Editor’s Note: David Stasavage, the author of the new book “The Decline and Rise of Democracy,” is dean for the social sciences at New York University and the Julius Silver professor in NYU’s Department of Politics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
For many, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the weakness of our federal government. The question is what could be done about it, and how it could be done in a way that strengthens democracy instead of undermining it. There are several paths that we could take in response to this crisis, and only one of them is desirable – strengthening the federal government by first making investments to reduce distrust among the citizenry.
The United States has a form of government where a great deal of power rests with state and local authorities, even when compared to many other contemporary democracies such as France or the United Kingdom. That’s a product of the way our country was first settled by Europeans, often in in small communities amidst a vast wilderness where strong central control, either from England or from capitals of the colonies, simply wasn’t feasible.
This helped pave the way not only for an American tradition of rugged individualism but also for an early form of democracy – for free White males – based on local control with a weak center.
There was nothing unique or miraculous about the pattern of early democracy in America. Prior to European conquest, Native American societies in the woodlands of eastern North America had organized themselves along exactly the same lines, and the same had been true for many other societies throughout history, from ancient Mesopotamia to pre-colonial Africa.
The lesson in all of these societies was simple: Place power in small communities and minimize central control to avoid autocracy. In my new book, I show just how widespread this phenomenon of early democracy was.
Now, the big challenge for all democracies with such decentralized institutions is that sometimes central coordination and control is actually helpful, say to provide for external defense, or to facilitate economic development, or maybe even in the face of a pandemic to make sure that nurses don’t have to wear garbage bags in place of standard protective equipment. It can actually be a good thing to have an effective central state.
In the United States today we are in the process of learning how 40 years of an ideology bent on undercutting our government “in Washington” has eroded central power just when we could have most used it to provide a coordinated response to Covid-19. So, what does this mean for the future of our democracy?
The potential risk with increased central control has always been that it will give way to the decline of democracy and the rise of autocracy. Throughout history, emergencies involving famine, pestilence and war have given a window to would-be autocrats to assert themselves, build strong central state institutions, and dispense with any need for consulting the people. Today, from Hungary to Cambodia, autocrats are hoping the current pandemic produces precisely this same outcome.
To consider what history says about this possibility, take the case of Prussia. Prior to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which spread violence, famine, and pestilence, governance in Prussia had resembled that in many other areas of Western Europe. There were representative assemblies that checked the power of rulers, and towns had a degree of autonomy. This was not democracy as we would think of it today, but it was a far cry from the type of centralized autocracy one would have seen in China at the time under the Ming dynasty.
The crisis of the Thirty Years’ War gave an opening for Prussia’s rulers, the Hohenzollerns, to construct a new form of centralized, bureaucratic state that would dispense with any need for consultation of the people or their representatives.
This new state proved effective in many ways, but it also set the country on an autocratic trajectory that would not truly be ended until the official abolition of the State of Prussia by the Allied Control Council on February 25, 1947, in the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War II. It was a model that deprived people of their freedom in what German historian Otto Hintze referred to as a “police state.”
Does Prussian experience suggest what could happen in the United States if we strengthened our central state institutions? Probably not. The most obvious reason for this is that Covid at its worst will be much less destructive than the Thirty Years’ War, but there is also a deeper factor pushing in the same direction.
Democratic practices in the United States emerged long before a central state first developed, and at each moment of state strengthening, from the Constitution to the New Deal, representatives of the people have played a fundamental role in shaping the new state institutions rather than having them be imposed in top-down fashion. We can hope that this pattern continues.
So, could we see a second, positive path for the United States where democracy is preserved and central state institutions are strengthened in response to better deal with the next pandemic? Perhaps. But there’s also a risk of a third, less positive trajectory: Our democracy will survive, but it will also keep failing to do what we want.
To see this, take a look at the evidence on which parts of our government are trusted today. We know that in the current crisis, many state governors like Andrew Cuomo are getting better marks for their efforts than is Donald Trump as President.
While much of this has to do with the individual personalities involved, this phenomenon also has deeper roots, and it tells us much about the challenge facing American democracy today. It has actually been decades now – through presidential administrations of both parties – that there has been substantially lower trust in the federal government compared to state and local governments.
The evidence on trust at different levels of government suggests that we in the United States have not escaped a fundamental constraint; across the broad sweep of human history, democratic governance has been most successful as a small-scale affair. Contrary to what James Madison told us in Federalist 10, the US Constitution did not solve the problem of maintaining democracy over such a large territory.
The big problem for large republics is to avoid having their citizens become distrustful of a distant center, a phenomenon that goes hand in hand with polarization. Thinkers in the early republic soon recognized their predicament, as did Madison himself after the founding.
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Members of Congress set about trying to address this threat through investments such as the subsidized distribution of newspapers – so that people would have better information – and state governments began to provide funding for common schools where people could be educated to participate in democratic governance.
The lesson from the early republic is clear: Large scale is a challenge for a democracy, but this obstacle can be overcome. If we are to hope to strengthen our institutions to deal with the next pandemic, or the next emergency, then we need to first think about how we can invest anew in connecting citizens to government.
One idea here is to draw directly on early 19th-century experience and invest anew in civic education, a subject that has been given short shrift of late. If we do this then we will have to also recognize that as was the case two centuries ago, this will not happen on its own. It is the government itself that will need to make the effort.