What's Tony Thinking

Encouraging Words in this Crisis


Peggy Noonan has a good column today about how well we Americans are doing during the COVID crisis. She checked in with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, and author of The Righteous Mind, to see what he was observing. Here’s Haidt:

“The key concept everyone has to understand is hardship generally makes people stronger. Fear, challenge, threat—unless they are extreme—tend to produce growth, not damage.” Haidt feels this could be a turning point for some of the young who have been “overprotected.” They are enduring “a giant shock and setbacks.” “This will make them experience, and deal. Many people will grow a lot from it.”

This is rather different take than what David Brooks offered yesterday. Brooks sees all this as putting a tremendous stress on people’s mental health and fragile social connections. I think it possible, likely even, that both are true.

To be sure, there is a lot of stress, loneliness, anxiety — as Brooks reports. But there are also signs that this challenge is making us stronger. It may even bring about a kind of civic renewal. We are having a common, a shared, experience. Relationships, even as a nation, don’t survive without shared experiences. Secondly, this augurs well for civic life because people tend to be more focused locally. We are witnessing heroic action on the part of people in hospitals and nursing homes and public services near us. We are being polite, helpful and patient with our neighbors and fellow citizens. We are being called to action and given direction by Governors and Mayors whom we have tended to overlook in our obsession with national politics.

Noonan asked Haidt, “Could what we’re enduring leave us less polarized? Not at the top, not so far in Washington, which hasn’t distinguished itself, but across America?”

“People,” said Haidt, “are doing so much locally and at the state level, there could be a hope for a kind of civic renewal.'”

“Haidt has been studying political polarization for years, and what he’s seen in the data is distressing. Yet he would always say at the end of his talks that if present trends continue we’re in trouble, ‘but present trends never continue. Something will happen to force this off the trajectory.’

“He thinks this might be ‘the thing’: ‘It’s the end of a cycle, not the end of the world.’ He hopes that in a shift ‘from I to we,’ Americans may more deeply cultivate the virtues we need as a democracy, ‘which include the virtues of the Christian and Jewish traditions—humility, mercy. We are so quick to judge. We need to be easier on each other, turn down the judgment 80% or 90%.”

“’The virus may do this. We have all been humbled by it, as a nation of institutions and of individuals, from the beginning.’”

Note the contrast Haidt and Noonan draw between local and national. Polarization remains strong in the “other Washington,” as we in Washington State call it. And President Trump has apparently not gotten the memo about the “I to we” shift.

But since it seems like a good idea to take hope and encouragement where we can find it just now, I’ll go with Haidt and Noonan on this.

It’s also part of Ezra Klein’s prescription to us all for coping with polarization in his book Why We’re Polarized which I have cited several times recently in this space. Here’s Klein:

“I’ll be blunt here in a way that cuts against my professional interests: we give too much attention to national politics, which we can do very little to change, and too little attention to state and local politics, where our voices matter much more. The time spent spraying outrage over Trump’s latest tweet — which is, to be clear, what he wants you to do; the point is to suck up all the media oxygen so he retains control of the conversation — is better spent checking on what’s happening in your own neighborhood. (italics added)

“‘There are over five hundred thousand elected officials in the United States, only 537 of whom serve at the federal level,’ writes Daniel Hopkins in The Increasingly United States (which is about how everything has become focused around national politics). The 537 federal officials are the ones we have the least power to influence, if only because they have on average, the most constituents. But we often don’t know the names of the officials nearest to us, even though they’d be glad to meet for coffee.”

“This isn’t,” adds Klein, “because we’re lazy, bad people. It’s because media has nationalized, and there’s been a particular reaping at the state and local level.” That is to say, journalistic coverage at the local level has been decimated. Until now.

One final good word from Klein, “There’s real reward from rooting more of our political identities in the places we live.” That statement has all kinds of implications and, for many of us — myself included — challenges.

Now, with COVID, there is more attention to local needs, policies and leadership. Could this the start of something? Local vitality in a time of national paralysis was the focus of Jim and Deb Fallows in their uplifting 2015 book, Our Towns. One of the things they observed is that when local politics mirror national ones, little got done. But a lot was getting done locally by people who resisted seeing everything through the lens of our polarized national politics.

So maybe there’s some good to come out of all this. As I say, I’ll take my encouragement where I can find it. In the meantime, happy Easter to one and all.


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