- The new American solidarity should never nurture disdain for the richest Americans, but call them to steward their resources and imagination for a new era of mutual aid and broader prosperity. Tweet This
- At our best, America is about exercising our freedom for solidarity: neighbors helping neighbors, citizens forging bonds of respect and affection. Tweet This
America is polarizing. Our racial and political polarizations understandably occupy a lot of the nation’s attention, but we suffer from three other big divisions that also deserve our attention: the fraying of marriage in working-class America, the increasing divide between rich and poor in communities all across our land, and the coming apart of blue-collar and white-collar employees. To heal these three areas of disunity, we need to return to a source that has sustained America through past social divisions: American solidarity.
American solidarity is what Alexis de Tocqueville observed when he visited this land: a strong ethic of individualism complemented by a vigorous network of civil society institutions that encouraged Americans to cooperate with each other. You can see it all the way back in 1727 when Benjamin Franklin founded the Junto club, a forum for mutual improvement that was a springboard for many mutual benefit projects: the first volunteer firefighting force in America, lending library, and volunteer militia. As Walter Isaacson writes, Franklin
seemed ever eager to organize clubs and associations for mutual benefit, and it was also typically American. As the nation developed a shopkeeping middle class, its people balanced their individualist streaks with a propensity to form clubs, lodges, associations, and fraternal orders.
For much of our history, solidarity has been a reality without a name. But it inspired the American labor movement and has been an animating force among ethnic groups for generations, including my own people, the Old Order Amish. (I can’t think of anything that better shouts solidarity than an Amish barn raising.)
American solidarity enlists self-help and mutual aid, and individual grit and social cooperation. It encourages the pursuit of happiness within the horizon of a more perfect union.
Today, we’re still long on self-help messages, and we’re still pursuing happiness like it’s a second American revolution. But we’re shorter on grit and our unions are dissolving—labor unions, marital unions, and neighborhood unions. We’re losing sight of our bonds with each other; we’re forgetting that we’re neighbors and fellow citizens in a shared American experiment forming a more perfect union. We prefer, instead, to associate almost exclusively with those who look like us and share the same social status.
The task now is to apply American solidarity to the divisions that sunder the American body politic in 2019. The new (but old) American solidarity responds to three needs that our divisions have exposed.
First, we need to tell a grittier story about love and happiness that makes it easier to win lifelong marriage and enjoy gender cooperation. The story many of us inherit today emphasizes happiness—period. But the story we need draws from psychologist Carol Dweck’s insight about the difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset: those with a fixed mindset think that if you’re unhappy or feel that you’ve fallen out of love, you should end the relationship or divorce. In contrast, a couple with a growth mindset see love and happiness in a more dynamic way: they see life as a summons to shape their love into something growing and enduring with time. Obviously, many relationships and marriages suffer from deeper problems—abuse and addiction come to mind—that can’t simply be helped with a different story about love and happiness. But it could make a difference for many couples.
Because when individuals pursue relationship happiness without concern for perfecting the marital union—without being mindful of the obligations spouses promise each other—we get what we have now: gender polarization. This is especially clear in working-class communities, where divorce is high and subsequent generations are delaying marriage. Why? In part because the young hear their elders say, “I hate men,” and “Women are just out to get your money.” A grittier story about love and happiness could help to rebuild trust and cooperation between the sexes, especially among those who need it most.
Second, we need economic practices that make it easier for people to be good parents and spouses. It’s not just ideas about love and happiness that are at fault; our ideas about work and money are also to blame. As Steven Pearlstein argues in Can American Capitalism Survive?, globalization and automation don’t share all of the blame for the fact that when it comes to inequality, America is “pretty much the world champs” compared to the rest of the world. Rather, Pearlstein argues that an elaborate shareholder-first ideology is responsible for much of what ails American capitalism.
