Democracy in flux: a systemic view on the impact of COVID-19

Lucy J. Parry (Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia and Webster Vienna Private University, Wien, Austria)
Hans Asenbaum (Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia)
Selen A. Ercan (Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia)

Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy

ISSN: 1750-6166

Article publication date: 30 November 2020

Issue publication date: 23 June 2021




The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how a systemic view of democracy can provide insights into the myriad ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic affects democracies worldwide. This enables the authors to offer practical suggestions for strengthening democracy through meaningful participation in the spaces where deficits are most apparent.


The authors use the systems approach that has emerged from the deliberative and participatory democracy literature in recent years to map out the impacts of COVID-19. In this paper, the authors set out this approach as an agenda for future, more comprehensive research.


The authors’ preliminary overview suggests that democratic spaces are reconfigured during COVID-19, with participatory spaces shrinking, overlapping and invading each other. Based on the systemic overview, the authors suggest participatory interventions to address particular points of weakness such as accountability.


Taking a systemic approach to analysing COVID-19’s impacts on democracy enables the authors to understand the pressure points where democratic values and participation are under strain and where citizens’ participation is essential not only for strengthening democracy but also addressing the public health challenge of COVID-19.



Parry, L.J., Asenbaum, H. and Ercan, S.A. (2021), "Democracy in flux: a systemic view on the impact of COVID-19", Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 197-205.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


The COVID-19 pandemic has been pervasive, affecting every aspect of daily life worldwide, including democracy. Parliaments were suspended; public protests cancelled. In many countries, the “state of emergency” has served as a justification for authoritarian leaders to further strengthen their grip on power. Yet participation in civic life has continued and even grown. Communities sew protective masks and create food supply networks for vulnerable neighbours. New forms of political participation have emerged, such as protests from balconies and cars. Digital tools have provided a means to reinvent political engagement online (Asenbaum, 2019).

Considering the possibilities for democracy during public health crises and democracy, some evidence suggests that publics may be willing to eschew civil liberties and democratic procedures in favour of strong leadership and technocratic governance (Amat et al., 2020; Murray et al., 2013). This is compounded by the suggestion that authoritarian governments are more effective at dealing with such crises because they are better able to enforce the behaviour changes needed to control the spread of disease (Murray et al., 2013). Yet, there is mixed evidence about the efficacy of authoritarian governments, such as China, at dealing with the initial outbreak, and democratic regimes may be better at preventing outbreaks in the first place because of the protection of free speech and flow of information (Ang, 2020; Kavanagh, 2020). Furthermore, evidence from previous epidemics suggests that “the agency and meaningful (not tokenistic) engagement of individuals and communities is essential for effectively managing the spread of disease” (Yamin and Habibi, 2020). In other words, emerging research reveals that more (not less) civic participation is needed to effectively address the issues related to the pandemic.

Yet at the same time, COVID-19 raises fundamental questions about what democracy is and how it is enacted in extraordinary circumstances. The domination of technocratic governance and democratic backsliding at regime level represent only part of democracy’s shutdown. In this paper, we argue that democracy is more than a regime type; it is a system of governance composed of multiple and interconnected spaces of communication and contestation. This systemic view of democracy offers a valuable conceptual tool for mapping various spaces of participatory engagement (Mansbridge, 1999) and for capturing their interplay and reconfiguration in the face of the pandemic.

The paper is structured in three sections. In Section 1, we introduce the systemic view of democracy, describe its normative value and outline its key components. In Section 2, we use this view as a lens through which to sketch a map of democratic spaces under COVID-19, exploring how the pandemic has reconfigured the spaces, possibilities and limitations for democratic engagement. Finally, in Section 3, we formulate some practical recommendations for strengthening and transforming democratic governance during COVID-19 and beyond.

A systemic approach to democracy

Theories of participatory and deliberative democracy emphasise direct forms of citizen engagement, strong accountability mechanisms and inclusive debate in democracy. This literature is rich and varied, but generally values participation featuring inclusion, non-coerciveness, truthfulness, reflexivity and an orientation towards public interests (Stevenson and Dryzek, 2014). A systemic view of democracy investigates how participation and deliberation occurs across multiple spaces of communication and contestation (Parkinson and Mansbridge, 2012) and how the above-mentioned values are diffused within a system (Elstub, Ercan and Mendonça, 2016). It tracks transmission among different kinds of participatory spaces from the bottom to the top of decision-making structures and focusses on the accountability of those in power.

