Faced with a pandemic, good public health requires stronger democracy

Faced with a pandemic, good public health requires stronger democracy
© Getty Images

Dealing with Covid-19 requires a massive, coordinated, democratic response. Governments, non-profit organizations, businesses, grassroots groups, and individual citizens all have significant parts to play.

In that sense, our ability to withstand the coronavirus is based in large part on the strength of our democracy. I don’t mean voting, political parties, and the other electoral features we associate with democracy: I mean the extent to which our political system helps people to act collectively, support each other, share information, and collaborate with experts and public officials. Strong democracies are good at these things.

Unfortunately, our democracy isn’t very strong right now. Trust between citizens and government officials is at an all-time low, most people don’t feel like they have a meaningful say in public decisions, and in many cases, we can’t even agree on how to separate fact from fiction. Volunteerism is strong — especially now, as people react to the crisis — but volunteers generally don’t feel that their service is valued or supported by our political system.

ADVERTISEMENT

Americans want stronger democracy. Our Yankelovich Democracy Monitor research, which is centered on a national survey, revealed the kinds of changes to democracy Americans would support. These include practices and reforms like deliberative public meetings, online survey panels, and participatory budgeting — measures that create more interaction between citizens and officials and give citizens more say on budgets and other decisions. Other researchers who have studied these practices agree that they are generally quite effective at increasing trust and encouraging joint action on common goals.

The support for all of these options was high, with between 85 percent and 87 percent of respondents rating each of them as either very helpful or somewhat helpful. Democrats, Republicans, and independents are generally in agreement on the questions we asked.

Strengthening democracy, at all the levels of government, can help us achieve the kind of trust we need to deal with Covid-19 — so that people trust in the information they get from doctors and medical authorities like the Centers for Disease Control, so that doctors and public health officials trust that citizens will wash their hands and avoid contact with each other, so that people in different parts of the country will trust that we’re all in this together.

The new Community Voices for Health initiative, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and assisted by Public Agenda and Altarum, will provide new examples of what stronger democracy can look like. Over the next two years, teams in six states will engage thousands of people in decision-making, problem-solving, and community-building. From the work of community health workers in Georgia… to health plans developed by county and tribal councils in New Mexico… to online survey panels on policy questions in Pennsylvania and Colorado… to youth leadership in Nevada… to public participation laws in Indiana, this initiative will explore new ways of engaging residents for better health.

The next wave of technological innovations also provides many opportunities for strengthening democracy. For example, there are interesting new tools for informing voters (like VoteCompass), bridging different viewpoints (like the vTaiwan process), and gathering input from large numbers of people (like BeHeard Philly).

ADVERTISEMENT

The silver lining in any grave crisis is that people band together and get past their previous divisions and disagreements to meet the common challenge. This happens even if people can’t be in physical proximity to each other. Americans already have more common ground than you might expect on public issues, including health care. Let’s take advantage of this moment to strengthen democracy in ways that support reconciliation and collaboration.

In the face of a possible flu pandemic 15 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control took a closer look at how engagement could be influential in counteracting these threats. Summing up that experience, CDC epidemiologist Roger Bernier concluded that “Democracy is good for your health.” We should take that statement as more than just a platitude — we should explore the concrete ways of making our democracy stronger.

Matt Leighninger is Vice President for Public Engagement and Director of the Yankelovich Center at Public Agenda. He is the author of The Next Form of Democracy.