Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Hahrie Han (professor of political science and director, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University) spoke with Jonathan Hack (program officer, SSRC Anxieties of Democracy program) about how Covid-19 has pushed US society to grapple with the ways that freedom and solidarity have come to stand at odds with each other in an increasingly multiracial democracy.
Jonathan Hack (JH): You selected a captivating image, one that has been widely shared on social media platforms. Why did you choose this as an artifact for future Covid-19 researchers?
Hahrie Han (HH): I had two considerations when selecting this photo.
First, the image is emblematic of how limited our capacities for public accountability have become. How is it that frontline health-care workers are left with such a paucity of available repertoires to advocate for what they believe is right? In this image, this nurse is reduced to a solitary standoff against a line of huge trucks. The pandemic has exposed how broken the invisible systems that govern our lives are. In choosing this picture, I was thinking particularly of the way it shows that government has been unable to solve the most basic problems in people’s lives, and how emaciated democracy has become in providing people with opportunities to hold unwilling or unresponsive leaders accountable. As a result, people are pitted against each other in a fight for the scraps government has left. Poignantly, the image of a lone health-care worker lacks the trappings of collective action that we normally think of as ways for people to build power and exercise their voice.
Second, the picture forces us to grapple with the way that freedom and solidarity have been positioned at odds with each other in our increasingly multiracial democracy. The nurse is not standing off against an anonymous truck, but instead a woman who holds a sign saying “Land of the Free.” The nurse is Asian and the woman is white. The white woman is protesting for her right to live her life the way she wants, irrespective of the harm it does to others, while the Asian nurse tries to block their protest, taking a stand for our interdependence. Covid-19 has forced us all to reckon with the inevitable interdependence of our lives, but some leaders have responded by using predictable racial divides to create an “other,” an enemy. Anti-Asian attacks have been on the rise since the pandemic began and show no signs of abating as political leaders continue to stoke the divisiveness. The standoff between the two people in this picture encapsulates, for me, the desperate need we have to create a new kind of solidarity from the ground up, but also the inherent challenges we face in doing so.
JH: I’m curious, then: Do you think that these fissures around notions of freedom can be fixed? Or is Covid-19 really highlighting deep structural differences that the US won’t ever truly surmount?
HH: That is a question about hope. Do I feel hopeful at this moment? To be honest, I am not sure. But one of my favorite quotes is from a Jewish theologian, Maimonides. He says: “Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible, as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”
Social science is predisposed to uncover “the necessity of the probable” instead of the “plausibility of the possible.” The intellectual architecture of mainstream social science focuses on what is likely to happen—that is why we all begin graduate school with courses on probability theory. If you asked me, “What is the most probable outcome?” The answer would probably be a pessimistic one. Long-standing, structural, institutionalized forces of inequity create a scarcity mindset that make a more hopeful future less probable.
The problem is, if we only study probable outcomes, we cannot understand change—the status quo is always the most likely outcome. I think this moment in human history calls all of us not only to study what is probable but to ask ourselves, “What can we do, as scholars, to make the possible more plausible?” We need better ways of studying human agency and, in my mind, collective agency in particular. How can we strengthen the way in which people can act together to exercise their agency to make the possible more plausible?
This picture highlights the deep fissures we have to overcome, but simultaneously highlights the notion that we can all be agents, standing up for what we believe. But we need better tools so that we do not have to act alone. The big challenge for us is to find ways to strengthen the capacity for people to act collectively. That’s how we’re going to find our path out of this mess. There’s no one right answer, and people will have to commit to creating new kinds of solidarity with each other and channeling that solidarity into power. Ultimately, that only happens if we have the organizational structures and institutional processes in place to make it possible.
JH: The SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins, which you direct, launched The Politics and Policy of Covid-19 webinar series. What insights have you gained on the politics of pandemics, both idiosyncratic to Covid-19 and broadly, from your conversations with panelists?
HH: Right now, it feels like everything is up for grabs. Long-standing assumptions that we had about how the world works are changing. Things we once thought impossible are possible. So what is the world we want to emerge from this moment? The pandemic creates an opportunity to redefine the debate, instead of defaulting to our old patterns. There is also a threat: we see global leaders using the pandemic as a way of increasing their control over political systems, patterns that can lead to a dangerous slide toward authoritarianism.
When we reach a crossroads like this, the most important guardrail standing between us and a slide into authoritarianism is the people. Yes, we have to strengthen our political institutions. But they are only as strong as public acceptance of their legitimacy. How do we strengthen both the willingness and capacity of people to act as a source of resilience in democracy? In my mind, that has to go back to helping people recover their own sense of voice in our political system. People do not buy into a system that ignores their needs.
I have been thinking more about the multiple functions our systems of democracy embody. Many of us think about democracy as a system of governance, a decision-making system. We understand democracy as a system for aggregating information. We also understand democracy as a representational system. For me, Covid-19 has highlighted how much work we have to do to recover our collective understandings of democracy as a system for holding power accountable. Too many people experience democracy as being synonymous with elections. But, in a moment of global pandemic, elections are proving to be such an inadequate way for holding governments accountable to people’s needs. So how do we strengthen the vehicles through which people of all kinds can learn how to own the process of change and have a voice in the decisions that affect their daily lives?
This conversation was conducted on May 5, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.