A team of researchers from Florida State University has earned a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public support for the rule of law.
FSU Associate Professor of Political Science Amanda Driscoll, the project’s co-investigator, said the team will examine the challenge that the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus presents to long-standing norms that support democratic order.
The research proposal began with a hunch that would-be autocrats might use the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate political power, Driscoll said.
"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."
The NSF awarded the research team from FSU, West Virginia University and Pennsylvania State University a grant of nearly $197,000. FSU will receive just under $30,000, and the remainder of the funding will be split between the other two universities.
The funding was awarded in late March through the NSF’s RAPID funding mechanism for proposals that have a severe urgency in terms of availability of data and require quick-response research on natural disasters and unanticipated events.
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 well-being 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 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.
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 to policymakers, public health officials, legal groups and nongovernmental organizations. Researchers also plan to discuss their findings in accessible formats like podcasts and informatics and assist journalists with understanding the findings and their broader political significance.
Rob Nixon, director of communications in the FSU College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, can be reached at email@example.com