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The coronavirus could pull policies like universal health care from the edge into the mainstream

Historians, sociologists, and other scholars say the pandemic could drive a cascade of social, economic, and political changes.

Historians say the coronavirus pandemic may reshape public support for government programs that provide guaranteed income, social support, and medical care. Here two Philadelphia children pick up bagged breakfast and lunches last week outside the Tilden Middle School.
Historians say the coronavirus pandemic may reshape public support for government programs that provide guaranteed income, social support, and medical care. Here two Philadelphia children pick up bagged breakfast and lunches last week outside the Tilden Middle School.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

When the person next to you in line might infect you, suddenly universal health care seems more reasonable.

When you and all your neighbors are out of work, checks from the government look more attractive.

When companies won’t pay sick leave amid widespread illness, a law to force them to do so will gain support.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads and digs in, historians, sociologists and other scholars say it could drive a cascade of social, economic and political changes that will pull policies from the edge into the mainstream. Witness the transformation of stalwart Republican Mitt Romney, who was once caught on video at a campaign fund-raiser saying that 47% of the population are “takers” because they paid no federal income tax or relied on government support. Romney now calls for a onetime $1,000 payment to every adult American.

Jennifer Burns, a professor at Stanford University and expert on 20th-century U.S. history, said that the pandemic could build empathy and reduce shame about the need for a greater role for government. When those stricken are selected by pure chance, she said, the “stigma and blame” associated with accepting a helping hand drops away.

In addition, she said, the coronavirus will make increasingly clear how much the health and lives of the more affluent are “entwined with less educated and less well-paid workers.”

“It is moments like this,” Burns said, “that strip away the surface crust of how society works, the relationships that we depend on that we are sometimes not aware of.”

Burns cited the new, bipartisan support for direct government cash payments, saying it could spur even more dramatic moves to guarantee income. “It may advance the policy must faster and further than anyone thought,” she said.

In another example, she said the virus could generate more backing for requiring companies to provide paid sick leave.

Otherwise, she said, “If you don’t provide people with sick leave, they will work when they are sick" and could infect others.

Still, other scholars worry about the direction of any change. Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University and coeditor of the leftist Dissent magazine, wondered whether the fight against coronavirus will unite people behind government and common action, or stoke, in Kazin’s words, “an increasingly nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-outsider impulse.”

Heather MacDonald, a social critic and author affiliated with the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute in New York City, saw a different risk.

“The left is going to use this to promote its pet causes,” she said, including deindustrialization to stem climate change. She noted how some have pointed out that virus-spurred social distancing has been accompanied by a drop in pollution.

Anne Berg, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, also saw fresh support among Americans for social-democratic measures. She noted that both Republicans and Democrats in Washington were now backing heavy government spending to bail out citizens and corporations alike.

Berg, an expert on the rise of Nazism, noted that, in contrast, right-wing parties in 1930s Germany responded to the crisis of the depression by cutting back on government and dismantling social services — austerity measures that greatly fueled Nazism.

At the same time, Berg said, today’s pandemic also had the potential to sow profound trouble. “I can see this as a petri dish for fascism of various sorts.”

Notably, Berg said, the virus was spreading following years of falling public confidence in government, business and media, a phenomenon also seen in Germany in the 1930s.

“The most important parallel now is the erosion of trust in public institutions,” she said. “I think that is the gravest danger, because once trust is thoroughly eroded, that’s when people say, ‘OK, I’ll have to take care of myself.’ That’s when you see the run to the gun stores.”

Theda Skocpol, a professor of sociology and government at Harvard University, said big societal changes are coming. “It’s clear this is going to be a major watershed,” she said.

But, Skocpol, coeditor of a new book on the trends in U.S. grassroots politics, also sounded a cautionary note: The pandemic may well “exacerbate inequities,” pitting a professional class of two-parent families reasonably able to cope with housebound children against a low-wage class of single parents who may be further isolated by poor or a lack of internet access.

Mike Konczal, director of the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank in New York City, said the virus had exposed systemic problems in American society, including “insecure work," poor access to health care, and what Konczal called inept and corrupt leadership from President Trump.

The coronavirus will likely spur extremely heavy government intervention in the days ahead, more so than after the 2008 economic collapse and with less blaming of the poor, Konczal said. Still, he was unsure how much people would in fact rally together behind progressive measures.

“High unemployment makes people really hunker down,” he said. “They become much more ‘I need to get mine.’”

In past transformations, World War II and its surge in factory work had helped drive millions of women into the workplace and spurred the mass migration from the South of African Americans, dramatically upending the status quo on two fronts.

Similarly, the economic misery of the Great Depression sparked calls for guaranteed income, particularly for the elderly. Grassroots support led to a more moderate plan pushed by President Franklin Roosevelt and enacted in 1935: Social Security.

Sylvester Schieber, an expert on the history and finances of Social Security, said he saw a similar trend today.

He cited President Trump’s endorsement last week of a temporary payment to citizens, a more modest variant of former Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang’s signature issue. Citing how automation was rendering workers superfluous, Yang had campaigned on giving all American adults a universal basic income of $1,000 a month.

“I think there is serious potential for health policy reform, income maintenance support. There could be a whole bunch of stuff bubble out of this," Schieber said. "The idea that a Republican president is talking about the kind of income transfer program that Yang has been promoting is pretty amazing.”

As for health care, Schieber said, the pandemic carried a blunt lesson that could wash away resistance to viewing medical care as a basic right: “It’s not just my own personal health that is important to me. It is also the guy sitting next to me on the bus."