In a systems approach, private space encompasses relations within the home and “everyday talk” (Mansbridge, 1999) amongst family, friends or co-workers. Private space is often overlooked in the literature on deliberative systems (Tamura, 2014) but is particularly relevant to the pandemic. Public space is where governments or civil society organisations convene participatory practices such as citizens’ assemblies, but it is also where social movements occupy squares or hold protests. Public space is essential for contestation and debate and for the health of democracy more broadly. Ideally, in a systemic view of democracy, public debates are transmitted to empowered space, where political institutions reside and where decision-making power lies (Dryzek, 2009). It is the interconnectivity of these spaces and transmission from the bottom up that makes up a democratic system. Below, we map how the COVID-19 has reconfigured this system by focussing on how it affected the dynamics of communication and participation in private space, public space and empowered space.

Private space

One widely adopted measure for preventing the spread of COVID-19 has been lockdowns, which involve closures of schools and work places, restrictions on mass gathering and public events. The various lockdown regimes have reconfigured the boundaries among private, public and empowered space. In the most extreme cases, governments cross into private space and even the body. The Danish Parliament, for example, came close to passing a law that would have given the police the right to enter private homes without a court warrant if there is the suspicion of a COVID-19 infection. Although this did not come into action, the law finally passed orders forced testing without personal consent (The Local Dk, 2020). In many countries, tracking apps are used to alert individuals of nearby positive cases. Such measures are an obvious encroachment of empowered space into private space.

Further reconfiguration has occurred when the home became the primary location of public interaction. Balcony protests, with participants leaning out from windows or balconies to express dissent, actively declared their home a part of public space. This form of protest emerged in Brazil prior to the pandemic, in 2016 as a way of expressing dissent with then-President Dilma Rousseff. During COVID-19, balcony protests have become a vehicle to express dissent with the current Brazilian leadership and its apparent denial of the depth of the public health crisis (Participedia, 2020a).

Likewise, social movements such as the School Strikes for Climate have claimed digital space and promoted political demands through hashtag activism. Planned citizens’ assemblies on climate change in the UK and France that were already underway swiftly moved online and adapted deliberations to include consideration of the relationship between public health and climate crises. Thus, private space has become a central location for public debate. Participating in the public contestation of discourses from the private home has further amplified existing tendencies of digitised hybridity that make private space “privately public and publicly private” (Papacharissi, 2010: 142).

Public space

Although public space has partly shifted into private, public squares and streets that are common sites of protest have not been entirely empty. Protests adhering to social distancing measures occurred in several countries during the initial lockdown period, with demonstrators masked and spaced out, or shouting from car windows in caravan protests. In Israel, protesters against the incumbent Netanyahu gathered in Tel Aviv in a socially distant cohort, masked and spaced out at exactly two metres apart. In Puerto Rico, people demonstrated for better protective measures against the virus from their cars with banners and shouting slogans through car windows in a “Caravan for Life” (Democracy Now, 2020a). Masked demonstrations were also central to the annual Mayday parade that calls for an end of precarious employment conditions (Democracy Now, 2020b). By contrast, protests ignoring safety measures were used by right-wing demonstrators opposing lockdown, with armed protesters in Michigan demanding entry into the statehouse. Here, public space pushes forcefully into empowered space (BBC News, 2020a, 2020b).

As lockdowns began to ease across the USA and other countries, protests surged into physical public space with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests triggered by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In this case, the filling of public space by protesters demanding racial justice may be inexorably tied to the pandemic itself. Structural racism is also a public health issue (Garcia and Sharif, 2015) in as far as racial disparities in health care and health outcomes have been brought into sharp relief by the massive disparities in mortality between Black and Indigenous People of Colour and other races (APM Research Lab, 2020). Thus, although BLM protesters have been criticised for protesting despite COVID-19, it is arguably COVID-19 that has enhanced both the urgency and visibility of these protests, suddenly filling public space that during lockdowns remained relatively empty.

Public space under COVID-19 has also been characterised by an explosion in participatory initiatives and unprecedented levels of self-organising (Afsahi et al., 2020: ix–x). In Berlin, squatters occupied empty apartments to provide housing for homeless people for whom staying at home was impossible (, 2020; Honig, 2020). In the Czech Republic, it was civil society that responded promptly to a lack of personal protective equipment in the country rather than the national government (Guasti, 2020). Innovation and quick responses from self-organised citizens, civil society and local governments have even paved the way for national policies on COVID-19 in the USA (Fung, 2020).

