Civic Engagement

COVID-19 and Civic Distrust: Why We Need a Democracy Renaissance

COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the rhythm of our lives. At a time when loneliness and other-ness were already prevalent, our physical distancing from workplaces, houses of worship, and schools further threatens our ability to create a collective identity.

By Yordanos Eyoel

Who do you trust? Perhaps no other question has come to define our political beliefs and realities of today. COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the rhythm of our lives. At a time when loneliness and other-ness were already prevalent, our physical distancing from workplaces, houses of worship, and schools further threatens our ability to create a collective identity.

And in the background, the fissures of our democratic system in the U.S. are widening, fueled by a crisis of civic trust. In a cruel irony of the “America-First” doctrine, the U.S. currently holds first place in the number of COVID-19 infections, totaling 1.6M—one-third of all global cases. Over the last six weeks, we have been bombarded with conflicting and at times disturbing analyses of how the U.S., the global leader in science and technology, could become the epicenter of a viral pandemic. One of these analyses, albeit less discussed, is centered around trust.

Public policy comparisons have shown that countries that have had relatively successful COVID-19 containment strategies—including Germany, New Zealand, and South Korea—have higher levels of trust both in the government and in their fellow citizens. Data shows that 43% of Germans have strong trust in their government and South Korea experienced the largest one-year increase of trust in government by 17 points in 2018. New Zealand, where 59% of the public had trust in the government pre-COVID-19, has seen a massive surge in trust, now at 83%. Let’s compare this to the U.S., where trust in government has been on the decline since 1958 and currently lies at 17%.

This crisis of trust not only reflects how we perceive the effectiveness of government, but also how we relate to one another. According to the Pew Center, 35% of Americans are “low-trusters” who believe that people cannot be trusted and only look at their own self-interest. Interestingly, among this group of Americans, 40% believe we are overreacting to the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has heightened the brokenness of our existing paradigm, but it also gives us an unparalleled opportunity to build a democratic renaissance that is for and by the people, grounded in civic trust.

— Yordanos Eyoel, Partner, New Profit

Macro-views of American civic distrust paint a dark and alarming future. If we do not take the necessary measures now, distrust will continue to deepen our societal and political fragmentation, further risking our democracy. The COVID-19 crisis has heightened the brokenness of our existing paradigm, but it also gives us an unparalleled opportunity to build a democratic renaissance that is for and by the people, grounded in civic trust.

History reminds us the Renaissance was born partly out of the Bubonic plague that decimated Europe in the 14th century. While there was a multitude of factors that contributed to the transformation of European society after the plague, it is notable that that period immediately after elevated the value of the labor class under an economically stratified society, ended the Middle Ages, and cultivated a new area of critical thinking and cultural expression, albeit driven by elites.

As we fight COVID-19, we must also remember that there is another virus—civic distrust—attacking our democracy. This virus must be eradicated through the birth of a new democratic vision and culture for America that is driven by the people.

— Yordanos Eyoel, Partner, New Profit

The lessons are instructive. As we fight COVID-19, we must also remember that there is another virus—civic distrust—attacking our democracy. This virus must be eradicated through the birth of a new democratic vision and culture for America that is driven by the people, not by partisan elites.

One promising path for such an America is democracy entrepreneurship. Democracy entrepreneurs build innovative models to repair or dismantle the broken systems in our democracy. They employ a range of strategies such as grassroots organizing, recruiting a pipeline of new and diverse leaders for public office, and building a narrative that counteracts misinformation and promotes unity. More importantly, the work of democracy entrepreneurs extends beyond election cycles and builds the civic infrastructure and culture we need in our communities.

Standing on the legacy of our civic ancestors, for my generation of millennials and our even more activist-oriented Gen-Z siblings, democracy entrepreneurship offers a path to building a more inclusive, responsive, and healthy democracy.

— Yordanos Eyoel, Partner, New Profit

Standing on the legacy of our civic ancestors, for my generation of millennials and our even more activist-oriented Gen-Z siblings, democracy entrepreneurship offers a path to building a more inclusive, responsive, and healthy democracy. Examples of innovative organizations led by democracy entrepreneurs include: Momentum, a training institute and movement incubator; The Millennial Action Project, which activates Millennial policymakers to create post-partisan political collaboration; and The Center for Tech and Civic Life, which uses the promise of technology to modernize the American voting experience.

As we get closer to the November presidential election, mainstream media once again will turn its attention to our democracy. But we must not lose sight that as important as the election is, the fractures of trust in our system will require a concerted and long-term effort to repair. It will take ingenuity, commitment, and resources.

It also requires each of us to contribute to the healing of our democracy by building relationships across differences, especially at a time when virtual social enclaves are further alienating us. And collaborating with democracy entrepreneurs in our communities who are mobilizing and organizing civic actions can be a way for us to build the stage for a new democracy renaissance.

Yordanos Eyoel leads Civic Lab at New Profit, an initiative that invests in democracy entrepreneurs building civic trust in America. She is the Co-founder and International Spokesperson for the Sister March Network that mobilized 4 Million people for the 2017 Women’s March.