Progressives are really good at identifying, analyzing and proposing specific policy solutions. Give us climate change and we’ll give you a carbon tax and solar energy subsidies. Give us police shootings and we’ll give you implicit bias training and body cameras. Give us lack of access to health insurance and we’ll give you the public option and a ban on screening for pre-existing conditions. Just watch last Monday’s debate: for every issue, Hillary Clinton had a list of three or four solutions, devised by experts and backed up by binders full of white papers.
But when it comes to the cultural phenomena that are preventing these policy solutions from getting a fair hearing in our legislatures, we turn off. When Republicans keep winning state houses, we have no words. When voters keep re-electing do-nothing Congresses, we retreat into snark. When 40% of the country thinks Donald Trump would be a good President, we are confused. When people don’t trust fact checks from the national media, we throw up our hands. It’s as if every public problem can be bent to our will, but addressing any cultural challenge is insurmountable.
But this is not the case. As conservatives know — and discuss frequently amongst themselves! — our nation’s moral and political culture is quite susceptible to change: we can have a hand in cultural revival, decline or transformation, but only if we care to work on it.
If the American people no longer trust experts, then there is a project in need of our time and effort: the project of rebuilding trust between our nation’s experts and the population at large.
If tens of millions of Americans do not feel invested in the lives of neighbors who are different than them, then there is a project in need of our time and effort: building up a sense of cross-racial and cross-class neighborliness so that more people believe we are in this together.
If we are trapped in misinformation bubbles, addicted to partisan clickbait, then there is a project in need of our time and effort: building cross-cultural information channels that re-build shared national understandings.
These all fall under the grand project of rebuilding national solidarity: reinvigorating our shared institutions, trust and fellow-feeling so as to make us one nation again. It is the flip side of Trump’s “if we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country” riff: if we don’t have national solidarity, we don’t have a country. And solidarity does not mysteriously rise and fall: it’s a project that we have the choice to care for, work on, or let crumble.
To some, a call for working on national solidarity might sound like a call for yet again turning the spotlight away from those who have been ignored for so long. Some may ask: why should we focus on reaching out to people we find backwards when we should be fighting for the groups who they are marginalizing?
There are three reasons. First, to call for projects of national solidarity is not to ignore other projects that more directly advance and empower the marginalized. Even without a national majority in support of integration, Brown v. Board of Education was necessary. But, without the solidarity-building efforts of the southern Civil Rights Movement, Brown’s mandate would have been brittle. Second, if a lack of national solidarity is blocking the implementation of policies that serve the marginalized, then our only option, if we care about those agendas, is to care about national solidarity. Third, rebuilding national solidarity is not just an instrumental means to our own political ends; it’s a transformative end in itself that works to humble us as we learn and change from becoming closer to our neighbors.
To others, national solidarity is creepy. It brings to mind fascism: propaganda, conformity and the suppression of dissent. Some may ask: why do we need to feel all in this together when we can just settle for simply agreeing to the rules of the road?
In response, first, it’s important to draw a distinction between fascist nationalism and pluralist solidarity. When we talk about solidarity, we are not talking about everyone agreeing on everything nor even coming together through the same institutions. Rather, we are talking about supporting, growing, and building multiple diverse institutions that break down barriers and bring different people together. Expanding the reach and deepening the experience of various forms of interracial, intercultural, and cross-class sports, music, conservation, education, worship, and service groups isn’t centralized fascism– it’s decentralized solidarity.
Second, without solidarity, our individualism is put at risk. The idea seems contradictory on its face, but think about it: the individual rights and liberties we cherish are only made real if we continue to maintain the shared project of defending them. If we are not in it together enough to consistently defend and realize our freedoms, we easily fall victim to political, economic and cultural tyrannies. Remember, aspiring tyrants go further with isolated strangers than with caring neighbors.
These are the stakes of the “building programs for national solidarity” project that we included in the Strong Communities section of The Democratic Alternative Intervention. Hillary Clinton’s recent proposal to create “a new National Service Reserve that will expand ways for young Americans to serve their communities and their country” is an ambitious and heartening example of such a program. In the Intervention, we call for supplementing “attempts to address national divides of race, culture, and class through the law and mass media” with “projects that encourage sustained, authentic in-person interactions in shared missions among individuals from divided groups.” A National Service Reserve’s expansion of volunteer service opportunities to both more young people as well as older, “encore participants” would be a step in that direction.
As we watch this campaign, we are reminded of the first lines of “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats’ poem about the aftermath of the First World War:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats believed there was no turning back: things had fallen apart for good and the center could not be found again. He thought a beast, outside of our control, was soon to be born and our only hope was to adapt.
Yeats was mistaken. It is within our control to grow a center again. It is within our control to put things together again. Solidarity is a project. It just takes work.