In his 1980 campaign against incumbent President Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan famously asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
The powerful question gave voters clear and focused direction in assessing how well the federal government was supporting and working to improve the everyday lives of Americans.
What if we asked such a question now, with various related questions?
Are you feeling safer and healthier? Are you feeling the nation’s leaders are looking out for your overall welfare and well-being in medical, educational, and economic terms, as well as every other dimension of your lives?
In short, how are you feeling, in every sense of that word?
Andrew Yang really brought the many layers of this question to the fore last December when underscored the need to measure of the health of our economy in terms of Americans’ psychological, emotional, and physical well-being. Is an economy successful if the majority of people that system is supposed to serve are depressed and suicidal, unable to access quality education and healthcare, uncertain and insecure—downright scared—about having adequate housing, being able to retire with dignity, and having dependable employment?
He focused this vision of measuring our economy in fully and deeply human terms when he said in a debate last December, when asked about the state of the economy:
GDP and corporate profits are at record highs in America today. Also at record highs: depression, financial insecurity, student loan debt, even suicides and drug overdoses. It has gotten so bad that our life expectancy as a country has declined for three straight years because suicide rates and drug overdoses have overtaken vehicle deaths for the first time in American history. The fact is this employment rate and GDP have very little relationship with people’s lived experience on the ground.
Heading into the November 2020 presidential election, the coronavirus pandemic underscores the depth and relevance of Yang’s understanding that first and foremost the world we create, the economy we construct, must serve our lives, support and further our well-being and development.
The virus underscores, in fact, the obvious necessity and relevance of the full array of ideas and policy proposals Democratic candidates shared in the primary debates, as well as the absolute dearth of ideas Trump and Republican party have offered to address the real and desperate need the majority of Americans experience.
The pandemic has spotlighted not just the insufficiency of our social safety net, but the overall insufficiency of our basic infrastructure for addressing essential human need.
Take health care. It should be abundantly clear that tying people’s health insurance to their employment poses problems during moments of mass unemployment, problems for which Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have policies to address in their Medicare-For-All proposals.
Far from supporting such policy, Trump and the GOP continue to pursue litigation to abolish the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, having shared nom plan to replace it.
Indeed, speaking last March 23, the tenth anniversary of President Barack Obama signing the Affordable Care Act into being, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened her remarks introducing the Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act, highlighting this clear distinction between Democratic and Republican commitment to supporting American lives:
Now, we find ourselves in the depths of one of the most serious health and economic emergencies our nation has ever faced. The protections of the Affordable Care Act are more important now than ever. But right now, in the middle of coronavirus, the Trump Administration is in court suing to tear down the entire Affordable Care Act. Every last protection and benefit.
She exhorted, no doubt futilely, for the Trump to cease and desist in his assault on Americans’ health care.
And now with children home from school, what could be clearer than the need to support families in caring for our nation’s children? Universal childcare was a hallmark of Warren’s campaign, and she had a plan to pay for it that involved people paying a mere two cents of every dollar for every dollar over $50 million they reported on their taxes. Is that really so onerous a tax?
And now we watch hard-working college students unable to work in many cases having trouble staying in school because they can’t pay tuition. What could be more relevant than the free college at state institutions proposed by Sanders and Warren and now taken up by Joe Biden?
Moreover, Warren, of course, spent a good portion of her life trying to build a stronger social safety net and to rescue Americans from unfair bankruptcy laws when they fell into economic hardships. What experience and knowledge could be more relevant now?
And certainly this pandemic has validated the relevance and utility of Andrew Yang’s hallmark issue of the universal basic income. If such a policy were in place now, Americans would likely be experiencing a lot less anxiety right now.
And when it comes to racial justice and equity, Kamala Harris was the most forthright in reminding Democrats that policies must reflect the fact that the lives of African Americans and people of color in the United States matter.
On the other side, Donald Trump insists there were many fine people among the white supremacists marching in the Unite the Right rally in August 2017.
And both Amy Klobuchar and Harris repeatedly kept a focus on the plight of rural America and the adverse effects of Trump’s policies on farmers.
And on the other side, we see little to no interest in helping families with childcare, in making a college education affordable, in ensuring Americans have access to health care, in making sure measures are in place as a fixture of our infrastructure to help us financially survive should we face an unemployment crisis and economic shutdown as we are enduring now.
The coronavirus is clarifying the important distinctions of these two parties’ approaches to building an America that serves and supports its people—or not.
And the Democrats’ vision is looking a lot more relevant and urgent.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.