Think about this. For months now, masses of people have radically adjusted their behavior in response to information that could only be discovered by scientists. Epidemiology has made our interdependence visible: it has never been more true that an injury to one is an injury to all.
What are the political implications of this massive reliance on scientific expertise during the pandemic? Does relying on scientific expertise strengthen authoritarianism or weaken it?
Some surmise that Donald Trump’s presidency is over, thinking that voters will blame death, sickness and economic demise at the hands of COVID-19 on Trump for his negligence, for systematically replacing experts with industry insiders poised to profit from their position in government, and for insouciant golfing while the death toll climbed toward 100,000 on a somber Memorial Day.
But protests against lockdowns, mask-wearing, and social distancing show a counter-narrative, where pandemic-induced paralysis is ultimately the fault of Democratic governors and mayors. This response is a key ingredient in the recipe of a demagogue: sow fear, confusion and chaos, then blame it on a political opponent and pose as a leader who can correct the problem. The recipe works frighteningly well (as Plato warned millennia ago), and in our time it has created the paradox of Trump: authoritarian politics combined with dysfunctional government.
If the pandemic creates new political vulnerabilities, they may lie in generating a felt need for nuanced information and fresh appreciation for its moral stakes. When social concerns depend on the results of scientific inquiry, there’s a large-scale capture of attention by questions that only science can answer.
Trump’s White House briefings have chiefly served his personal political ends: self-congratulations and attacks on the media. They have not focused on information. But to know when your child can safely go to school again, you have to know a lot of facts that only scientists can find out. And science unfolds in dribs and drabs, full of qualifications and guesses. The models of rates of infection, death, immunity and recovery are full of noise.
Yet these limitations and uncertainty have not caused large-scale doubt of scientists. Instead, the uncertainty surrounding the expertise seems to be having a different effect: people are riveted to the latest findings.
It’s not quite a suspense novel published serially in a newspaper or a television series filled with cliffhangers. But the flow of information from experts to the public has a similar momentum, generating a massive ever-growing desire to know more about COVID-19’s symptoms, risk factors, rates of fatality and infection; about demographic differences in infection and what they might mean for life and the economy. One piece of new information can stoke or quiet your fear, anger, or hope. In that respect, the flow of pandemic news is an emotionally charged narrative that opens more questions than it answers. If political news before the pandemic felt like jabs of information that left you in need of a “news fast,” during the pandemic it is more likely to leave you in the throes of inquiry in an attempt to discern whether it is safe enough to go out.
We’ve seen that gross negligence does not undermine authoritarian politics. But the need for reliable information about a life-altering situation might.
What makes a leader authoritarian is behaving as if authority resides in a person, not in the facts that give you reasons to do one thing or another. Authoritarian politics thrives on the kind of confusion that feels resolved if you only choose sides.
When Trump contradicts Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice to wear a mask and disregards his own Center for Disease Control’s recommendation, he forces people to decide whom to believe. Brazil’s authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro, publicly disagreed with this health minister about the need for social distancing — and then fired him.
The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic is not resolved by picking sides. Individual leaders can coordinate, manage the flow of information and make humane political decisions. But they can’t on their own find a vaccine, produce serology tests or devise an ethical plan for safely re-opening the economy.
Once you are gripped by questions like “When will it be safe to congregate” or “Will my family be able to get medical care?”, political incitements to trust or distrust individuals may lose their force. There is no single person who embodies the medical expertise that has influenced behavior worldwide. On the face of it, putting stock in scientific expertise poses a threat to authoritarian governments – which is why Trump has tried so hard to get rid of it.
Susanna Siegel is a philosophy professor at Harvard University.