In addition to various forms of participation, a systemic analysis of public space also draws attention to the state of democratic debate. During crises, democratic contestation is threatened by a political discourse that calls for unity while dissent is frowned upon (Curato, 2017). However, discursive contestation is crucial for revealing the prevalent structural inequalities and deficits in social justice systems that are often exacerbated during such crises. In the UK, for example, “clap for our carers” was a weekly applause for health workers during lockdown, conducted from the doorstep and supported by the Conservative government. But critics, including the Labour opposition, pointed out the hypocrisy of applauding health workers, whereas government policies towards the health-care system and migrants – many of whom work as health or key workers – are arguably damaging to both (BBC News, 2020b; Imbuldeniya, 2020). This example shows that although the discursive pressure for unity is present, contestation and dissent are still present in public debates (see also Chenoweth et al., 2020).

Empowered space

The COVID-19 crisis has observed an expansion of empowered space. It has dominated debate in public space through top-down restrictions and confined individuals to private space. Within empowered space, this expansion has also been reflected in the power gain of the executive (Merkel, 2020). When parliamentary sittings are suspended, there is less opportunity for authentic deliberation and for the executive to be held accountable. Accountability is also stymied by reducing access to information. In Austria – which lacks a central independent health authority – all messages have been mediated and relayed through the executive. In the UK, the group providing scientific advice to the government has been criticised as similarly opaque (Landler and Castle, 2020).

Further reconfiguration of empowered space has been seen in the elevation of public health experts. Although experts are traditionally conceived of as actors in public space, the pandemic has meant a shift in their status, as scientists began to appear alongside world leaders for their daily briefings. Amongst public health experts, there has been some authentic deliberation, such as the debate over the wearing of protective masks by the public. Initial advice from global health authorities was in the negative, but experts disagreed; evidence and advice was reviewed. Although potentially confusing for the public, this is a promising example of contestation in empowered space.

Deficits in empowered space have impacted most severely on accountability. Democratic accountability need not only be operationalised through elections but can also be understood as deliberative accountability whereby actors in empowered space must provide an explanation for their actions (Mansbridge, 2009). When sources of information and policy development are opaque as discussed above, accountability is likewise impeded, as no explanations are given. Accountability has been further stymied by reducing the public’s ability to access information, as in the case in several countries where freedom of information legislation has been revoked (Földes, 2020).

Realising democracy during COVID-19

As this brief mapping demonstrates, under COVID-19, the democratic system is reconfigured with certain spaces expanding, shrinking, invading each other or merging. Public space has been partially relocated into private space. Empowered space has flexed its limbs into private space through executive rule and surveillance. Within empowered space, the executive has further expanded its power over the legislature. At the same time, new modes of claiming public space – on balconies, in cars and through social distancing – have emerged. Although prospects for democratic contestation are limited, we have observed indications of contestation in both public and empowered space. The systemic view helps us to better understand the shifts and reconfigurations of democratic governance.

Understanding these democratic reconfigurations enables us to identify particular pressure points at a systemic level, such as accountability, and deficits that exist within individual components of the system – meaning we are able to formulate suggestions to address them. Democratic participation and deliberation will continue to be imperative during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only do they help secure democratic legitimacy, they also contribute epistemically to finding good solutions. However, democracies are generally not prepared to sustain deliberation and participation in times of crisis. The solution we propose is building a participatory system that anticipates and is well equipped to deal with crises. As Carole Pateman (2012) points out, if participation is to play a role in democratic governance in the long run, then it needs institutionalisation. Building on this insight, recent scholarship has started to investigate large scale democratic innovations that connect various participatory spaces into institutionalised, sustainable systems (Bussu, 2019; Dean, Boswell and Smith, 2019). Such a system specialised on dealing with health crises and other emergencies need to be put in place before such emergencies occur. This will prevent authoritarian backslide, counter enforced consensus and the consequential radicalisation.

A detailed blueprint of such a system is beyond the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, from our observations we can suggest some participatory interventions that could be implemented now to strengthen participation and contribute to the ongoing project of transforming democratic governance. We present suggestions that are not only feasible but in some cases are already being implemented to demonstrate that, if taken as a suite of measures with a systemic outlook, have truly transformative potential. These suggestions will have a direct impact on the components of the system identified as having been most impacted by COVID-19: private space, transmission from private and public space to empowered space and accountability.

