Emergencies clarify. At an interpersonal level, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed our values and assumptions, the state of relationships, our judgments of responsibility and risk. Politically, it has thrown our social and economic priorities into painfully sharp relief. The language we use to make sense of this public health emergency is revealing, too. Pandemic rhetoric shows us how we imagine ourselves politically: not as mere populations, passive and subject to disease, but as publics, ready to take action together.
In recent years, democracies around the world have been buckling under pressure from illiberal populists and right-wing authoritarians. Yet with one notable exception, Western leaders have not met Covid-19 with the explicit language of democratic citizenship. Instead, they’ve relied upon the tried and true rhetoric of national solidarity. This might be effective in the short term, but it’s a missed opportunity. After all, from climate to migration, privacy to unchecked capitalism, all the challenges awaiting us once the pandemic recedes extend well beyond national borders—and call our democratic lives uncomfortably into question.
At first glance, the leaders of Western democracies have chosen broadly similar language to speak to anxious citizens: burden-sharing, sacrifice, responsibility, neighborly concern, resilience—words delivered with warmth but resolve. But that’s where the similarities end. Global as we have become, our leaders have been drawing upon specific national histories and conceptual repertoires to make their calls to action meaningful.
“We are at war”: Like a drumbeat, this repeated line structured French President Emmanuel Macron’s video address from the Élysée Palace. His narration conjured the trench warfare that twice marked French territory during the twentieth century. “We are not fighting an army or another nation. But the enemy is there: invisible, elusive, and advancing,” Macron said. “All of our commitment, all of our energy, all of our strength must be concentrated upon a single objective: slowing the forward movement of the virus.” Casting health care workers as frontline soldiers, Macron also recalled the stoic civilian leaders of wars past by urging citizens to remain calm and resist the temptation “to believe in various false rumors, half-experts, or know-nothings.” In a country rich with public memories of the Second World War and storied (albeit romanticized) resistance to Nazism, these were words directed less to citizens and more to comrades—or even subordinates.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has likewise called the virus an “enemy” to be beaten and styled his ministry an emergency “wartime government.” He has informed Britons that “each and every one of us is directly enlisted.” But at the center of his wartime pandemic rhetoric lies, specifically, the spirit of the Blitz: the grit shown by British soldiers and civilians in 1940 as they fought a lonesome war against the Third Reich. It is language to justify deprivation and demand sacrifice. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock reminded voters that their forebears, “despite the pounding every night, the rationing, the loss of life … pulled together in one gigantic national effort. Today our generation is facing its own test, fighting a very real and new disease.” The wrinkle, of course, is that Brexiteers like Johnson favored this vocabulary long before the coronavirus surfaced. One wonders how much more resonant it would seem today had they kept their rhetorical powder dry.
The use of wartime rhetoric to galvanize democratic publics has two critical implications. First, it demands that individuals make sacrifices not for each other, as fellow citizens and subjects of care, but for the nation. Second, military language is a language of necessity. The vocabulary of drafting and enlistment presents stark realities and few options. “Believe me,” Macron explained, “this effort that I demand of you: I know that it is unprecedented, but circumstances compel us.” It is difficult to listen to the words of Johnson or Macron and feel all that politically empowered.
There’s an American plague rhetoric, too—though characteristically of Donald Trump, it’s at once dully literal and maddeningly vague. The long-standing narrative of American exceptionalism heals all wounds for this president. “No nation is more prepared or more equipped to face down this crisis,” he said on March 13. “As you know, we are rated number one in the world.” During his own televised address, he assured Americans that no other country was “more prepared or more resilient than the United States. We have the best economy, the most advanced health care, and the most talented doctors, scientists, and researchers anywhere in the world.” Should this be insufficient balm, Trump hawks American entrepreneurial spirit in its most distilled form. Name-checking big corporations and promising miracle cures, he celebrates private-sector solutions and the nation’s “unbelievable innovators” while asking little of everyone else, including himself. “Relax,” he has commented. “We’re doing great.” In the language of this White House, which trades heavily on national achievements long past, Americans are bound by ties not of citizenship but of capital.
Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, has been briefing the country daily from outside his home, where he has been self-isolating. Trudeau has mostly not framed the response to the coronavirus as a military operation. But neither has he demanded much work of democratic citizenship. He has rather tried to nourish warm feelings of national solidarity and care. On March 16, he told Canadians living and traveling abroad that it was “time for you to come home.” Trudeau has relied on the first-person plural to celebrate small acts of kindness and to elevate a nationalism of neighborliness. “The strength of our country is our capacity to come together and care for each other, especially in times of need,” he said. “So call your friends. Check in with your family. Think of your community.… Because that is what Canadians do in difficult times. We pull together, and we look after each other.” Trudeau has justified the government’s public health restrictions and stimulus plans the same way. To the extent the country successfully handles the pandemic, he is arguing, it will be not as a democratic family but as a national one, motivated by patriotic virtues and loyalties.
