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Back in the now half-forgotten early days of the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders experienced a health crisis that seemed to deepen his understanding of the country’s political crisis. Three weeks after suffering a heart attack that took him off the campaign trail, he held a massive comeback rally in New York City. In front of twenty-five thousand people, Sanders offered an alternative to Donald Trump’s efforts to divide Americans, one given renewed urgency by what Sanders had recently endured. “I want you all to take a look around and find someone you don’t know,” he said. “Maybe somebody who doesn’t look like you.... My question now to you is: Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know, as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” Would those listening fight for the immigrant neighbor, or the person in their community without health care? Would they be “willing to love”?
In October 2019, Sanders’s plea to love the stranger and fight for the common good might have been taken for avuncular sentimentality, or dismissed as a whiff of the 1960s. But in retrospect he clearly saw that something was deeply wrong in our society—that the American body politic was unwell. Only a few months later, a pandemic hit that revealed just how many pathologies were afflicting us: an economy in which “essential” workers are often the least well paid; steep racial hierarchies defended by militarized police forces; an electoral politics engulfed in spectacle and money; and social solidarity so tattered that fellow Americans could view one another as members of enemy camps.
These realities were not new, but they became dismayingly clear as COVID-19 condemned hundreds of thousands of Americans to death or permanent disability. In COVID-19 wards, Black and brown Americans died more often than whites. Those who survive remain at the whims of police raids even when sleeping in their beds or walking down the street with their families. The children of immigrants and refugees are concentrated in detention camps suffering unknown rates of infection and death. Addiction and suicides from opioid abuse are increasing. Voting rights are under assault by the courts and Republican-controlled state legislatures.
Social bonds in the United States have been steadily dissolved by decades of neoliberal capitalism that starved the public sphere, trained us to view neighbors as competitors or threats, and racialized access to common goods like education, public health, and social insurance. The Left has policy solutions to some of these problems. But if they want to succeed, they must also address the crisis of civic belonging that has whetted the Right’s appetites for xenophobic nationalism and white supremacy. The unrestrained plunder of the past forty years, and what it has wrought, cannot be overcome with policies and programs alone. It is not just an economic force to resist but an ethical wound to heal.
Much of the Left today is focused on proposing policies and dismantling structures. These are undoubtedly important, but such aims cannot be advanced effectively while neglecting the devastation to social belonging and identity that have followed from unfair policies and unjust structures. In the absence of ethical transformation, achieving policy goals may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory—swapping out institutions and incentives but keeping the same damaged social body underneath.
Any American movement beyond neoliberal capitalism has to begin with this social therapy. The road to economic justice passes through new practices that build networks of mutual care extending from family to neighbors to strangers. We need to relearn how to sustain these circles of inclusion. This is why Sanders’s plea to reinvigorate our love for strangers was not a quaint flourish. It was a prophetic insight into the preconditions of a future social democracy.