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COVID-19 accelerating ‘democratic recession,’ warns Larry Diamond

Diamond also calls for U.S. November vote-by-mail at Hoover talk

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Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute, said COVID-19 is deepening the “democratic recession,” a term he coined to refer to the decline in democracies around the globe, at a Hoover virtual policy briefing on Thursday.

To this end, Diamond called on the United States to develop a robust vote-by-mail system for the November elections. He said voting by mail would be “a lot safer” given the shortage of poll workers, the possibility of a resurgence of the virus in the fall and the potential reluctance of voters to go to polling stations. 

Diamond said that the shift to voting by mail would have “no partisan impact” and that “we can all get behind it and improve our safety and the security and legitimacy of the election by having more comprehensive vote by mail.” 

‘The world is paying the price’

Diamond said the pandemic is “deepening and accelerating” the democratic recession, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin taking advantage of the pandemic to extend term limits and Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi increasing the prosecutions of “critical” journalists and intellectuals. 

“Illiberal democracies and authoritarian regimes seizing on the crisis to narrow freedom” remains an unfortunate reality, according to Diamond. 

Highlighting the lack of transparency regarding the initial spread of disease and mortality rates in China, Diamond pointed to the propagandistic nature of the authoritarian nation’s COVID-19 response. 

The virus “went from being a kind of early crisis that needed radical containment to becoming a global pandemic because China was not transparent with its own society or the world about what was happening,” Diamond said.  

It would be a mistake to assume that the strong central governments found in authoritarian nations are an advantage in managing a pandemic, he said. He also condemned governments that suppress the media. 

“What we’re finding now is a heightened need for an effective, vigorous, independent press,” Diamond said. 

Diamond called out the Chinese government’s suppression of the media in early stages of its COVID-19 outbreak.

“When you start suppressing reporting, you actually handicap your ability to fight this virus,” he said, contending that “China’s incompetence and suppression of the truth” contributed to the global pandemic for which “the world is paying the price.” 

In addition to discussing autocracies, Diamond said that liberal democracies are also at risk of democratic recession. 

Surveillance technologies implemented in states including South Korea and Israel have proven successful in containing the virus through contact tracing efforts, according to Diamond. But he warned that while these methods may be helpful now, governments may be reluctant — or even refuse — to surrender these tools after this crisis is over. Independent review boards that monitor governments could potentially be a solution, he said. 

May 1, 10:26 p.m. — This article has been corrected to reflect that democratic recession refers to the general decline of democracy, not just during COVID-19 as a previous version of the article stated. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Anna Milstein at annamil ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Anna Milstein ’23 is a News Writer for The Daily from Tokyo, Japan. Contact her at annamil ‘at’ stanford.edu.