All of these elected leaders have called upon their constituents to take the virus seriously and make sacrifices for public health. None have done so in an explicitly democratic idiom. Listening to their remarks, you could easily forget that many Western countries are meeting this pandemic with their democratic norms and institutions under terrific strain. A startling exception is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has shrewdly sensed that the outbreak presents an opportunity for democratic strengthening.
Merkel’s nationally televised address on March 18 explicitly framed the coronavirus as a problem of democratic action. “We are a democracy,” she said. Pointedly addressing not Germans but rather “fellow citizens,” Merkel articulated the democratic values that would be required but also tested in the weeks to come: transparency and open communication, expertise, social cohesion. As democratic citizens, she noted, “we live not by coercion but by shared knowledge and collaboration,” sharing a belief that “every life and every person counts.” As such, Merkel said, she wished to “explain where we currently stand with regard to the epidemic [and] what federal and state authorities are doing” and also to “convey why we need you for this, what each and every person can contribute.” Democratic government, she reminded her audience, is always a two-way street. It should not ever be reduced to the passive receipt of orders and information from above.
Merkel acknowledged the inconvenience of restrictions and border closures for the lives of her fellow citizens. But much more than other Western leaders, she also worried about the ways in which they would challenge the country’s “democratic self-understanding” and the political nature of its public life. As someone “for whom freedoms of travel and movement were hard-won rights,” Merkel admitted (referring to her earlier life behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany), these restrictions grated. In a democracy, she went on, they “should never carelessly and only temporarily be enacted. But right now they are vital to save lives.”
Most critically, Merkel framed the crisis as one over which citizens could still exert control. The future, she insisted, remained unsettled. Power still lay with the people. “It depends on all of us,” Merkel proposed. “We are not condemned to passive acquiescence as the virus spreads.” Hand-washing and social distancing should be seen not as technocratic regulations imposed from above but rather as new democratic habits to be cultivated, she argued, ways for a sovereign people to take hold of events and chart its course. “This situation is serious, and it is open,” she said. “I am utterly sure that we will overcome this crisis. But how many casualties will there be? How many loved ones will we lose? To a great degree, we have this in our own hands.”
Framing the coronavirus in terms of democratic behavior and governance makes deep sense in a country that, owing to its catastrophic twentieth-century history, takes neither of those things for granted. Over her 14 years in office, Merkel has seen Germany’s democratic postwar settlement tested by the radical right-wing Alternative for Germany, which in 2017 became the third-largest party in the federal parliament. And so her stress upon the country’s democratic present and future was surely deliberate. But Merkel’s speech resonated beyond Germany, too, by addressing the challenges of twenty-first-century democracy itself. Relating the pandemic to democratic values, Merkel modeled how free societies might approach an era of interlinked and irresolvable global crises.
As the political theorist and Harvard political science professor Danielle Allen has written, there is a paradox at the heart of any democratic society: “Democracy puts its citizens under a strange form of psychological pressure by building them up as sovereign and then regularly undermining each citizen’s experience of sovereignty.” In other words, although we are educated to believe that we, the people, are the ones who rule, it rarely feels that way. To be a democratic citizen, then, is to grapple with power and powerlessness at once, control over one’s own life but also regular subjection to the lives of others.
Not unlike the climate crisis, the coronavirus exacerbates this tension. In Europe and North America, tremendous wealth and technological prowess are failing to insulate populations from the pandemic’s effects. Democratic governments seem to be triaging the crisis more than mastering it. Like voting, social distancing is at once our most significant contribution and an act for which we may never perceive individual results. It also undermines the social solidarity and civic friendship needed for democratic life.
We make our own meanings in democracies. We decide together what our shared priorities are, why we are committed to the work we pursue, what parts of the world are, in fact, not natural facts but rather problems to be solved together. Merkel has proposed that we see the coronavirus differently, to understand its challenges and opportunities in relation to our political lives. She has tried to restore the feeling, essential for democracy, that we can still take collective action to determine our future. Could Western democracies emerge from the pandemic more resilient than before—the faith of citizens reinforced and their habits strengthened—and thus better able to confront the worldwide crises of climate and capital? Some days, it seems too much to hope for. But the window is cracked open.