The coronavirus forced an unprecedented emergency brake on liberal democracies in recent weeks. Governments enacted sweeping social distancing measures to buy time in learning to control the virus and prevent health systems from collapsing. This new normal under an external threat appears to have changed politics. Governments rally support everywhere, even where populists govern badly. In contrast, even populist opposition actors lose support and acquiesce to the national emergency, as citizen priorities have shifted starkly. Does the Corona crisis thus mark an abrupt ending to the oft-lamented divisive politics of recent decades? Does it rein in a phase of historical unity or even herald the beginning of the end of populism?
In contrast, the emerging political economy of social distancing suggests otherwise. The standard ingredients for populist political conflict are already visible. Existing challenges to material inequalities and privileged social status within constrained democracies which feed populists are likely to exacerbate over social distancing, particularly at the international level. The momentary lull of national unity is thus more likely to give way to the forceful return of familiar distributive and constitutional conflicts of the last decades, but at even higher stakes.