The Social Good of Shared Sacrifice
If we hope to meet the challenges of our concurrent crises: economic, democratic, and pandemic, it will require the efforts of all Americans. To face what is coming America needs to rediscover and embrace shared sacrifice. Shared sacrifice creates more resilient societies. It provides a sense of community and common purpose. A willingness to elevate the public over the personal. The last time Americans were called upon to endure real shared sacrifice was nearly 80 years ago at the onset of World War II. Americans have since become increasingly unfamiliar with burden sharing. The crises we now face present the first real chance in four generations to go all-in. We should embrace this moment.
In a recent Forbes interview documentary filmmaker Ken Burns observed, “We need to understand that our Latin motto is perfect — E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One. If we don’t follow that, we don’t survive. When we have done it in the past, we have survived magnificently, but it’s taken shared sacrifice, and that’s something for which we’ve lost the muscle memory for, and we need to get it back.” In American history we have been called to make shared sacrifices just three times: The Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II. Each time America answered. Since the end of World War II we have suffered the victor’s curse. Peace, prosperity and technology have conspired to make us fat, selfish and lazy. Do we still have the capacity to sacrifice for one another? We are about to find out. Although the outlines are only now becoming visible, we are facing an economic and societal challenge unlike anything we have seen. Avoiding the worst outcomes and escaping our current moment will require every American to put their shoulder to the wheel.
The distance between the haves and the have-nots shrinks during periods of shared sacrifice. An ecumenicalism of necessity. As the differences between us shrink our ability to see one another grows. Shared sacrifice has a way of making the mighty and the meek a bit more equal. In so doing it weaves a stronger, more equitable and durable social fabric. During the depression families with means helped families with less. In World War II we accepted wage and rent controls and rations of all kinds and participated in community victory gardens and scrap metal drives. Rich and poor alike were affected — it reduced the social and economic distance between Americans. People understood the greater good and accepted the burdens and sacrifices needed to achieve it.
There is a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, “Americans always do the right thing, after exhausting every other alternative”. It was late 1940 when Europe had fallen to the Nazis and Britain was enduring the Blitz. The US was trying to decide if it should enter the war. The quote is likely apocryphal, but the point is fair. We are a messy country and rarely get it right the first time…or the hundredth. But eventually we find true north. Our current predicament will be no different. Not just the pandemic, but our current polarized hellscape. But we all need to do our part. Businesses need to be extra flexible with staff, landlords need to work with struggling tenants, banks need to get creative about mortgages and loans, wealthier Americans need to accept they need to pay more in taxes, everybody needs to accept that certain restrictions on movement and behavior are needed for a while and younger Americans need to understand older Americans need their help right now. And our government, at all levels, needs to lead — for the people. We have no time for partisan gamesmanship. Science and fact-based policies and programs need to be enacted to help the most vulnerable Americans. If we don’t, if we let them fall through the cracks of our system, it will cost far more in the long run than helping now. And we will regret it for decades to come.
Over the past half-century America has created a society that values the bottom line over human dignity. It has made us blind to the suffering of our fellow citizens. None of us, rich or poor, are going to escape the bitter wages of what is coming. It will be a collective moment. As such it represents a window to a better America. The first opportunity in four generations to come together and help one another. We can do this. It resides in our collective memory. We saw glimpses of it after 9–11, though it faded quickly as the burdens of that attack and response fell to a relative few. That option does not exist now. The coming challenge will be broad, deep and long. To get through it we will need one another.