Well before the horrible global pandemic reached our shores, Americans had a sense that our society was not well. We have spent the past decade and more coming to terms with various forms of social breakdown—from debilitating political polarization to a vicious culture war that has pervaded every major institution to an explosion of alienation, isolation, and loneliness that has led to spikes in suicide rates and other deaths of despair. Our politics has increasingly reflected these maladies. Incapable of taking up obvious problems, it has become deformed by cultural animosities into a shallow circus put on for the sheer entertainment of a portion of the populace that seems to relish performative partisan rage.
And then the virus came, bringing fear, uncertainty, a painful shutdown of economic activity, and a terrible human toll. This pandemic, like any major public-health crisis, is certain to both reveal and remake our social landscape, leaving a transformed country in its wake. Historians have sometimes described European art and culture in the aftermath of the Black Death as “a mirror of the plague,” because the epidemic forced European society to confront some hard truths about itself and that society then took on forms that reflected the fear and desperation of the plague years.
It is much too soon to say just how our own culture will be changed, of course. We are still in the midst. But by reflecting on how the peculiar pressures of this terrible pandemic might interact with the peculiar problems we were living with before it came, we might get some sense of what to look for, what to hope for, and what to fear in the aftermath.
It might be strange to speak of hope in this respect. But one school of thought about times of national crisis holds that they ultimately bring us together—so that a unifying fear and a fortifying cause might do some good in the long run for a bitterly divided nation.
This has long been an uneasy implication of various complaints about America’s loss of solidarity. Often, the historical examples that offer hope that our individualistic culture might possess the capacity to rise above differences and come together are times of terrible crisis. War, depression, and national emergency draw us close, while periods of relative comfort yield ennui and a loss of common purpose. So when communitarians come together to lament our disunity, they always risk falling into a perverse nostalgia for hard times. No one wants a terrible crisis. But if we must live through one, and if we can mobilize in response, might we look forward to a social upside in time?
The idea that the missing ingredient for social cohesion in free societies is mass mobilization has figured in progressive rhetoric for more than a century, resulting in calls to treat various social and political aims as “the moral equivalent of war,” in William James’s loaded phrase. And it has actually been an element of liberal political philosophy for much longer than that, in ways that might be particularly relevant to a mobilization of the sort we now confront.
Of all the possible reasons for national mobilization, the fight against disease or other natural disasters fits most easily with classically liberal political thought. It is a struggle against nature, and so does not require us to mobilize against other people, cultures, or communities. It reminds us of what we want from modern government, as well as modern science and technology.
In fact, essential to the original Enlightenment-era promise of political liberalism was the notion that it might replace wars among men with a defensive war against nature that could unify humanity. “The conquest of nature and the relief of man’s estate,” in Francis Bacon’s words, would come to be the driving purpose of human endeavor. And both science and politics could be directed more often, in René Descartes’s bold terms, to “the conservation of health, which is without doubt the primary good and the foundation of all other goods of this life.”
This was and remains a brash and radical claim. And few even in our time would really want to follow to its logical conclusion any train of thought that actually began from the premise that health is the highest of all goods. But the real power of this claim has always been not the height of its ambition but rather its lowering of the aims of politics. Whatever we would say the highest truth might be, we can all agree that health is good, and therefore that uniting to protect ourselves and one another from a terrible disease is both good and necessary, even if other questions might divide us.
We can already see something of the appeal of this logic in these early weeks of our society’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It would be too much to say that the crisis has rid us of petty, performative, political outrage—but it has muted it some and helped us see through its most ridiculous forms.
But mobilization might offer us more than greater sobriety. It can genuinely contribute to a sense of solidarity and common cause, improve our confidence in some of our leaders and institutions, and provide alienated Americans with a deeper sense of belonging. There are some early indications of this in public opinion data this spring. At the end of March, Gallup found that roughly 60 percent of Americans approved of both President Trump’s and Congress’s handling of the crisis—levels Congress and the presidency have not seen in ages. An amazing 82 percent approved of the responses of their state governments.
These views surely reflect in part a rallying around the flag, or the desire for some relief from fear. And they could change dramatically for the worse as we move further toward the peak of the epidemic nationwide, and as our forced isolation extends toward the summer. But they are nonetheless significant and seem to speak to genuine common purpose in a time of mobilization. Americans have so far been willing to put their lives on hold, to accept some major economic sacrifices, and to take on new responsibilities not only out of a sense of concern for the safety and health of their own families but also out of a sense of responsibility for others.