When companies pursue shareholder profits at the expense of ordinary workers—without being mindful of the relationship between employer and employees—we get what we have now: economic polarization. We get a society in which we: justify low wages for a large chunk of workers by devaluing their labor (though the reality is we can’t live as we do without the labor of cooks, home health aides, retail workers, and the like); lock out the two-thirds of American adults without bachelor’s degrees from many of the most stable and best-paying jobs; and distribute 60% of profits to stock buybacks that enrich corporate executives. We get a society in which the richest 1% of households hold more wealth than the bottom 95 percent—and ordinary employees who say, “We’re screwed.”
Economic polarization benefits the upper class and hurts the working class. As Eduardo Porter of The New York Times recently reported about high-tech growth in Phoenix, “Despite all its shiny new high-tech businesses, the vast majority of new jobs are in workaday service industries, like health care, hospitality, retail, and building services, where pay is mediocre.”
Today, we’re still long on self-help messages, and we’re still pursuing happiness like it’s a second American revolution. But we’re shorter on grit and our unions are dissolving—labor unions, marital unions, and neighborhood unions. We’re losing sight of our bonds with each other; we’re forgetting that we’re neighbors and fellow citizens in a shared American experiment forming a more perfect union.
Economic polarization also undermines working-class families through unpredictable schedules, no paid sick or parental leave, and part-time jobs at part-time wages.
In short, the economy we have today makes it harder to be a virtuous parent or spouse, especially if you’re part of the working class. Our leaders should renew a solidarity relationship between employers and employees, such as through paid family and sick leave, fair scheduling legislation, allowing unions to thrive, and wages that enable individuals to provide for their families or build a foundation for marriage. This kind of relationship between employers and employees would not only boost wages and increase financial stability for working-class Americans; it would also rebuild trust between ordinary workers and bosses.
Finally, we need to remember that we’re all in this together, rich and poor and everyone in between. Sometimes, our battles have been about labor versus capital. The working class has had their fair share of Mr. Potters to fight through the decades. But we have also had fantastically wealthy American capitalists who helped to create new institutions of cooperation and mutual aid. For instance, as my friend David Blankenhorn points out, department store magnate Edward Filene sent the organizer Roy Bergengren on a campaign to introduce credit unions to America. In the late 1800’s, John Wanamaker instituted a profit-sharing plan in his company. And Andrew Carnegie founded hundreds of libraries, those great centers of self-help with a cooperative hand.
Often, we need a bottom-up movement that demands our leaders and systems let “justice roll down like waters,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as labor leaders, did. The best of these movements usually found a way to craft their call as a summons for Americans to realize the dream of a more perfect union, consisting of equality and justice for all. The new American solidarity should do the same: never to nurture disdain for the richest Americans, but to call them to steward their resources and imagination for a new era of mutual aid and broader prosperity—and to challenge them when they don’t get it.
In our own lives, the challenge is to open our hearts and spaces to our generation’s “freedom’s orphans”—all those, especially the young, who bear the brunt of our social and economic divisions. Like the depressed and unemployed young man estranged from his divorced parents with no home and no community to help get back on his feet. And the young parents taking classes to get the skills they need, while also struggling to maintain their low-wage job and hold their family together. Or the young woman who moves to a city where opportunities beckon but with no friends or community to accompany her. For some of us, this could mean keeping a bedroom available for free or for rent at a discounted rate. For those who are part of a religious congregation, it could mean ensuring that our congregations are hospitable to the working class.
Politically, the moment is ripe for American solidarity—for leaders who will craft a pro-family and pro-worker coalition. Culturally, we’re seeing movements that seek to bring people from different ideological stripes together to solve our problems. As David Brooks points out, across the nation, there are ordinary people helping to re-weave the social fabric of their communities. The smashing success of J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, suggests, in part, that many people are concerned about a portion of the country they’d like to better understand. It seems as if we’re in a moment in which a critical mass of us are hungry to connect with and better understand the “the other.”
America has always been about freedom. But at our best, we’ve been about exercising our freedom for solidarity: neighbors helping neighbors, citizens forging bonds of respect and affection. To solve our most pressing social problems today, we need a course correction toward solidarity.
David Lapp is a co-founder of Better Angels, a bipartisan citizen’s movement to bridge the political divide, and a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Along with his wife, Amber, David serves as co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.