Progressive politics and the pandemic

How will the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over the police murder of George Floyd and other black people affect the political mood in the United States?  The libertarian-leaning economist Tyler Cowen suggested in March that the COVID-19 pandemic would mark the “death of the progressive left.”  It would erode support for key progressive goals, including redistributive economic policies and aggressive action on climate change.  He asked provocatively what we have heard about climate activist Greta Thunberg recently, and suggested that the pandemic will make protecting the climate “seem like another luxury from safer and more normal times.”

Cowen may be proved right, but progressives and Biden apparently did not get the memo.  Since Cowen wrote Biden has moved to the left and expanded his polling lead over Trump, and there are reasons to think the pandemic and the protests over police violence will shift the center of gravity in this country to the left.

There are some specific ways the pandemic is likely to increase support for the policy agenda of progressive Democrats.  The pandemic has highlighted gaps in our health care system that will likely increase support for universal health insurance.  The pandemic-induced recession may create an appetite for government spending to create jobs, including jobs to fight climate change.  Biden has proposed a massive green infrastructure program that polls well.  The plight of parents trying to balance work with the need to take care of children may increase support for childcare.  Covid-19 has revealed serious weaknesses in our aging unemployment insurance system, which seems ripe for a make-over.

These examples share a common logic that undermines the case for laissez-faire and may shift the mood of the country to the left in a fundamental and enduring way.

Support for the welfare state

Proponents of limited government and unregulated markets paint a picture of the world in which individuals are responsible for their own successes and failures.  The pandemic and videos of police violence both challenge this picture of society by highlighting the vulnerability of innocent people to forces beyond their control.  They make it clear that people can only live decent and successful lives if government protects them from risk and provides them with meaningful equality of opportunity.  Everyone can see that people who scrape together a living waiting tables or cleaning hotel rooms are not responsible for the calamity that has befallen them.  This undercuts free market narratives that portray people as independent actors and blame the misfortunes of the disadvantaged on their own choices.

The free market provides people with negative liberty, the right to own property without interference and to engage in market transactions.  The pandemic and videos of police violence against black people make it clear that people need more than the negative liberty of the market – they need the positive liberty provided by well-functioning institutions and social insurance.  A libertarian focused on negative liberty would acknowledge that police brutality is unacceptable, but there is a growing understanding that people need more than just the negative liberty of not being killed by police.  This is reflected in proposals to use social workers rather than (or in addition to) police to respond to some 911 calls.  Many people need to be helped, not just deterred or disciplined.  We need institutions that recognize human imperfection and that can help people – especially young people – learn from their mistakes and move on with their lives.

Support for progressive taxation

In addition to increasing support for better social services and a better system of social insurance, the pandemic may also increase support for progressive taxation.

People tend to favor lower tax rates when they believe that market rewards reflect effort rather than luck or unfair advantages.  They tend to favor higher taxes when they think market incomes are based on luck, social background, or government favoritism, or when it appears that the rich are not making an equal contribution to a shared goal.  According to political scientists Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage, these factors help to explain the high marginal tax rates imposed during World War II, when soldiers were sacrificing their lives and many of the wealthy were reaping windfall profits from war production.  Once the war was over, the case for high marginal tax rates was less compelling, and wealthy conservatives successfully pushed for cuts in their income and estate taxes.

The pandemic may create a sense of national emergency and shared sacrifice that justifies asking the rich to shoulder more of the tax burden.  Arguably, the government has done much more to protect the owners of large corporations from the pandemic than it did to protect ordinary families, and many corporations have earned windfall profits from the pandemic.  This may increase political support for higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy to pay down government debt and to help rebuild the economy once the epidemic is under control.

Progressive beliefs are more common among the young, and both the pandemic and the videos of police violence will reinforce these beliefs.  Political orientations tend to be “sticky”, which suggests that progressive beliefs will be a growing influence in American politics as today’s youth age and become more reliable voters.

To be sure, none of this is certain, and the fight for a stronger welfare state will be bitterly opposed.  But right now I see no reason to think the pandemic and the protests against discriminatory police violence will force Democrats to trim their sails to avoid a popular backlash against their social democratic agenda.