This essay is part of a special series of the American Project that seeks to address the crisis of loneliness during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Crisis concentrates power. It’s a truth recognized by Thucydides in ancient Greece and more recently weaponized by Rahm Emanuel in his exhortation to “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” The problem is perennial. When people are scared, they look for comfort and guidance from a leader or source of power they hope can protect them. In modern times, too many of us demand that our federal government eradicate all kinds of threats. Merely resolving a crisis is not enough; the government must see to it that it can never happen again. And so we have wars “to end all wars” — wars on poverty, on drugs, and on sickness itself. The result is yet more concentrated power, more administrative structures designed to protect us from danger, but also from fear and the need to act on our own.
Unfortunately, large bureaucratic organizations often get in the way of rapid response to crises like the coronavirus. Consider the Centers for Disease Control, whose purview was expanded to include gun violence and obesity but was apparently unable to make and deploy decent coronavirus test kits as quickly as the Germans or the South Koreans; or the Food and Drug Administration, whose regulations further delayed coronavirus testing. Consider also the terrible situation in Italy, where an overstressed, underfunded socialized health care system is reportedly refusing access to life-saving respirators for anyone over 60. Centralized control means corruption, incompetence, and rationing — or worse.
Or consider the economy. It’s understandable that Washington wants to help people, especially the most economically vulnerable, who have been harmed by its own attempts to deal with the coronavirus crisis. If the government orders businesses to close, it’s no great leap to the conclusion that government should help those businesses and especially their employees. But it’s inevitable (see Thucydides or Rahm Emanuel) that political actors will use this crisis — including a looming depression — to further their own ends. Fortunately, we seem to have forestalled some of the most naked power grabs — such as using stimulus funding to chain businesses to Green New Deal regulations. But $2 trillion is a lot of money, and we’ll be paying off this latest stimulus package for many years. And anything not specifically limited by a sunset provision will endure forever. Whether necessary or no, the stimulus package will encourage people to look to the federal government to solve our problems in the future, further undermining our ability to take care of ourselves as a people and a nation.
Our habit of looking to Washington for help in a crisis has made us vulnerable to crises. It keeps us from maintaining those local associations that are necessary to deal with floods, earthquakes, or viral outbreaks quickly and effectively. A panicked people doesn’t make good decisions. When we start acting like a crowd, we lose our ability to reason as individuals and communities; we seek grand solutions instead of taking care of the people we know need our help. Hoarding and massive shutdowns are both symptoms of panic. And panic comes from isolation and a lack of trust. The result is the combination of isolation and chaos we’re suffering right now.
I don’t want to downplay how serious this crisis truly is, or the tragedy of people becoming sick or dying of this horrible and strange disease. Obviously, job one right now is staying healthy and stopping the spread of the virus and its attendant panic, both in the financial markets and in our local food markets. In addition, though, we need to keep and improve our social health, and work to sustain and rebuild our communities. As Josh Mitchell has pointed out in these pages, many Americans already have fallen into a comfortable world of isolation fueled by piped-in entertainment and the myth of true safety. As Mitchell makes clear, this attitude undermines the character of a free people and paves the way for a soft totalitarianism that is already uncomfortably close to our reality.
Face-to-face relationships bind us together in concrete activities. Everything from common worship and taking care of family to sharing responsibility for common goods and institutions, such as local parks and team sports forge relationships, shared habits, and a sense of being “in this together.” We develop trust in one another, making us more inclined to help one another, even strangers (far more often, it seems, than in low-trust countries like Communist China). Trust also makes it more likely that we will take it upon ourselves to protect and rebuild our towns and neighborhoods in hard times, rather than deferring to faraway bureaucracies. It helps us avoid becoming mere particles within large, mindless crowds; it helps us be and remain fully human members of communities.
We see the impact of what Bernard Iddings Bell called “crowd culture” all around us. When we lack real membership in real communities, we seek a facsimile of membership in false communities. This is most obvious on social media and university campuses and other places where real community has been destroyed by the forces of ideology and resentment, leaving people to focus on abstract, superficial signs of belonging. Instead of sharing important parts of their lives, ersatz communities encourage people to share “likes” of pop stars or to virtue-signal or unite around shared fears, hurt feelings, or anger over the latest bugbear, be it global warming, politically incorrect pronouns, or the Bad Orange Man (President Trump). The result is mass hysteria, scapegoating, and, in the extreme, a flight to soft totalitarianism. That is to say, we become anonymous members of crowds and objects of government power — rather than real, concrete persons who forge their own lives through real relationships with real people based on real, concrete common actions in service to common goods.
We’ve ignored the impact of crowd culture on our public behavior for too long in part because too many of us are inclined to believe that panic is justified if the stakes are high enough — whether it be protecting the planet, democracy, the oppressed, or public safety. But in addition to these dangers, real or imagined, we cannot ignore the danger of letting crowd culture replace real community. Local associations and mutual trust are necessary for self-government — and, yes, even to fight great panics.
So, as you practice your social distancing in the physical world, do yourself and the rest of us a favor and work to keep up your relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and members of your churches and other local associations. Videoconferencing, telephone conversations, and various internet-based communications are a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions. But, especially when used to plan for the future, when we must restart and rebuild, they can keep us going and perhaps make us better appreciate how we need one another in a very concrete way.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University. His latest book, with Ted V. McAllister, is “Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul.”