In a Pandemic, We Need Democratic Deliberation More Than Ever

As our plague year lengthens–we are but halfway through and already the toll of American dead is 200,000–it becomes ever clearer that COVID-19 is not just a threat to our lives and health, but to our democratic institutions as well. What these often have in common is the attempt to muzzle the political bedrock of our deliberative democracy: public debate of public policy.

This impulse–to restrict either the forums in which deliberation occurs or the information which is its lifeblood–has its more florid manifestations, of course. These tend to go viral, like the Georgia school district that suspended the teen who tweeted a picture of crowded, maskless students, showing that all that talk of safely reopening schools was hot, virus-laden air. Then there are the more insidious ones, the creeping erosions of democratic norms that, one-by-one seem innocuous, but taken together paint a more ominous picture. Like floating plans to bar the press from the Republican National Convention because of “health restrictions,” or reports early in the pandemic that congresspersons were using COVID as an excuse to ignore reporters questions.

My colleague Robert Zaretsky highlighted health officials being silenced by political officials in his op-ed on Albert Camus’s canonical novel, The Plague:

For Rieux, we are called upon to recognize facts and draw conclusions regardless of the bacterium. This requires an unflinching fidelity not to your future, but to our future; not to a personal interest, but to general interest. This alone, though, is not enough. By resistance, Camus also meant resistance to our tendency to swap reality for fantasy, information for ignorance.

And in an election year, when public debate is supposed to take center stage in the pageantry of our presidential elections, pundits are already starting to write op-eds calling for the presidential debates to be scrapped, dismissing them as “unrevealing quip contests.”

At times, just as in Camus’s novel, it is enough to provoke in one an existential despair, a deep feeling of groundlessness that sends us searching for answers across the wide-variety of human experience. In addition to literature, there is also respite in history. Another colleague of mine, Nathan Gorelick, has recently written an entertaining essay on coronavirus and cruise ships, and how they relate to the infamous “Ship of Fools” of the middle ages. It was Nate’s earlier work on Daniel Dafoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) that helped me grapple with the long timeframes and deep social changes which have traditionally accompanied plagues; we are perhaps not so exceptional after all. Historian Michael McCormick of Harvard University has recently said in Science magazine that 536 was “the worst year to be alive”. Back then, the Plague of Justinian combined with volcanically induced climate change to induce, finally, the fall of the Roman Empire (though the nature of that “fall” is a fascinating debate in and of itself).

A dark message indeed for the current global hegemon. But the respite of history, though perhaps useful, is not enough. What we need is to foreground the importance of our core, democratic traditions. That robust political debate is under threat during the pandemic is a reality that, as a debate coach, I know all too well. Budgets have been cut across the board at universities, but debate programs can be especially vulnerable. Overshadowed by big-ticket, media-driven items like football or basketball, robust debate programs are often seen as limited luxuries and not as the essential bastions of our deepest democratic traditions that they are.

Nevertheless, when confronted with a myriad of logistical issues and novel situations, we must continue on. What does virtual democratic deliberation look like? How does wearing a mask change the nature of face-to-face discussions? How do we create “bubbles” in which debate is possible? (If basketball can do it, then democracy must do it.) The short answer is we don’t know. But the longer answer is, we’ll figure it out and we’ll make it work.

And in fact, that is something that has already started to happen. Last year, the National Speech and Debate Association hosted the largest series of debates and speeches in the country entirely online (the NSDA is the umbrella organization for high school speech and debate competitions). The collegiate policy debate leagues had to cancel two of their three national tournaments, but they were scheduled much closer to the initial wave of lockdowns, and already they have planned a full season of meetings for next year on the extremely topical question of U.S. international alliances. In other words, what looks impossible now is going to seem commonplace by year’s end. So long as we commit ourselves to debate and not despair, our institutions will adapt, grow, and possibly even thrive. At the very least, we may have developed one more form of immunity to all the various threats to democracy in today’s world.