Firstly, as lockdowns on either local or national levels may be a recurring feature for the near future, realising democracy requires strengthening the civic capacity of private space. Although this has occurred organically to some extent through voluntary activities, it is necessary to equip citizens in private spaces with the resources to contribute to public discourses through channels that are connected to those in empowered space. To this end, participatory formats such as kitchen table discussions (Participedia, 2020b) and virtual conversation cafes to reflect on COVID-19 policy and future directions can be used. These tools distribute information guides and suggest questions for informal discussion amongst friends, family or colleagues. Conversations can be held in the home or in small groups. This format is desirable for a number of reasons during the pandemic. For one, participants can adhere to the various social distancing rules in place, such as in the UK where people can form “support bubbles” with just one other household. This could enable conversations to take place in person and virtually. Secondly, unlike structured deliberative processes such as citizens’ juries, a kitchen table conversation does not require a large time investment from participants. Although the conversation may last a few hours, the precise agenda and topics are driven by participants. Collated feedback can be transmitted through an online government portal, or conversations can remain independent from empowered space, strengthening deliberative values within public space as a form of community building. At least one virtual conversation event has already been organised by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (2020) in the USA. Kitchen table conversations have been shown to build a deeper sense of community (Participedia, 2020b) from a place of comfort (Kohl and McCutcheon, 2015) and convenience for participants. At the same time, they have the potential to develop reflexive thinking (Kohl and McCutcheon, 2015; Ercan et al., 2019), which is central to challenging dominant discourses and holding those in power to account.

Secondly, standing virtual citizens’ panels should be convened to deliberate on medium to long-term policies before and during crises. These bodies with rotating, randomly selected membership should be directly connected to empowered space to ensure transmission of public concerns. These deliberative processes must be afforded the time and resources necessary for citizen participants to consider relevant information in great depth. Such processes already take place in varying forms around the world and have proven capable of digesting complex topics and making feasible recommendations (Dryzek et al., 2019). Although taking place in public space, citizens’ panels can also connect to private space through receiving feedback from kitchen table conversations and other more disparate engagement formats, already a common practice in current deliberative processes (see, for example, Participedia, 2020e).

Thirdly, democratic accountability is severely impeded by the pandemic, at a time when it is most urgent to hold decision makers to account. Mechanisms of accountability must be strengthened. Methods such as community-based monitoring can be implemented to enable civil society to monitor the provision of government services (Participedia, 2020c). Such initiatives are feasible and in some cases are already happening, with crowd-sourced information used to monitor COVID-19 testing levels in the USA (Fung, 2020). Also in the USA, online deliberative town hall meetings have been leveraged to respond to community demand for information during COVID-19. Here, members of Congress respond to questions from constituents on the crisis (Participedia, 2020d). A similar initiative has been set up in Australia (Connecting to Parliament, 2020). Such mechanisms linking constituents directly with elected representatives not only enhance participation but also serve to bolster representative democracy (Neblo et al., 2018). These initiatives illustrate how existing mechanisms can be adapted to focus on the most pressing democratic deficits during COVID-19 and can offer a direct line of accountability between the public and elected representatives. Moreover, creating and sustaining enduring participatory connections between constituents and representatives has positive implications for democracies during and beyond COVID-19, fostering the democratic resilience needed for future global crises and to push back against authoritarian backsliding.

Finally, to prevent further power imbalance towards the executive, virtual legislatures are necessary to enhance the deliberative capacity of empowered space, transmission and accountability (Peixoto, 2020). Participatory processes in private and public space should be directly linked to virtual parliaments and parliamentary committees to directly feed into the democratic system. Hybrid or virtual parliaments can help ensure that elected representatives continue to participate in parliamentary deliberation despite local or regional lockdowns while remaining in their constituencies and physically closer to their electorates. Virtual parliaments are not entirely new as the examples of Spain and Brazil demonstrate. Having these arrangements in place enables not only parliaments to adapt quickly in the face of lockdowns but may also enable greater participation from representatives in parliamentary procedures during “normal” times (Moulds, 2020).

Although the transmission from public to empowered space in the participatory system sketched above might appear as rigid and pre-structured, we imagine such a system as embedded in and accompanied by the spontaneous activity of citizen initiatives, social movements and protest formations. Democratic systems need to be understood as flexible and dynamic, consisting of an interplay between established structures and spontaneous movement. Once again, this vision is not implausible but has been demonstrated by the upsurge in innovative participatory responses to COVID-19 outlined earlier.

Many governments may not be thinking right now about how to enhance democratic participation. Deliberation requires slow thinking, and things are moving quickly. But democratic governments easily slide into authoritarianism when “the executive extends its power during crises and rarely gives it back” (Neblo, 2020). Meaningful democratic participation is crucial for managing public health crises (Yamin and Habibi, 2020). A systemic view of democracy highlights the spaces and connections where democratic features are lacking – or flourishing – to implement interventions where they are most needed for a vibrant democracy in the wake of COVID-19.


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Corresponding author

Lucy J. Parry can be contacted at:

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