Lessons From COVID-19

A recent article in Atlantic by Stanford political science professor Francis Fukuyama reflected on the ongoing failure that western democracies are facing in handling the COVID-19 crisis in contrast to the seeming success that authoritarian regimes have achieved so far. Prof. Fukuyama pointed two determents to governments’ success in such an unexpected turmoil: the trust of governments and strong state capacity. The latter factor explains why authoritarian regimes such as China could respond expeditiously and contain disease widespread effectively despite the lack of democratic institutions.

By contrast, Prof. Fukuyama claimed that the U.S. dysfunctional performance is due to the lack of trust of both executive branches from top-level leaders and governments from citizens. Indeed, he is partially correct about current U.S. politics, where partisan divide and distrust have damaged governance quality, but his emphasis on trust overlaps some cores embedded in state capacity. In this sense, trust is only vital, contingent on volatile state capacity. For example, authoritarian regimes like China suffer a lack of distrust from citizens, but they rely on strong state capacity to executive policies effectively at the cost of legitimacy.

Prof. Fukuyama ignored the importance of information transition between the federal government and states in accounting for the U.S. failure. Information transition differs from the trust, requiring well-designed institutions, bipartisan cultures, and frequent communications between local and central leaders. At the very beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, President Trump tried to narrate the disease widespread as a “blue states’ problem” and refused to extend help to several states later on. Trump’s responses embodied not only the flaws in current U.S. political institutions but also his consideration for reelections, which biased the policymaking and would cause substantial humanitarian disasters.

The U.S. has witnessed several successful presidents leading the country out of unexpected crises. But Trump is not the next Abraham Lincoln, nor Franklin Roosevelt. Hopefully, amid the dark days, the only silver lining we could bear in mind is learning a lesson from this crisis—as a democracy, the U.S. shall never depend on a wise supreme leader but adaptive institutions to go through future challenges.

Ziwen Zu (祖梓文)
Ziwen Zu (祖梓文)
Ph.D. student in Political Science