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Democracies Are Better at Managing Crises

In a democracy, a crisis is a political test: a leader must retain or strengthen the public’s trust, or risk being voted out in the next election. But in an autocracy, a crisis is a threat to the regime’s legitimacy, which is why the official response is so often denial.

TEL AVIV – The COVID-19 crisis has become the latest front in the escalating clash of ideologies that has become a central feature of geopolitics in recent years. Representing authoritarianism is China, which has touted the success of its aggressive lockdown strategy in curbing the coronavirus’s spread. Representing democracy are a broad array of countries, some of which have responded far worse than others. So, which political system is better suited to managing crises?

The notion that authoritarian regimes have an advantage may be alluring. Whereas in democracies, such as the United States, people may misunderstand their freedom and resist protective measures like mask-wearing, authoritarian regimes can easily impose and enforce rules that serve the public good. Moreover, some have argued that China benefits from the Confucian tradition, with its emphasis on conformity and deference to authority, in contrast to Western democracies’ emphasis on individual autonomy and consent to authority.

China’s government has been attempting to reinforce these narratives, including by mocking the slow response in the US. And it is true that a sudden strict lockdown like the one that contained the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan – the pandemic’s first epicenter – would be anathema to Americans. But, when it comes to assessing political systems’ capacity to respond to crisis, this comparison misses the point.

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