COVID-19 and Democracy: A New Mode of Governance?

The German Case in Comparison

The Berlin Republic of today is neither Weimar (1918–1932) nor Bonn (1949–1990). It is by all standards the best democracy ever on German soil. Nevertheless, during the COVID-19 crisis there was a shift from democracy as a mode of governance to what the controversial legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1922) affirmingly described as a “state of exception”; a state that is desired and approved by the people. It was the hour of the executive. Parliament has disempowered itself. There was very little, if any, contestation or deliberation during the first eight weeks of the COVID-19 crisis – neither in parliament nor in civil society. Will the state of exception emerge as the new mode of governance during deep crises in the 21st century? If this is the case, it would erode, de-parliamentarize and illiberalize our democracies as we have hitherto known them.


Wolfgang Merkel is Director emeritus and Professor of the “Democracy and Democratisation” research program at Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB) and Professor em. of Political Science at Humboldt University Berlin. From September to December 2020 he will be a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.