Krastev on Pandemic and Politics

On “Persuasion” (the newsletter-think tank launched by Yascha Mounk after the Harper Letter) there is an excerpt of Ivan Krastev’s forthcoming book, Is it Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic. Krastev struggles with the impact of the pandemic of different political regimes.

His starting point is that “more than any other crisis, a public-health emergency can induce people voluntarily to accept restrictions on their liberties in the hope of improving their personal security. Invasive surveillance systems and bans on freedom of assembly have been introduced and accepted around the world with little public pushback.” It seems we should think that these kinds of crises are healthy for authoritarian leaders, who thrive on fear.

Yet Krastev points out that such authoritarian leaders typically are “problem solvers”, but of problems of their making (up).

As a seemingly unstoppable crisis that has riveted the attention of the global public, Covid-19 deprives authoritarian and authoritarian-minded leaders of the chance to manufacture a “better crisis.” Far from citing the coronavirus crisis to justify an increase in power, a high-profile slew of populists and autocrats have strenuously and ridiculously denied the very existence of the pandemic. …
Political leaders in general prefer “enemies” who can unconditionally surrender to anonymous “threats” that need to be managed over time. Would-be dictators, in particular, find it more rewarding to pose as “deciders” than to do the hard work required of “problem-solvers.” The former allows them to vaunt their I-alone-can-solve-it unilateralism, while the latter requires them to cooperate with others, to freely admit their own mistakes, and to spend the time needed to master complex and evolving situations. Flashy stunts by men-of-action must give way to slow and laborious efforts by anonymous professionals.

It is not only that authoritarian leaders despise crises that they do not freely choose and which require them to stake their prestige on cooperatively resolving problems that, at the outset, are difficult to understand. They also spurn “exceptional situations” that compel them to respond with standardized rules and protocols rather than with ad hoc, discretionary moves. Mundane behaviors such as social distancing, self-isolation and washing hands are the best way to stop the spread of the disease. The leader’s strokes of genius, inviting thunderous applause, are perfectly irrelevant. Worse still, the palpable courage of ICU doctors and nurses makes phony heroics in presidential palaces appear even more pathologically narcissistic than before.

Another point Krastev makes is that the global nature of the crisis, “the ubiquity of the disease”, “makes it possible for people to compare the actions of their own governments with the actions of other governments around the world. Success or failure at flattening the curve provides a common metric, making cross-national comparisons possible and putting strong pressure on governments that had previously succeeded in insulating themselves from public criticism. The opening provided by easy government-to-government comparisons gives citizens the capacity to grade their government’s performance. This is a problem for authoritarian regimes and authoritarian-minded leaders, who previously got away with staged “performances” supplemented by the silencing of whistle-blowers and critics.


The whole thing is well worth reading, and I look forward to the book. What Krastev writes about authoritarian regimes is, in fact, a problem for political leaders in democracies, too: perhaps spectacular decisions in tackling the epidemic (the kind that politicians tend to favor) are not as effective and important as leaders believe. Perhaps containing the virus is an exercise in self-governance that some people are more adept at conducting than others, because of their history and their institutions. Krastev rightly points out that it is too early to say: success and failure in dealing with Covid-19 will be properly assessed years from now. I look forward to his books to see how he develops these views presented in the “Persuasion” excerpt.


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The problem with court packing

Between March and July 1933, FDR’s policy of devaluing the dollar pushed industrial production up by an incredible 57% in just 4 months. Then FDR’s National Recovery Administration instituted a policy of mandating sharply higher wages. Hourly wage rates rose by roughly 20% in just two months. This immediately ended the robust economic recovery then underway.

When the Supreme Court ruled the NIRA to be unconstitutional in May 1935, there had been no growth in industrial production for 22 months. Immediately after the NIRA was declared unconstitutional, industrial production once again took off like a rocket, until this second recovery was derailed by tight money and another wage shock in 1937.

You’d think that FDR would have thanked the Supreme Court for rejecting the disastrous NIRA and triggering a surge in the economy—a boom that allowed FDR to win a huge victory in November 1936. In fact, Roosevelt was so frustrated by the Supreme Court that he tried to enlarge the court at the beginning of his second term. The goal was to add a number of FDR loyalists to the court, effectively reducing America’s political system from three branches to two. You occasionally see similar moves in the modern world, but mostly in authoritarian regimes. BTW, FDR was a fan of Mussolini.

In the 1937, the US still had pretty strong resistance to authoritarianism. Even though the Democrats held an overwhelming 74-17 margin over the GOP in the Senate, there was so much outrage at FDR’s power grab that the proposal was eventually dropped.  America narrowly avoided becoming an authoritarian state.  The checks and balances put in the Constitution held up.

Today I’m seeing renewed calls for court packing.  I suspect that if proponents of this scheme understood more about the 1937 attempt at court packing, as well as the effects of court packing in various banana republics, they would reject this idea.

PS.  It’s important to distinguish between court packing and court enlargement.  With legitimate court enlargement, as with the 22nd amendment to the Constitution limiting the president to two terms, the current occupant of the presidency is exempted.  I don’t have strong views either way on legitimate proposals for court enlargement, but allowing the same president who signed a court enlargement bill to also engage in court packing would be a mistake of epic proportions.  Checks and balances are an essential tool for preventing authoritarianism.


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