Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

The Crisis of Constitutional Democracy in Pandemic Times

Neil Walker

Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations, Edinburgh Law School

November 10, 2020, 4:30pm-6:30pm ET
This event will be broadcast online via Zoom: Register here


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 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 to 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.


Joyce Chaplin

James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History, Harvard University

Ben Hurlbut

School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

Douglas Kysar

Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law, Yale Law School

Moderated by

Sheila Jasanoff

Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School

About the speaker

Neil Walker holds the Regius Chair of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh. His main area of expertise is constitutional theory. He has published extensively on the constitutional dimension of legal order at sub-state, state, supranational and global levels, and on the relationship between security, legal order and political community. Previously he Professor of European Law at the European University Institute, Florence (2000-8). He has held various visiting appointments, including Eugene Einaudi Chair of European Studies, University of Cornell (2007); Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law, University of Toronto (2007), Global Professor of Law, New York University (2011-12), Sidley Austin-Robert D. McLean Visiting Professor of Law, Yale University (2014-5), International  Francqui  Chair, University of Leuven, (2017). He has an LLD (Honoris Causa) from the University of Uppsala, is a fellow of the British Academy, and is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His most recent books include the monograph Intimations of Global Law (Cambridge, 2015) and the edited collection Sovereignty in Action (Cambridge, 2019) He is presently engaged in a Leverhulme Major Research project on the relationship between Law and Utopia.

Co-sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

To view this talk online, you must register via Zoom here.