By George F. Will
WASHINGTON — Today’s pandemic has simultaneously inflicted the isolation of “social distancing” and the social solidarity of shared anxiety. In tandem, these have exacerbated a tendency that was already infecting America’s body politic before the virus insinuated itself into many bodies and every consciousness.
It is the recurring longing for escape from individualism, with its burden of personal responsibility. It includes a concomitant desire for immersive politics, whereby people infuse their lives with synthetic meaning by enlisting in mass movements or collective efforts. These usually derive their unity from a clear and present danger or, when that is lacking, from national, ethnic, racial or class resentments (e.g., President Donald Trump’s and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ not-so-very-different populisms of those who feel victimized).
Not all recoils against individualism are progressive, but progressivism always encourages such recoils. After World War I’s solidarity, which had been enforced by public bullying and minatory government, a progressive philosopher, Mary Follett, hoped that in peacetime America would abandon the idea of “the particularist individual” and natural rights belonging thereto, the better to emancipate government from limits.
Until a taste of the real thing arrived with the coronavirus, there was, in societies perhaps bored by their comforts, a hunger for apocalypse. A great threat can infuse excitement into bourgeois dullness and can justify a flight into exciting collective undertakings. Hence the thrill many people recently derived from being excoriated by a Swedish teenager for abusing the planet. Earth’s supposedly mortal peril late in this century, still over the horizon, suddenly seems a comparatively manageable menace for a world that, when it will need mitigation measures, will be at least five times wealthier than it was in 2000.
Political leaders frequently declare war, or its “moral equivalent,” on this or that (cancer, drugs, poverty, climate change, etc.) because they justify muscular measures. In his first inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that in order for him “to wage a war against the emergency” of the Depression, “we must move as a trained and loyal army” wielding “broad executive power” that should be “as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” This was understandable, given the severity of pains and the public’s panic. Never mind that the result — unconstrained government meddlesomeness — probably prolonged the 12-year Depression, until rearmament ended it.
Today’s pandemic is an even more valid justification for sweeping exercises of executive powers by governors wielding states’ police powers. Governors know that to the axiom “to govern is to choose” there should be added seven words: “always on the basis of imperfect information.” What is not justified are attempts to use today’s real emergency as an excuse to rewrite the nation’s social contract in order to accustom Americans to life suited to a permanent emergency.
Progressives’ flirtation with the preposterous Green New Deal (the end of beef, and of airplanes, etc.) is so revealing because it envisions federal micromanagement of the economy and individual choices forever. Consider also the somewhat successful attempt by the House Democratic caucus to lard the current economic rescue legislation with innumerable extraneous extensions of federal power over society. This illustrates progressivism’s eager embrace of temporary crises as hammers to pound Americans into the permanent solidarity that socialism promises — until it produces permanent cynicism and bitterness about the inevitably political allocation of wealth and opportunity.
Inconveniently for progressives, every war must end, no crisis is forever, and individualism — the American idea: the pursuit of happiness as each defines it — reemerges through fissures in the solidarity produced by transient crises. The British, too, understand. In Muriel Spark’s 1963 novel “The Girls of Slender Means,” members of a women’s club go to Buckingham Palace to celebrate V-E Day, relishing “the huge organic murmur of the crowd” in this culmination of wartime solidarity. “The next day everyone began to consider where they personally stood in the new order of things.” Yes, personally. After wartime’s necessary collective exertions, a solidarity that had been obligatory during danger was undesirable as normality.
After World War II, A.J. Liebling, a war correspondent for The New Yorker, wrote that “you can feel [war’s] pull on men’s memories at the maudlin reunions of war divisions. They mourn for their dead, but also for war.” Understandably so. Their nostalgia is for a temporary solidarity — aka regimentation — that was crowned by the glory of victory. But nostalgia for a time when society was fused by the heat of war or some other crisis is not a permanent basis for a free and open society.
Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.