As the Omicron variant spreads across the globe, we are reminded again that a pandemic is a disease of populations, not of individuals, and population-level problems require collective solutions. This is why societies with high levels of social capital—bonds of affection and networks of trust among people—have better weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and suffered lower rates of hospitalization and death from the virus. Social capital has rarely been lower in the U.S. than it is today, so it’s not surprising that the U.S. suffered one of biggest losses in life expectancy to COVID-19 among all high-income countries. And, sadly, not even this stark fact as changed things. As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, the nation finds itself with lower levels of social capital, more divided, and less prepared to face a future pandemic than ever before.
Americans’ collective inability to consider the impact of our actions on others, rather than calculating solely based on our personal benefit, is why it’s been so difficult to work together to vanquish the virus. The American government, dating back to colonial days, has long understood that individuals could not always be counted on to act in the best interests of society, but today, we seem to have reached a new low with many Americans newly aware of the state’s power to mandate quarantines, vaccinations, and other public health measures, public health powers are being severely curtailed nationwide. Even flu shots and routine childhood immunizations are being politicized in ways that would have been unimaginable two decades ago. Without the sense that we’re all in it together, Americans will feel little duty to look out for one another, sacrifice on behalf of our communities, or vote to fund, resource, and empower public health authorities to protect us.
This pandemic will not be our last, and other massive “we” problems like climate change will also require “we” solutions. We urgently need to come together and rebuild the tools to protect our society. Critical to our understanding of how to tackle this challenge is the realization that the fraying of our social fabric over the past half century was part of a much larger, longer cycle in the struggle to balance America’s twin ideals of preserving personal liberty and pursuing a common good. During the last Gilded Age, just before the turn of the 20th-century, America’s social capital was as low as it is today, and, just as today, was accompanied by a winner-take-all economics, a deeply polarized public square, and a self-centered cultural narrative. Then, just as now, the nation faced this multifaceted crisis that seemed nearly insurmountable.
However, the doomsday prophecies of that period were never realized, and instead we entered a 70-year upswing—during which time we rediscovered the virtues of solidarity, rewove our social fabric, replaced our polarized politics with comity and cooperation, and narrowed the gap between rich and poor as we had never done before.
So how did it happen? How did America rebuild its social capital, trust, and community bonds during our last upswing?
First, we reexamined our core values, and rebuilt a cultural and moral framework based on mutual obligation and cooperation. Of all the trends that drove change as the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era, culture seems to have changed first. The social gospel movement inspired Christians to remember the call to be peacemakers and champions of the downtrodden. The social settlement movement called upon members of estranged social classes to become “a nation of neighbors.” And political leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt reminded Americans that “on the whole and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.”
Today, we must revive a shared morality of mutual obligation and cooperation. We need strong voices asking Americans to better balance our personal rights and privileges with our obligations to the common good.
“Somebody in every age has to challenge this country to be true to its moral foundation,” says the Reverend William J. Barber II, one such moral leader. Just as the preachers of the Social Gospel did during America’s last Gilded Age, Barber is reframing policy debates as moral issues: “Jesus healed everybody and never charged a co-pay.” Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention’s new president, Ed Litton, is calling for unity and racial reconciliation: “… especially in the areas of systems of injustice, we look at them through the word of God, and we’re asking the questions, ‘How would God have us respond as good citizens, as good neighbors, as people who inhabit the same land with everyone else?’” And Rachel Held Evans, the young Evangelical Christian writer who died last fall, wrote, “Justice means moving beyond the dichotomy between those who need and those who supply and confronting the frightening and beautiful reality that we desperately need one another.”
Not all of these moral voices are religious. Many are coming from the medical and scientific community. Peter Hotez is calling for science tikkun, drawing on Jewish teaching that humans have a responsibility to “complete or restore the gaps left by God.” Taison Bell, Stella Safo, Marina Del Rios, and Mati Hlatshwayo Davis are sounding the alarm on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, with pediatricians Rhea Boyd and Nadine Burke-Harris shining a spotlight the harms to children of color. Public health activists like Gregg Gonsalves, Craig Spencer, and Priti Kristel are raging at the widening disparities in COVID vaccination between high-income countries and the rest of the world. And TikTok-famous comedians, like Will Flanary (aka Dr. Glaucomflecken) and Karan Menon are leveraging irony and exaggeration to expose the ills of the American healthcare system and the lunacy of global COVID vaccine inequity.
Second, during the last upswing, we prioritized relationship building. Americans at the turn of the 20th-century were experiencing massive technological, economic, and demographic shifts that left millions feeling isolated, disconnected, and lonely. Young social innovators (most of them under the age of 30) invented new ways of bringing people together, creating new social technologies to replace what had been lost. Along the way, they discovered the transformative power of associations—not just to come together for the sake of connection, but to work together for the common good. The Rotary Club started as a lonely young lawyer seeking friendship in a bustling metropolis and blossomed into one of the largest service organizations in the world, uniting millions under the banner of “service above self.”
We must again engage in intentional relationship building. A generation of young digital natives must invent new ways of bringing us together, taking the best practices of yesteryear and updating them to straddle the in-person and virtual worlds. The Listen First Project unites hundreds of grassroots groups—like Living Room Conversations, The People, and Unify America—to bring people with different points of view together for in-person and virtual conversations. Organizations like Citizen University are helping to build a culture of responsible citizenship through rituals like the Civic Saturday Fellowship, a civic analogue to faith gatherings. Just as settlement houses helped combat the intense class segregation and nativism at the turn of the last century, these organizations and others like them are helping Americans reestablish trust, regain a sense of shared humanity, and work to build membership in one American community.
Third, we recognized the power of solving problems on a local scale. The Progressive Era was an age of civic experimentation at the level of the tenement, neighborhood, city, and state. Indeed, some of the most wide-reaching reforms were the result of everyday citizens banding together to solve common problems.
More than a century ago nurse Lillian Wald brought health care to the residents of New York’s Lower East Side, believing that every New Yorker was entitled to equal and fair health care regardless of their socio-economic status, race, or gender. Wald drew on her experience in New York to create such enduring national programs as visiting nurses, school nurses, and community nursing. Today, the pandemic provides us with obvious problems that need solving. If communities could come together to build up local public health and social services as they did high schools over a century ago, they could relearn the skill of working together and create an upswell of innovation that will inform our national reforms from the bottom up.
One current day example is the Baltimore Health Corps, which recruited public health workers from the zip codes hit hardest by COVID. Staff are provided with wraparound services to help them climb out of poverty while serving their community and acting as critical trust-builders on the ground. Due in large part to their efforts Baltimore’s COVID vaccination rate is among the top 3% of jurisdictions with similar demographic characteristics.
Each of these three sea changes in American public life brought about a stronger, more resilient “we”—better able to face the dizzying structural changes and dislocating cultural drift together. Millions of young reformers became part of a diverse, bipartisan coalition intent upon mastering a moment in history when so many others feared that all might be lost.
We must reorient our nation once again toward “we” by leaning into a moral reawakening, engaging in relationship building, inventing new ways of bringing people together for collective problem solving, and refocusing on the local. Social capital is one of our greatest resources not only for saving our democracy, but for saving lives.
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Contributor: Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Céline R. Gounder