The Crisis of Democracy in a Time of Crisis

16 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2020

See all articles by Neil Walker

Neil Walker

University of Edinburgh, School of Law

Date Written: July 3, 2020


The word ‘crisis’ has two different shades of meaning. It can refer to an unstable situation in political or social affairs that persists and intensifies over the relatively long term. Closer to the original Greek meaning of krisis, a crisis also refers to a traumatic episode or condition whose resolution remains unclear and replete with danger. The crisis of democratic leadership is a crisis of the first sort – a slow burn tending towards meltdown. The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis of the second sort – a traumatic event spiralling into an uncertain and perilous future. The paper argues that the crisis of the first sort is currently feeding into and feeding off the crisis of the second sort. COVID-19 has had an extraordinary effect on the political landscape. Its challenge democratic leadership and to the paradigm of representative democracy more generally may be framed according to a number of key features. First, the pandemic may be considered as a premonitory event. Secondly, it poses various acute problems of collective action, both within and beyond the polity. Thirdly, it highlights the dense interconnectedness of the issues that form our political agenda. And fourthly, it suspends many aspects of social and political life, both pausing our capacity to act and interrupting the flow of the world we act upon. Each of these features has double-edged implications for our capacity to steer our democracies. Each threatens to reinforce democratic impotence, but at the margins each also offers some hope of democratic renewal.

Keywords: COVID-19, crisis, democracy, leadership, collective action, trust, premonitory, law, politics

Suggested Citation

Walker, Neil, The Crisis of Democracy in a Time of Crisis (July 3, 2020). Edinburgh School of Law Research Paper No. 2020/15, Available at SSRN: or

Neil Walker (Contact Author)

University of Edinburgh, School of Law ( email )

Old College
South Bridge
Edinburgh, EH8 9YL
United Kingdom

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