necessity. Accurate though this narrative proved to be, it is an incomplete picture of the pandemic’s political impact. Almost a year in, another critical trend has become apparent: contrary to the hopes of some observers, the pandemic is also fueling the longer-term ascendancy of confrontational politics.
The temperature of politics has risen steadily in many countries during the past decade. This trend has manifested itself in three main ways: a historic rise in the number of major antigovernment protests; heightened political polarization; and the spread of disruptive, often highly conflictive populism. Driven by the perception of many citizens worldwide that existing political arrangements and institutions – and too many of their leaders – are profoundly flawed, these confrontational strategies became effectively mainstreamed in places where they were once exceptional. This has shaken democracies and autocracies alike, evidenced, for example, by the emergence of illiberal leadership in the United States and India and the jolting of strongman regimes in Belarus and Sudan.
Initially many observers across different regions hoped that the devastating health crisis would reduce political confrontation as governments and societies focused on battling it rather than each other. But, after nearly a year of life under the pandemic, these early hopes have not materialized. After a lull of a few months early in the year, protests have surged. Most countries that went into the pandemic with polarized politics find themselves even more divided today. And few populists have taken a serious political hit for their ineffectual responses to the pandemic; some, like President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, have even gained ground.
Confrontational political dynamics have proven to be highly resilient, adapting to the pandemic and, in turn, being reinforced by it. Going forward, the disruptive potential of ever more confrontational politics will remain a core challenge to political stability as the world staggers toward post-pandemic life.
At first, it did seem that the pandemic might break the global protest wave with lockdowns and the viral threat driving protesters off the streets. As governments imposed tough restrictions on citizen movement in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, mass protests did stop in most places where they had long been active. Huge protest movements in Hong Kong, Chile, and Lebanon went quiet in the face of lockdowns, the fear of contagion, and the refocusing of politics on public health. Yet this uneasy calm did not last. In the second half of 2020, protests returned with a vengeance.
Many of these protests involve a rekindling of pre-existing issues, such as systemic racism in the United States, inequality in Chile, and police brutality in Nigeria. Some are responses to newer political developments, like the massive and sustained protests against electoral manipulation in Belarus or the introduction of an unpopular farm bill in India.
On top of this, the pandemic has brought new protest issues to the fore. Especially notable are anti-lockdown protests, which have driven sizeable numbers of citizens in at least 25 countries, including Malawi, the United Kingdom, and Russia, to decry public-health restrictions. Widespread frustration with pandemic responses has fueled other types of coronavirus-related protests, underscoring the political and economic damage being wrought by the virus. In Israel, thousands have regularly protested what they perceive as anti-democratic public-health measures by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while in Chile protests were sparked by those facing food insecurity as a result of being unable to work.
At the end of 2020, the overall level of antigovernment protests in the world was as high as, or higher than, it was at the start of the year; in November 2020 alone, a new major antigovernment protest emerged somewhere in the world every three days on average. In short, protests continue to rise as a defining feature of citizen-state relations across the world and are perhaps the most visible manifestation of the deepening dynamic of confrontational politics.
It was not unreasonable to hope, or even expect, that the arrival of a common threat as serious as the pandemic might spur people in deeply divided countries to come together to fight it. Yet most countries that were significantly polarized prior to the pandemic appear to be just as split, or even more so, today.
The United States is the unfortunate poster child in this regard. A badly polarized American political system and society rapidly descended into new partisan clashes when the pandemic arrived. Reflecting the pervasiveness of America’s divided politics, fights exploded over the level of the threat and the necessary responses, stoked relentlessly by Donald Trump’s deliberately inflammatory approach to the crisis.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s controversial stance on the pandemic, marked by denialism and fabulism, has only sharpened the domestic divide over his presidency. Hopes that British politics might be moving away from Brexit-era divisiveness were dashed by the reality of constant angry debates over the adequacy of the government’s pandemic response.
