By William S. Becker

It appears that “socialism” will become the most overused word during the 2020 election season.  It’s the label that President Trump is using, and that Sen. Mitch McConnell thinks other Republicans should use, against Democrats who support the Green New Deal.

McConnell says he’d like the 2020 election to be a “referendum on socialism”. Don’t be surprised if he holds hearings to grill climate activists on whether they are now or ever have been members of the Socialist Party.

McConnell is correct about one thing, however. The 2020 election should be a de facto referendum. Its focus should not be on socialism. It should be on each candidate’s dedication to addressing climate change and on the social justice problems cited in the Green New Deal. Assuming that the economy keeps humming along, Trump will try to ride it all the way to a second term. But the GDP and job numbers alone are not adequate indicators of the nation’s health and prosperity.

Many of the social inequities mentioned in the Green New Deal resolution that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez introduced in Congress do not get as much attention as they should, even though they go to the heart of the nation’s well-being. To make them more transparent, this cycle’s candidates should support the adoption of national Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) that reveal our income and wealth gaps, the cost and quality of education, crime rates, access to affordable health care, the poverty rate, and so on. Every State of the Union address should include a report on these indicators and the President’s proposals on how to improve them.

In addition, candidates should be challenged to address issues like the following:

Is Capitalism Working? Young and minority voters may be curious about socialism because capitalism isn’t working well for them. Income inequality in the U.S. is among the highest in the developed world. The richest 5% of Americans own two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. Since 1980 the share of income earned by the top 1% has grown more than 9% while the share for the bottom 50% has dropped 8%.

Capitalism itself has an unhealthy heartbeat.  Our market economy is rife with distorted prices, perverse incentives, sociopathic profiteering, short-term thinking and misdirected investments. Fortunes are being invested and risked as though climate change does not exist. The global investment management company BlackRock warns that unless we do something about climate change, the nearly $4 trillion municipal bond market is at risk; Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities are in jeopardy for 80% of the commercial real estate that is vulnerable to extreme weather; and the impact of that weather on aging infrastructure will discourage investments in electric utilities.

In the 2.2 years since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed, large commercial and investment banks have pumped nearly $2 trillion into fossil fuel industries whose products are “problematic” due to global warming. They will be especially “problematic” when market signals, basic risk management, the rising costs of weather disasters and a wavering social license to operate force fossil energy companies into zero-net-carbon business plans.

Is Democracy Working? We should expect that a robust democracy is a sacred goal in America. Instead, it is perverted by voter suppression, gerrymandering and other subversive schemes. On several important issues, what the American people say they want is not what they get from elected officials. Our leaders seem to be taking their marching orders from someplace else.

More than 70% of voters tell pollsters they consider environmental protection more important than economic growth. A Harvard poll of the nation’s young voters found they are ready for “bold policy reforms” on climate change.  More than 80% support the Green New Deal. Instead, the government still subsidizes fossil fuels, Congress has done nothing to confront climate change directly since 1992, and President Trump is systematically killing every initiative his predecessor put in motion to mitigate climate change. We shouldn’t jump to any conclusions here, but this may have something to do with the fact that the five largest oil companies are spending more than $200 million a year to lobby Congress and many millions more to elect friendly Congresspeople.

What about social progress?  Social progress is the ability of society to meet the people’s basic needs while enhancing the quality of their lives and creating the conditions that let them achieve their full potential.

A study last year by Deloitte found that the United States ranks 25th among nations in social progress. We are one of six rich countries in which social progress has declined since 2014. The United States is the most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world. Millions of Americans, four of every 10 of us, still live in places where it is dangerous to breathe due mostly to air pollution from vehicles.  Warmer temperatures contribute to this pollution and make heat the nation’s No. 1 weather-related killer. Allergies, anxiety and stress, injuries from violent weather, insect-borne diseases – these and other health problems are made more severe by climate change.

Access to affordable education. Students are graduating from college with an average debt burden of nearly $33,000 from their student loans. The total student loan debt is more than $1.5 trillion. Young adults are going into their first real jobs with debts equal to 65%, 75% or 90% of their incomes. Data show that Black women enter their first jobs with debt equaling more than 110% of their incomes.

One analysis shows that only 57% of students who enter college graduate in the U.S. Efforts to bring that number up to the high school graduation rate (84%) would mean less poverty, more career success and an increase of $90 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues over the lifetimes of graduates.

I don’t expect that any candidate would suggest we leave these problems unsolved, but whether taxpayers alone should solve them is an open question. Every candidate should be asked “What’s your plan?”

Standards of the Presidency. We have fallen into a situation where we have lower standards for the President of the United States than we have for ordinary citizens. One example is the #MeToo movement where everyone is held accountable for past sexual misconduct. Everyone, that is, except the President of the United States. We expect higher levels of honesty and kinder tweets from our children than from him.

The 2020 election should tell us where we have set the bar today in regard to presidential honesty, integrity, temperament, intellect and respect for law.  Is the Trump era an aberration, or have we thrown out our standards for the person in whom we must place such trust?

In sum, let’s make sure that this presidential election is filled with serious discussions rather than epithets and insults from politicians who want to avoid talking about things that really matter. It should go without saying, but we voters should raise the qualifications for higher office. Any candidate who is not willing to offer creative ideas on problems like these does not deserve the presidency or a seat in Congress.