I first noticed the message spreading a month ago, in emails from college and nonprofit leaders as they reckoned with the cascading impact of the coronavirus: “We’re all in it together.” At first, I found its decency calming. But as the message found its way into slick ads for auto companies and cable monopolies and drug manufacturers, I was reminded of the merchandisers peddling #BostonStrong swag right after the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon. Once again, Americans were as quick to sell a slogan as to live its values.
Are we, in fact, all in it together? The honest answer is, not yet.
That’s partly because of the divisive, responsibility-allergic chief executive of the federal government. But with Donald Trump, as with coronavirus, we are long past the point of being able to contain the problem; the focus now must be on mitigation. And in both cases, there are many things responsible citizens can do to limit the damage. The question is whether we will. And that is a question not of policy but of character.
When Americans talk about character, we usually mean individual virtue or personal traits like diligence or perseverance. Civic character, by contrast, is character in the collective: how we live together, how we behave in public, how we hold together a community. Civic character is about mutuality, shared sacrifice, and putting service before self.
After many decades of truancy, when our markets and politics and pop culture valorized extreme egoism, COVID-19 has offered us a crash course in civic character. The pandemic is forcing Americans to choose, very visibly, whether to live like citizens or like sociopaths. Citizens see in systems, while sociopaths see only themselves; citizens defer short-term gratification for long-term benefit, while sociopaths flip the sequence.
I live in Seattle; my wife’s sisters and nieces and nephews are in southern Louisiana; my childhood friends are in the New York metro area. I had an early awareness of the magnitude of the crisis in the U.S.—and I’ve felt rising indignation at how many people across the land are not yet living like citizens.
But do I wish for the cataclysm to hit everywhere as hard as it has hit Seattle and New York and New Orleans? Hell, no. What we need is not for every community to suffer intensely, but for every community to commit to joint defense. It’s the NATO principle, brought home: an attack on one is an attack on all, and necessitates a response from all. That is true at every scale, from the neighborhood to the nation.
The practice of civic character centers on three precepts:
Society becomes how you behave. Our behaviors are literally contagious, so we should select them with care. Practice good hygiene and take preventive measures, but also resolve not to give in to fear. Sustain empathy and love, so that these will spread instead of fear. Balance anxiety with fact and context. Our task is to keep each other not just un-sick but also sane.
We’re all better off when we’re all better off. Any community is only as healthy as its least healthy members. That means making the case for paid sick leave for all, for a stronger public-health system. We need to see aid to the most vulnerable or disfavored not just in terms of charity or altruism, but also as serving our systemic, societal, and enlightened self-interest.
Don’t hoard power; circulate it. The temptation to hoard has never been higher. But when we all withdraw and hold on to what we have, when we stop circulating our concern, our money, our attention, or our power and instead direct all those things to ourselves, the body politic seizes up, and the economy has a heart attack. So, we need to keep circulating our money, our time, our care to those who cannot survive this period alone, whether that’s a shuttered small business or an isolated neighbor.
To be clear, self-organizing citizens alone cannot handle this crisis; we need effective government action, public resources, and coordination. At the same time, even effective government is by itself insufficient. On March 19—a seeming eternity ago—I met via Zoom with high school students from across the United States. They were already translating COVID-19 information into the languages their immigrant parents and neighbors speak. They were already setting up peer-tutoring exchanges with students they’d never met, from other states. They were delivering food to food banks, creating text-based peer mental-health services, and establishing ask/offer help boards online.
When most of us find ways to be more like them—to be useful to people beyond our own circle—we will flatten the curve. Until then, we aren’t all in it together.
Perhaps a more apt slogan comes from the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, which teaches young people about moments of moral decision like the Holocaust and the civil-rights movement: “People make choices. Choices make history.”
This is a moment of moral decision. Because COVID-19 is an open-ended universal experience unlike any since the Second World War, our choices as citizens now call to mind the other civic meaning of “character”—the idea of national character. Our national character is not a fixed truth; it’s a set of fables, each with their own moral. The story that Americans are rugged individualists who rise or fall on their own and resist the tyranny of the state teaches self-reliance. The story that says rugged individualism never got a barn raised or a field irrigated or a moon landing executed is a story that teaches mutual aid.
The U.S. is decidedly more individualistic than China or South Korea or even Italy. Yet always, after days of terror like the Boston bombing or disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, Americans experience a surge of fellow-feeling—a momentary, involuntary civic awakening.
The choice comes after that initial surge. We can all choose now to make self-constraint and civic spirit the new norms across our institutions. Alternatively, we can do as we all did after 9/11: subcontract the fight to a few volunteers whom the rest of us thank excessively, accede to a bloated security apparatus, dehumanize strangers of all kinds, and anesthetize ourselves with digital devices and other opiates.
The last 19 years deformed us more than they formed us as citizens. The days and months ahead present a challenge and an opportunity. We can define American civic character for years to come, if we choose to live like citizens now.