This sobering reality highlights the power of polarization. Once two conflicting and mutually exclusive reality narratives have crystallized within a country, even an apolitical phenomenon like a disease can become an object of political contestation. Divergent views quickly emerged in some places about how big a threat the virus is, the value of alternative cures, and how best to balance or combine health concerns with efforts to limit economic damage. Attitudes about these issues aligned in many places around existing clashes over the trustworthiness of experts and the media, and the appropriate scope of governmental intervention.
Furthermore, even in polarized countries where the government’s response to the pandemic did not itself end up being a major issue of contention, the pressures of angry division show little signs of easing. In Peru, the battle between a president trying to advance anti-corruption reforms and a Congress determined to stop him flared up in November, ending up with his impeachment and removal, and then massive protests that brought down his successor after just six days. In Poland, the government and its opponents have continued their bitter clash over core political and social issues, including a wave of massive protests against new abortion restrictions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has forged ahead with his divisive attacks on Indian civil society, targeting a range of civic groups in recent months. Even in the face of a shared viral enemy, polarized politics have made solidarity difficult — if not impossible — to achieve.
Soon after the pandemic hit, some analysts leapt to the conclusion that the pandemic would weaken populists — even that it might “bring the demise of populism across the world” — given their penchant for ignoring technocratic public-health and scientific guidance. And although the prediction about many populists rejecting expertise has come true — clearly and tragically in Brazil, Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere — expectations that these strongmen would be weakened have not.
Arguments continue among U.S. political analysts over the precise effects of the pandemic on the November presidential election, but the basic fact remains that Trump received more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. Jair Bolsonaro reached his highest-ever approval rating eight months into the pandemic, and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte achieved a 91 percent trust rating in October. In Mexico, despite little meaningful government intervention and a devastating infection and death rate, support for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has not waned substantially.
This puzzling trend highlights a key dimension of populist politics: the powerful ability of populist leaders to shape and control narratives, even at times of unsettling crisis. Proceeding from their well-worn stance of representing “the people” against all enemies, and questioning the veracity of mainstream sources of information, they set their own standards of success and then meet them with their own facts. Tanzanian President John Magufuli pursued what could most charitably be described as a quixotic approach to the pandemic – including arguing that prayers could defeat the virus – yet, he then handily won elections in October, thanks to his ability to dominate public discourse and limit alternative narratives.
In the United States, throughout his presidential campaign, Trump cherry picked from the daunting array of negative elements of his pandemic response to come up with enough ostensible evidence — like the early border closure with China or progress on a vaccine — to persuade many of his supporters that he was doing a good, or even brilliant, job. Moreover, enough serious questions exist about whether experts gave the right advice on this extraordinarily vexing public-health challenge that determined populists have been able to flex their anti-expert, anti-establishment muscles to great effect.
Disruption, For What?
The pandemic has slowed social and economic activity around the world, but accelerated the powerful movement toward ever more confrontational politics. As countries grapple in the coming years with the fallout of economic devastation and countless other negative effects of the pandemic, citizen grievances will mount and the stakes of politics will keep rising. In short, the world is primed for more protests, polarization, and populism.
Disruption is not per se a bad thing in politics, given the serious inadequacies of so many political systems – and political leaders. Indeed, increasing levels of political involvement and civic engagement in many places during the pandemic are underscoring the widespread hunger for more participatory and accountable politics. But if the tide of disruption is to end up producing better governance rather than simply more confrontation, repression, and turbulence, civil and political actors everywhere will need to work hard to translate the negative shock wave of the pandemic into a revitalized reform agenda.
This will mean prioritizing ambitious areas of governance change, the importance of which has been thrown into much sharper relief by the pandemic. Especially crucial among these will be fostering greater socioeconomic inclusion to reduce marginalization and inequality; building more resilient institutions — as in healthcare and education — so that they can withstand serious shocks; and furthering governmental transparency to ensure greater accountability in times of emergency. Only in this way can a path be found away from ever-more confrontational politics.