Democracy at a Distance: What We Lose

Democracy is an incredible thing. It is capable of bringing together thousands of jubilant supporters packed into convention centers. It stages heated debates on the floor of Congress. It survives by volunteers knocking on strangers’ doors and poll workers handing out “I Voted” stickers in school gyms. 

But since March, these in-person events have all but vanished. For good reason, everyone has hunkered down at home, far away from a rally or phone bank. Today, our politics are little more than an endless series of public statements and press conferences. 

Yet the political shift driven by the coronavirus pandemic represents more than just the loss of sentimental tradition. Particularly for political newcomers, door-to-door canvassing and public events are an essential way to reach prospective voters and spread their message. Devoid of this kind of outreach, candidates challenging long-time incumbents, such as Alex Morse, running against Rep. Richard Neal in neighboring Holyoke, are grasping at straws for how to continue their bid as their races become less competitive. Meanwhile, voters, such as those participating in Wisconsin’s primary elections earlier this month, are being forced to decide whether to exercise their constitutional right to the ballot or to protect themselves from infection.

Without our traditional tools for conducting elections, we are forced to ask: can we really have democracy in the age of social distancing? 

We’ve certainly tried. Mail-in voting is starting to become the norm for elections across the country. Online events like Zoom town halls, virtual conventions and text-banking all represent a push to organize political action without bringing people together in the real world. 

Of course, this brand of organizing is nothing new. In the past decade, digital efforts have been used to power movements across the world. During the 2011 Arab Spring, online platforms were used to facilitate in-person protests, which would be impossible in the age of outbreak. This online activism was never intended to stand alone. The goal was always to fuel a political response in the real world. But now that we are forced to operate at least six feet apart from one another, we’ve started to use those support mechanisms as an action unto themselves. Unfortunately, this is simply not as effective. 

Take, for instance, the several high profile members of the Senate who used privileged information on the pandemic to benefit from the stock market. Normally, we would have seen large-scale protests or sit-ins in their congressional offices, but these responses are impossible in the age of social distancing. Thus, constituents’ outrage struggles to materialize and force corrupt politicians into resignation. 

Without these public actions, what are we left with? Many of the forms of political communication that we’ve come to dread most in the Trump era have become only more dominant. Press conferences are perhaps a more integral part of the news cycle than they ever have been. Millions tune in to hear Governor Andrew Cuomo or Dr. Anthony Fauci give their daily updates from the podium. 

These press appearances can be helpful tools to get information about best health practices. Yet, as we’ve learned over the past three years, they also allow members of the Trump administration to spread harmful disinformation that can cost thousands of lives. 

Deprived of public means of expression, activists are forced to promote their message on Facebook or Twitter; platforms that encourage echo chambers in which discourse becomes insular and unresponsive to outside criticism. 

In short, our shift to “digital democracy” has robbed our politics of the features that make it democratic while bolstering its worst features. None of this is to say that social distancing isn’t a completely necessary measure or to voice support for the half-witted protests in Lansing or Richmond that suggest open beaches are more important than American lives. Social distancing has no doubt saved millions from COVID-19 and should not be suspended until there is absolute certainty the country is safe from another round of mass infections. But we should make no pretense that digital organizing will ever serve as a substitute for in-person action. Rather, we should take this moment to understand even more profoundly that democracy must remain something to be practiced in public, and not behind our screens, once the pandemic has run its course.