How Will the Covid-19 Pandemic Affect American Asabiyah?
Shared suffering binds people together. The German Blitz of 1940 united the British people in their refusal to surrender. The cumulative sacrifices they all made during the war engendered such a powerful sense of social unity that, after the war, they enacted a broad program of social unity including the National Health Service and a broader redistribution of wealth.
The Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, writing more than 500 years ago, applied the Arabic word asabiyah to a denote a crucial element in the rise and fall of societies: the sense of social unity that the citizens feel. The corresponding English word, solidarity, doesn’t quite capture Ibn Khaldun’s meaning, but it comes close. We could also use terms like “togetherness” or “one for all, all for one” to characterize it. Economists have their own term: social capital, which they use to describe the trust that citizens have in each other as well as the confidence that the law will protect them from cheaters.
The Depression and World War II drove asabiyah in the United States to high levels; for thirty years afterwards, Americans erected an ambitious social safety net that protected millions of underprivileged citizens. By 1980, however, the warm sense of asabiyah that had glued Americans into a sense of togetherness had dissolved and Mr. Reagan initiated the process of weakening the social safety net. The Gini Coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, has been steadily rising since 1980 and is now nearing dangerous levels.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about the long-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic upon American society. The Internet teems with analyses of the political and economic consequences likely to ensue, but I’m thinking in much longer terms. When historians fifty years from now look back upon the pandemic, what effects will they descry in American society? In particular, will the shared harms of the pandemic increase American asabiyah? Will these hard times bring us together?
I think that the pandemic will prove to be the acid test of American society: it will either pull us together or drive us apart. I see four factors that will determine the outcome:
First is the base-level asabiyah of the American people. Americans tend to have a stronger sense of national unity than most nations. That sense of unity has been diminishing over the last thirty years; the pandemic will test its strength.
Second will be the shock induced by the body count. As of today, 5,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, but this is just the beginning. At least 100,000 Americans will die from this disease, and a much higher figure is more likely. We could well see as many Americans killed by Covid-19 as died in World War II. But the deaths in World War II were spread over three and a half years, while these deaths will be jammed into a few months. Most Americans will lose a friend or relative. The sense of loss will be wide and deep.
Third will be the need for a scapegoat. A society suffering so large a tragedy will need somebody or something to blame. Fingers will point. Mr. Trump is the most likely target of such blame, and some of that blame will be justified by his dilatory response to the looming threat. I find it ironic that a man who has committed so many crimes would eventually be brought down by an event to which his contribution was secondary.
Fourth is Mr. Trump’s penchant for divisiveness. This man couldn’t unite Romeo and Juliet; he thrives on factiousness. I do not believe that it is within the man’s capability to bring Americans together; he cannot resist blaming everybody else for his mistakes. I expect that he will make matters worse.
What will be the sum result of these four factors? The interplay between them is so messy that any predictions I can offer reek of uncertainty. The next six months will be hard on everybody as the lockdowns drag on for months. Mr. Biden’s electoral victory seems assured to me; the contrast between his calming (soporific?) demeanor and Mr. Trump’s venom-spitting will make the choice easy for most Americans. We might well have a period of elevated hopes and goodwill for a few months after the election, but the continuing depredations of the pandemic will eat at American morale. I cannot say how the story will end.