In this way, at least, mass mobilization really might break down some of the walls that separate factions in our society now. And we might walk away from this experience united by common pain, common sacrifice, and a greater sense of common purpose.
But things are hardly that simple. The capacity of this national mobilization to bring us together is undermined, to begin with, by its very character. Although it is true that mobilizing against nature has the potential to be less divisive than mobilizing against a human enemy, standing together against a communicable disease actually means standing apart. The sacrifice most Americans are called on to make is precisely a sacrifice of our sociality. We are isolating for the common good.
Isolating at home can bring us closer to our families, to be sure, and many Americans might be experiencing this as a period of intensifying family connections. Some are even doing more than usual to connect with loved ones and friends electronically, and might be more in touch with the people they care most about than they were before in some respects. But even this can be a form of seclusion from society—an individualism to which our liberal-democratic culture already inclines us. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it almost two centuries ago, individualism “disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.” This is not all bad, but it does pull us away from the larger social whole.
All this makes it hard for us to experience this period of mobilization as a time of togetherness. But maybe more important, it means that we are using this time to hone our capacity for isolation and solitude. “Social distancing,” “remote work,” and “distance learning” are the watchwords of this national response for all except health professionals and a few other categories of essential workers, so that the habits we are building will enable us to more effectively stand apart when this is over. “Leave it at the door, and knock as you leave” is not an ideal motto for a civic revival.
Rather than a sense of mutual dependence, then, we might walk away from this crisis as even more capable loners. This had been the direction of our social evolution for much of this century before the virus came. A great deal of what we have thought of as the information revolution in the last two decades has amounted to novel ways of avoiding real social interaction. Designed by awkward math geniuses, these innovations have allowed us to live convenient and efficient lives without looking other people in the eye. We can communicate by text and post. We can travel by summoning a car with an app and just walking out when we reach our destination (don’t worry, we’ll tip later). We can march into a restaurant, pick up a bag waiting for us on a shelf with exactly what we wanted, and march right out without any uneasy exchanging of pleasantries.
And this public-health crisis has made noble civic virtues out of these mild social vices. Avoiding one another is now an act of responsible citizenship. We will spend this time building more effective and comfortable substitutes for crowded rooms and personal visits. No one wants to admit it, but many in white-collar America felt a guilty sense of relief when they had to cancel every meeting on their schedules this spring and every business trip on their calendars. And they won’t be so quick to reschedule them all when this dark period is over. We really do have effective ways of communicating without getting together in person.
But communicating is not the sum of human social life. Real community, a sense of belonging, and an experience of solidarity are achieved by common action and time spent together. A foundational insight of communitarian social thought, most clearly articulated by the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930, is that “people don’t come together to be together; they come together to do something together.” The “being together” is a secondary benefit, albeit an enormously important one. But if we can do much more of what we need to do without coming together, then we won’t come together, and will lose those crucial secondary benefits. We have seen this happen gradually across the range of social life for decades, and the dynamics of this crisis suggest it might dramatically accelerate now, which would certainly make it difficult for this period of mobilization to leave us more unified.
Even more dangerous than habits of separation, however, are some simple realities of human nature. The fact is that intense epidemics and grim public-health crises don’t generally result in social renewal. Because they make us fearful of those around us, they tend to drive us apart and to bring out the worst in us.
This has been evident since ancient times and defines practically every historical recounting of plague and epidemic. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the disastrous social calamity that accompanied the Great Plague of Athens in 430 b.c.e. The disease, which is now thought to have been typhus, killed many tens of thousands (historians estimate perhaps a quarter of the population) and decimated both the city’s poorer agricultural class and its elites and political leadership. Pericles himself died of it. And although it brought out courage and virtue in some Athenians at first, over time the epidemic coarsened civic life. People became afraid of one another and abandoned all propriety to protect their families. “The catastrophe was so overwhelming,” Thucydides writes, “that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”
Similar scenes were evident in the various rounds of the Black Plague in Florence, Venice, London, Paris, and elsewhere over several centuries, and in some of the responses to the Spanish Flu around the world in 1918. It’s in the nature of an epidemic to turn people against one another out of fear. And the extended character of many outbreaks—with periods of quarantine and contagion often going on for months—means people tend to become exhausted by the pressure and the fear, and what might begin as an energetic mobilization eventually devolves into debilitating weariness.
In this respect, as in so many others, the grim realities of human nature threaten to dissolve the utopian hopes of the liberal project. But never simply or entirely so. We in the West are not without resources to push back. Indeed, classical liberal politics—which does not translate to “liberal” in the contemporary sense—has produced an explosion of freedom, wealth, health, and power unmatched in human history, and its technologies can sometimes undergird its extravagant hopefulness against the odds.
