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College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Political Science Research Will Examine Rule Of Law In Time Of Crisis

A team of researchers from Florida State University, West Virginia University and Pennsylvania State University have received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study how the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent local responses impact public support for the rule of law.

FSU will receive just under $30,000 of the nearly $197,000 grant. The remainder of the funding will be split between the other two universities. It was awarded in late March through the NSF’s RAPID funding mechanism for proposals having a severe urgency in terms of availability of data and requiring quick-response research on natural disasters and unanticipated events.

The project is based on the challenge the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus presents to long-standing norms that buttress the modern liberal democratic order.

Associate Professor of Political Science Amanda Driscoll, the project’s co-investigator from FSU, said the research proposal began with an abstract hunch that would-be autocrats might use the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate political power.

“As the days passed, we found more and more examples of elites doing just that, from Netanyahu’s abrupt shuttering of the Israeli parliament, which outraged the opposition, to the Hungarian government’s rapid expansion of executive powers in the name of staving off the crisis,” she said. “The situation is unfolding and changing as every day passes.”

Crises that require the concerted efforts of both citizens and the state place a strain on the rule of law as citizens get used to increased governmental intrusion in their day-to-day lives. In such situations, one’s desire for decisive government action may overwhelm, and subsequently lead to a decline in, one’s commitment to abstract democratic principles like the rule of law.

The study will field nationally representative surveys in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Spain over the next four weeks, comparing how citizens’ proximity to the crisis undermines support for the rule of law, or boosts the willingness to concede civil liberties to state authorities. Finally, a four-wave panel study of the German public will examine the stability of citizens’ attitudes over the evolution of the crisis.

“Although the Israeli opposition was outraged by Netanyahu’s actions, draconian measures by government have not generally inspired public backlash as yet, perhaps because they were framed as actions taken in the interest of public health and not politics,” Driscoll said. “Understanding how the public weighs possible state intrusion against concerns for health and wellbeing is critical for understanding when the rule of law might thrive, multiply or wither on the vine.”

Driscoll said this understanding can shed light on how crisis responses are formulated in modern democratic states. The project will also study whether citizens’ attitudes change after a crisis has dissipated.

The research team, which also includes Jay Krehbiel from West Virginia University and Michael Nelson from Penn State, responded to the NSF RAPID call for proposals because the growing health crisis created by COVID-19 highlights the need for quick dissemination of their conclusions.

They believe the work will have broader impact by helping policymakers understand how the public evaluates and responds to elite rhetoric and government advice. The results, according to the proposal, can generate knowledge that may help contain a future outbreak.

The study, therefore, goes beyond academic and intellectually curiosity to tackle a rapidly unfolding real-world situation that potentially threatens democratic norms and institutions.

“In a moment of crisis, when people are fearful, they are looking to authorities to reassure them, and they are willing to give leaders additional tools to manage chaos and limit risk,” Daniel Shapiro, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told the Wall Street Journal, March 28. “The danger is that these tools that exceed the limits of the normal democratic system may not be returned after the crisis is over. That’s the balance that every democracy faces in a moment of crisis like this.”

A recent paper by Driscoll and Nelson based on the project’s pilot results is currently under review at the journal American Political Science Review.

The team will field the NSF-funded surveys in 2021 in collaboration with Vanderbilt’s Latin American Public Opinion Project. Once those data are collected, they will be immediately placed online and available for secondary analysis by interested scholars.

The basic descriptive findings will be published and disseminated in the most expedient manner possible, including presenting advice to policy makers, public health officials, legal groups and nongovernmental organizations; discussing findings in accessible formats like podcasts and informatics; and assisting journalists with understanding the findings and their broader political significance.