The Collegian
Saturday, August 15, 2020

OPINION: COVID-19 could renew the nation's progressivism

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

The United States, the ostensible bastion of democracy, has been backsliding steeply. In our current political climate, Republicans champion unfettered liberty and Democrats advocate for increased equality. These ideas are not necessarily divergent, but as a result of our political polarization, we have watched the last piece of the famous French motto, "fraternity," take a tumble into the political abyss. 

COVID-19 is indiscriminate: It has wreaked havoc on every landscape. In a way, the nightmarish asphyxiation of stay-at-home orders has brought us together. We recognize our patriotic duty, and we stand in solidarity to reduce the spread of the virus. 

To be sure, I’m not arguing that the virus is a good thing. We know that this sickness taxes us. It’s bigger than us, it’s out of our control and it humbles us. The emotional and economic ramifications are unprecedented, incalculable and regrettable. 

What I am arguing, though, is that this virus will inevitably change our country’s political fabric. The result, I know, will probably take years — if not decades — to materialize. But just considering the opportunities, in my opinion, is pretty exciting.

Until the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression, our federal government was virtually non-existent. Its willingness to serve and protect its citizens essentially waxed and waned along the lines of Social Darwinism, as it abetted the well-being of the privileged while generally disregarding ordinary Americans. The U.S. had taken a "laissez faire" approach to governance; capitalism was largely unfettered, social welfare was privately held, and relief issues were left up to the states. The economic social safety nets that we know today, like social security and federal deposit insurance, stem from former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

FDR saw his plans for the country’s economic recovery and restructuring as a “manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer.”  That is, he realized his political moves would be controversial. He understood this because they were new. Citizens would have to put trust in their federal government — instead of their respective states or the private sector — to take the lead. This "departure from that normal balance of public procedure" was the first time in American history that there would be national planning and unified relief.

Roosevelt’s administration temporarily restructured the American economy, but forever restructured our nation’s government and principles. In times of crisis, wondering whether the government would take action had become a question of the past. The federal government was, more than ever before, responsible for the economic security and general welfare of its citizens. This was revolutionary.

Perhaps history could repeat itself. With enough calamity and human suffering, maybe partisan politics will step aside, ushering in an era of progressivism. What if the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic become our next Great Depression, wherein the damage pushes us to reassess public policy? What if we mustered up the political ambition, imagination and unity to make a dynamic change? 

Recently, President Donald Trump unveiled the biggest economic stimulus package in history. This gargantuan $2 trillion legislation will mitigate the economic burdens for households, small business and large corporations. The bill even includes direct cash payments of $1,200 to Americans whose adjusted gross incomes are below $75,000 per year. America is bleeding, and this stimulus package might serve as a much-needed Band-Aid.

The problem, though, is that we need much more than a Band-Aid. We cannot return to failed political orthodoxy. This crisis has highlighted our system’s flaws — and the necessary treatment is surgery.

If millions of Americans cannot afford to stay home (and their paid leave is withheld), they are threatening our society by potentially spreading the virus. Could we change this? 

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More than 22 million Americans have already filed for unemployment since Trump declared a national emergency. Will this virus convince us that health care should be untethered from employment? Or that affordable care programs should be expanded, instead of repealed? 

When a large fraction of Americans lack the purchasing power to keep the economy churning, will our skewed wealth distribution prove itself indefensible? 

We will have to wait and see.

Contact news and features writer Carly Kessler at carly.kessler@richmond.edu.

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