How Democratic Is the Covid State?
Behind all the bad arguments against the Canadian Freedom Convoy, that they are Nazis or transphobes or whatever, is one good one: there was an election five months ago and they lost it. We can’t replace democracy with rule by whoever has the biggest trucks. Justin Trudeau made that argument yesterday defending his use of the Emergencies Act against the protesters. “You can’t hold a city hostage,” he said. “What you can do is vote. What you can do is run for office. That’s how change happens in a democracy.”
It is true that in the last election, in September 2021, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won 32.6 percent of the popular vote and 160 seats, the lowest popular vote of any ruling party in Canadian history but enough to put together a minority government.
On the other hand, in that election the Conservative Party did not campaign on an end to vaccine mandates or any of the other issues animating the truckers. Their leader at the time, Erin O’Toole, tried to chart a middle path, implying Trudeau had mishandled the pandemic without quite opposing any of Trudeau’s harsh anti-Covid policies. His perceived squishiness is one reason O’Toole was toppled as party leader within a week of the trucks arriving in Ottawa.
If a large portion of the population is unrepresented by either major party, then one cannot describe them as having been democratically defeated, fair and square, and thus entitled only to shut up and try again next time. This is a point with relevance beyond Canada. Across the Western world, we have seen Covid measures adopted in ways that satisfied democratic forms while evading their substance.
The parliamentary democracies of the Commonwealth offered a perfect metaphor for this dynamic when they allowed Zoom to be used as a substitute for debate in the House chamber. For more than a year, beginning in April 2020, the U.K. House of Commons adopted a so-called hybrid system, with only a limited number of M.P.s allowed in the chamber and the rest watching remotely. Other Commonwealth countries, including Canada, followed their example. “This has meant that instead of answering to a raucous and often querulous and difficult assembly, whose packed ranks can test governments with the largest majorities, ministers had an easy ride,” explained Jonathan Sumption, a former judge and an expert in constitutional law.
American governments do not “fall” between elections the way prime ministers do, so we don’t have the same appreciation for how high the stakes of a debate can be when the threat of a vote of no confidence always looms in the background. Parliament isn’t mere theater. It isn’t all scripted in advance. I’m sure that right now Justin Trudeau’s pet pollsters are reassuring him that he has the majority of the country behind him. He is nevertheless still vulnerable to the crushing moment when the opposition benches are hooting and the witty retorts just won’t come, when even the most irrationally self-confident M.P. knows in a sudden burst of insight that it’s over.
Everyone who has participated in a Zoom meeting knows that they are more easily managed than in-person meetings—more subdued, less dynamic, subject to the host’s mute button. Remote debate is not the same as real debate, any more than managed democracy is the same as real democracy. In a system of government whose legitimacy rests on democratic deliberation, Zoom parliament is not a constitutionally adequate substitute.
Of course, it did not much matter in April 2020 whether Boris Johnson had to face his opposition in person, because the Labour Party’s only complaint about lockdowns was that he didn’t impose them hard enough or fast enough. Here we have the bigger problem with the supposed democratic legitimacy of the Covid regime: Almost no elected official or candidate anywhere in the world has run on a platform of destroying it. It has been subject to democratic debate but not much democratic opposition.
This has resulted in some bizarre contortions. Erin O’Toole was an exemplary gymnast in this respect. Ask him what he thought of vaccines, and he’d say they should not be “politicized”—which is not quite the same as saying they should not be legally mandated or quasi-mandated with an onerous alternative regime of daily testing. Ask him what he thought of the truckers, and he’d say that they should not be “demonized”—which is not quite the same as saying they should be supported and their demands met.
The U.S. presidential election saw similar rhetorical convolutions. Joe Biden repeatedly accused Donald Trump of allowing hundreds of thousands of negligent deaths without saying what he would have done differently. His pithy line, “I’m not going to shut down the country, I’m going to shut down the virus,” had the vagueness of a Zen koan. In the vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, the moderator asked explicitly, “What would a Biden administration do in January and February that a Trump administration wouldn’t do?” Harris’s answer was evasive even by debate standards. The most specific she got was to say, “They still don’t have a plan. Joe Biden does.”
If a position goes unrepresented in a two-party democracy, there may be good reasons for it. Perhaps that position is a “small fringe minority with unacceptable views,” as Trudeau called the truckers. But within days of the convoy arriving in Ottawa, a poll showed a double-digit swing against Covid restrictions. It was as if Canadians were waiting for someone to tell them it was finally okay to say out loud what they already believed.
Here in the U.S., the people whose permission is awaited most eagerly are experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC director Rochelle Walensky. There has always been a tension between democracy and technocracy, rule by the people versus rule by experts. In the era of Covid-19, the balance between the two has collapsed and the latter now reigns without challenge.
The only comparison I can think of is the functionally theocratic arrangement that emerged in the last century in Catholic democracies like Eamon De Valera’s Ireland. The archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, had no formal power, but no one dared cross him. This was no secret either. Irish politicians stated publicly, in so many words, that they would never act contrary to the wishes of the Church.
Just as Ireland was priest-ridden, today we are expert-ridden. Their handmaids in the media can be counted on to bring down an avalanche of bad press on any politician who dissents. Even those brave politicians who dare to oppose lockdowns and vax mandates are still careful to assure voters that they are following the science, just as Irish politicians promised to follow Catholic teaching, which leaves Fauci and the CDC with the rhetorical upper hand.
A politician bold enough to confront the consensus head on would still face the threat of lawsuits. We are seeing that now with mask mandates. The ACLU and other left-wing groups are mounting suits against states and school districts that have removed mask mandates on the grounds that masklessness violates the legal rights of disabled students to medically necessary accommodations. In these lawsuits, CDC guidance is cited as proof that anti-mask politicians should have known better than to end the mask mandates when experts were telling them not to.
In recent weeks, the consensus on mask mandates has had a dam-breaking moment similar to what Canadian polls showed on vax passports and mandates, with even blue politicians abruptly abandoning them in a rapid cascade. The meaning in both instances is the same, that everyone was just waiting for someone else’s permission to remove policies in which they no longer believed. But in a democracy, experts don’t decide when policies are allowed to change. We the people do.