We are the Cure: How to Help Our Democracy Recover from the Pandemic

Covid-19 has savagely spread through our lives, our economy, and potentially our democracy. With now millions of confirmed cases, the virus has struck terror in people around the globe. Our own country has been ravaged by hundreds of thousands of deaths and a near 15% unemployment rate to date. Unsurprisingly, our response to the virus has largely fallen along familiar partisan lines. Some emphasize reopening our markets while others emphasize our public health. This division during crisis leads me to feel as if the virus is also infecting the foundations of our society. Can the health of our democracy recover from this pandemic?

Civic health “. . . is the measure of the civic, social, and political strength of a community.” Some indicators of this construct are our level of trust in public institutions, engagement with other citizens, and turnout in elections. These measures alone can provide some insight into the effect the virus has already had on our civic health.

Nearly a third of Americans believe in some sort of conspiracy theory concerning the virus’ genesis. A quick glance at any social media site will reveal that a startling number of Americans adamantly distrust public officials, epidemiologists, and the media at large. Civil discourse, a foundational piece of participatory governance, cannot thrive in this environment of increasingly volatile polarization, ignited by misinformation and fueled by distrust.

One of the most insidious consequences of the virus has been the gradual deconstruction of our shared civic identity, stemming from profound fear. For many, the quality of engagement with others has degraded, not only from a lack of proximately but also from a marked lack of empathy. Some flagrantly disregard the health of their communities while others fail to consider the effects of widespread unemployment. However, both sides often fail to see the humanity in each other.

A stark example of this is evidenced by recent elections, where, after fierce partisan disputes, voters have waited in line amid unsanitary tumult, leading to confirmed cases and a significant increase in infection rate. Naturally, voter turnout has been markedly lower than expected. Although some states have made accommodations in election administration, we may observe a similar democratic debacle at a national scale, fostered by political indiscretion.

Our democracy may be infected. All signs point to the degradation of our civic health. However, we don’t have to wait for a vaccine. The cure to this illness lies in the transformative power of the public to bind these wounds through civic and democratic engagement. We have seen the power of this engagement through mass protests and support for the racial equity movement. Healing starts by seeing our leaders as extensions of ourselves, fallible but well-intentioned. Healing starts by reaching out to our neighbors, by engaging with empathy. Healing starts by cultivating our civic life, by speaking up when decisions are made that affect us all. We are the cure for our ailing democracy.

Taylor Brown is a candidate at the Brown School of Social Work, where he studies social and economic development.

Reflection Questions

  • What are your takeaways from this article?
  • How would you define civic health? How would you define civic identity?
  • What are some methods that come to mind for maintaining and cultivating a healthy democracy?

Engage with these questions on social media using #ThisCivicMoment.

Inspired to create your own entry or nominate someone?