The Cooperative Society Newsletter
July 2021, Issue 29
by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
This is the second of a four-part series of newsletter articles on the impact of the pandemic on major issues affecting progress toward a more cooperative society. The May article focused on economic concentration and wealth inequality. Upcoming articles will look at effects on population change, quality of life, and the climate crisis.
An overview of conflict and democracy
During the course of the 20th century, we made significant progress in reducing conflict and increasing democracy. There has been a dramatic reduction in deaths from war-related violence since the end of World War II and a rapid increase in the number of democratic governments beginning about the same time. Historical data also indicate that the rate of homicides has been decreasing for centuries.
But in the past 15-20 years, these positive trends have faltered. This has been especially true in the erosion of democracy in some countries; an increasing incidence of wars, within-country violence, and terrorist activities; and a wide divergence in homicide rates from country to country. These patterns are chronicled in our book, The Cooperative Society (2nd edition, 2018), and “The Cooperative Society 2020 Report.”
How has violence been affected by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021?
The simple answer is that there has been a mixed pattern of violence in the past year and a half.
ACLED, an international organization that monitors global violence, reports a small decrease in fatalities caused by violent events between 2019 and 2020, and then an upsurge in the first half of 2021 that returned the death rate to the 2019 level. These data suggest a temporary reduction in conflict deaths caused by the virus, but a return to “business as usual” in 2021.
An example of peaceful protests accelerated in the early months of the pandemic, resulting from George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. Under the banner of “Black Lives Matter,” Floyd’s death sparked protests across the United States and in many other countries. According to the Washington Post, over 96% of protest marches in the U.S. were peaceful. The reaction to Floyd’s death and the conviction of Chauvin for murder appear to have initiated a broad movement to decrease violence by police against Blacks and other minorities.
Homicides and domestic violence appear to have increased during the pandemic.Some analysts have concluded that economic disruptions and restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus increased these kinds of violence. More data on these kinds of violence will be forthcoming in the next year or so.
Has democracy eroded at a faster pace during the pandemic?
Two well-known, annual reports on the state of democracy in the world conclude that there was a significant decline in democracy in 2020.
The Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2020 reports that:
Democracy was dealt a major blow in 2020. Almost 70% of countries covered by the Index … recorded a decline in their overall score, as country after country locked down to protect lives from a novel coronavirus. The global average score fell to its lowest level since the index began in 2006.
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 sounded a similar theme.
As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny. Incumbent leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, sometimes in the name of public health, while beleaguered activists—lacking effective international support—faced heavy jail sentences, torture, or murder in many settings.
These withering blows marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.
As both of the excerpts from these reports indicate, part of the increase in anti-democratic tendencies during the pandemic may be temporary. That is, government efforts to enforce mask wearing, social distancing, and other actions to reduce the coronavirus infection rate limit freedom of action in the short term but may not signal a long-term increase in repression. Thus, in the latter half of 2021 and beyond, freedom of action may very well show a rebound.
Not all of democracy’s troubles in 2020 and the first half of 2021 can be attributed to the pandemic. For one thing, both of the above reports indicate a long-term trend in the weakening of democracy going back to 2006. The pandemic may have exacerbated anti-democratic tendencies, but the gradual erosion of democracy around the world has been occurring for well over a decade.
Democracy is under threat in the United States, not primarily because of COVID-19, but because of the anti-democratic words and actions of Donald Trump and his followers. In particular, he, many Republican elected officials at state and federal levels, and some rank-and-file GOP members have refused to acknowledge the reality of his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s continued promotion of “the big lie” led to the January 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., in which over 500 rioters have been arrested so far.
As part of this Trump and Republican-led effort to undermine democracy in the U.S., more than 20 state laws have been passed as of May of this year that make it harder for Americans to vote. President Biden and others have excoriated these and other proposed voting restrictions as the biggest threat to American democracy since the Civil War.
What changes should we expect?
What changes should we expect in conflict and democracy in the next couple of years?
It is difficult to predict future changes in conflict levels. The number of deaths from violent events around the world will depend on reforms in international and national policies and actions related to these events. At this time, there are no apparent trends, either positive or negative, that are likely to cause a significant change from the status quo.
Future trends in homicide are also unclear. On the one hand, there appears to be pent-up anger and frustration caused by the pandemic that have raised the worldwide level of homicides and assaults. On the other hand, as we gain more control over the pandemic, these sources of violence may subside. One hopeful note may be that in the United States and possibly in other countries, police violence against minorities may be reduced as a result of strong public protests against such violence. However, continued easy access to guns in the United States and gang activity in Central and South America are likely to increase homicides in the near future.
As stated above, some of the reduction in democratic freedom during the pandemic may disappear as restrictive measures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus are eliminated. But this change is a separate issue from the erosion of democracy during the past 15 years or so. Future trends in this long-term pattern are not readily predictable.
Then there is the anti-democratic cult of Trump and his sycophants in the Republican party. What will happen in the U.S. between now and the 2022 elections? Will we restore democratic norms or move increasingly toward authoritarianism?
Stay tuned. Or, better yet, play an active role in exposing “the big lie” and championing free and fair elections.