[MUSIC PLAYING] RACHEL REIDL: The Einaudi Center for International Studies is very pleased to be hosting this discussion today, in particular as a part of our support for the broader project of democratic resiliency, which is identifying challenges to democratic endurance across the world, what form these threats take, and narrowing in on the combination of factors and institutions that serve to protect democracy in periods of threat. Now clearly this topic is one of general concern that scholars were debating even before the pandemic. And what we'll be doing in the webinar this week is to discuss how COVID-19 has led to governmental responses that have often reinforced fears of democratic erosion or backsliding in different parts of the world.
As Amartya Sen's timeless work on democracy shows, the worst humanitarian disasters occur under authoritarian regimes where feedback loops of citizens' conditions are stifled from the ground up and only the official line is promoted by state agencies, which responds to the prerogatives of the autocratic regime rather than the needs of the citizens. Shutting down these channels of information is how autocracies worsen health and economic conditions even when they have the capacity to respond effectively.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: We have found that there was a partisan divide in public health at the beginning. And that partisan divide in public health remains there today. What's happening in response between March in early May in the United States is that Americans are changing in lock step in their public health behaviors.
But their differences about what to do about the crisis are widening. So Americans are diverging in partisan terms about how we respond to the crisis. And so this is consistent with a broad trend of American politics, that it is partisanship all the way down.
KENNETH ROBERTS: The central tension that I see in our country and in other parts of the world as well is that there is a certain logic of needing to distance ourselves and stay at home. And it's in the public interest that we do that because we've got a public health emergency on our hands. And so, you know, we're doing society a favor if we do stay home and try to isolate.
But the dilemma is that that's not healthy. It's not healthy for the society. It's not healthy for democracy. And what we have to understand and keep in mind is the importance of filling those civic and those public spaces and keeping them vibrant even if there are restrictions on where we can go and what we can do right now. But the importance for democracy of maintaining those vibrant public spaces.
And if we keep that in mind, you know, crises are always-- they worry us, but they are also opportunities. Ultimately, they're opportunities to try to further democracy, to deepen democracy, and to try to bring new voices into democracy. And if we do things right, maybe we can figure out a way to turn even this crisis in that direction.
But it is worrisome because I think the trend lines in much of the world have not been going in a positive direction over the last 10 or 15 years. And I think, in the short term, this health crisis is reinforcing those negative trend lines. And so I think what we have to keep in mind is the importance of pushing back against those negative trends and maintaining the vibrancy of those public spaces.
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Authoritarian leaders around the world are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to concentrate powers, restrict civil liberties, weaken opposition rights, and undermine democratic checks and balances. Regional experts from the Einaudi Center discussed government responses to the pandemic and their implications for democratic rule, including new developments in Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Highlights of Democratic Challenges in the Time of COVID-19: Global Perspectives, a webinar hosted on May 22, 2020, by Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, part of Global Cornell.