Martha C. Nussbaum on the Pandemic and the Desire for a Strong Federal Government

Nussbaum: Covid-19 pandemic has re-awakened desire for social democracy

Q: As you put it in your book “Monarchy of Fear,” crises and uncertainty can become an amplifier of fear, anger or envy and pose a great risk to our democracy. Can this pandemic serve as an amplifier that could risk the destruction of democracies around the world, especially taking into account how much praise the Chinese government is receiving for its response?

A: This crisis provokes heightened fear and that, in turn, can provoke a desire to turn for comfort to an all-powerful leader, in that way risking democracy. Actually, though, I don’t see that happening. What I see in my country is a healthy desire for coordination that is a useful corrective to the myth that we do not need a federal government. People see that it is absurd for states to compete with one another for needed supplies and this re-awakens a desire for the social democracy of the New Deal, where essential human needs are the job of a strong federal government. I do see some autocratic leaders elsewhere using this crisis as an excuse to try to seize extraordinary powers: (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu in Israel, (Prime Minister Viktor) Orban in Hungary, (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi in India. But all these are unprincipled people who will get away with whatever the people and the courts allow them to get away with, and we’ll see whether a strong democratic resistance emerges. But I don’t see a tendency to reject democracy in other European countries. And you say people admire China: actually the newspapers are full of criticism of the misrepresentations of the crisis by China, which was possible because of the absence of a free press.

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