The very fact that we possess technologies of sustainable social distancing, for instance, makes life in isolation much more bearable now than in many past eras of pandemic, allowing us to hold out and to remain connected in some ways, and so perhaps also to avoid letting fear and exhaustion bring out the worst in us. Modern biomedical science gives us real power to combat disease, and real hope that it might be contained while we gather the strength to defeat it. Our immensely wealthy society, made possible by the market economy, also gives us a cushion against some of the crushing costs of quarantine—and our government can distribute these advantages across society up to a point. And precisely because we entered this crisis keenly aware of the problems of isolation and alienation, we might be able to walk away from it with some appreciation of the ties that bind us even in divided times.
In fact, that latter point may be how we ultimately balance the more hopeful with the more despairing prospects we confront. Neither liberal utopianism nor a grim fatalism about human nature is likely to offer the best guide to what might become of us in the wake of this pandemic. But maybe a dose of Jewish realism can point the way.
An old Yiddish folk tale tells the story of a man driven crazy by his loud, bustling household—full of children, in-laws, and visiting no-good relations who won’t give him a minute of peace. When he complains to his rabbi, he is given peculiar advice: Take the cow from the field and put her inside the house. After trying this for a few days, the man returns to his rabbi and complains that things are immeasurably worse. The cow is loud, she smells, she tramples over everything, makes the whole household miserable, and everyone agrees she has to go back outside. “So take her outside,” says the rabbi. And a few days after doing so, the man returns joyous and grateful. Now it’s just his old household again—his children and in-laws and visiting relatives, and they can enjoy one another’s company in peace and relax without having to worry about a lumbering beast everywhere they turn.
Before the virus came, our country was not at ease with itself. Americans were divided, and too many were lonely, isolated, and dispirited. But now, in the terror of the plague, we are getting to see what isolation really looks like. We are pulled apart from one another, denied every social pleasure and distraction, pressed in by fear for our health and that of loved ones and strangers alike. Our way of life is denied to us, our well-being (physical and economic) is profoundly endangered, and our fondest hope is simply to return to where we were.
When we defeat this virus and achieve that return—with some sort of restoration of economic activity and ordinary human relations—it is unlikely that the problems we confronted before the pandemic will have magically evaporated. This mobilization isn’t simply going to unite us and rebuild lost solidarity and common purpose. We are likely still to be beset by isolation and division, and it will still be necessary to take on the hard work of reknitting our social fabric, reforming our strained institutions, and recovering some solidarity and responsibility in our common life.
But maybe our grasp and perception of those problems will have changed in ways that matter more than we might first imagine. Being forced to confront a greater crisis together can help us put our complaints in perspective—to see that some of them are smaller than they seemed and less significant but that others run deeper than we gave them credit for and require our attention. It could help us understand that some of our divisions really were insignificant and petty. It could help us better prioritize our worries. And it could help us avoid taking the good we have for granted.
Some of that good has to do with our sociality and sense of belonging. We might walk away from this nightmare a little more appreciative of those little, gentle joys of human contact that normally fill our lives—sitting in a restaurant near enough to other patrons to overhear their gossip; a high-five with a stranger at the ballpark when your team pulls off a win; a handshake at church; a hug for an old friend who shares hard news.
By grasping the value of the things we take for granted, we could better understand what we have to lose—and so we might not be so eager to dismiss what we have because of what we lack, to disparage what America has achieved because of all that’s left to do, or to casually assert that our way of life has failed because it leaves us searching for deeper meaning. We might be a little less persuaded by calls to burn down our established institutions. And by just seeing the good a little more clearly, maybe we will find ourselves more inclined to build on it too, and to recognize the importance of those elements of social order that are easy to disparage but hard to live without—like expertise and experience, or careful preparation for a rainy day.
These are ways that the experience of the pandemic might help strengthen us not by fundamentally transforming us but by exposing and reflecting us, and by forcing us to take our country more seriously than we have in the unpardonably frivolous last few years.
This is not a utopian aspiration, but neither is it fatalist resignation. It is a kind of hopeful realism that has characterized America in its strongest moments. Although it’s probably wrong to expect that the mobilization of a massive public-health crisis will bring us all together in a lasting way, it is probably also wrong to assume that the pressure will drive us further apart and deeper into wretched selfishness. We are better than that.
It is still much too soon to say just what this plague will leave behind. But maybe it is reasonable to hope that it won’t bring out our worst selves, but only our real selves—in all of our complexity and moral contradictions. For Americans, that would be good news.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.