It was the first day of spring, 2020, but the season’s usual breeze of rejuvenation chilled as a pandemic made its way to all 50 states. That wasn’t going to stop Brady Sluder from enjoying his spring break.

He and a gaggle of partygoers swarmed the beaches of Miami just as the country saw its 100th death from COVID-19. Sluder, a 22-year-old from Ohio, had been planning the trip for at least two months, he told reporters, so he was there to make the most of it.

Eight days earlier, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and sent the country into a tailspin. Tepid reactions to the virus turned into full-blown quarantines, lockdowns and hoards of toilet paper. As little as we knew about the virus then, this much was clear: Mass gatherings were reckless.

Undeterred, Sluder summed up his ultimate goal in a viral video clip: “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”

Masks make us all social conservatives

He and the spring breakers set the tone for our national response to the crisis: Me before thee, said we, as data, recommendations and deaths fell victim to self-interest and partisanship. Acts of service helped many people, but what the country needed was to actually embody its vain repetition of being “all in this together.”

You could try to excuse Sluder as a product of his age — a young adult looking for a good time (to be fair, he later apologized on his Instagram account). A thousand like him exist in every generation. But there’s no denying he’s also a product of his time.

That time, according to authors Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, is the pinnacle of a self-absorbed, individualistic society that’s been trending away from communitarian values for more than 50 years. Their book, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” chronicles the rise of solidarity after the Gilded Age and the subsequent decline back to inequality and selfishness. 

The data paints a sorry picture of the present, but the text offers a sense of hope by reminding us that we’ve been here before — and that we’ve come out the other side largely improved.

We’re in the throes of an “I” society, as Putnam and Garrett call it, but getting back to “we” is possible, and it’s what must happen to make a prosperous, equitable and moral America.

In search of balance

It’s not hard to see those spring breakers lurking in even the most distinguished parts of society. Observe:

  • Members of Congress make a mockery of their office when they choose to perform for an audience rather than legislate. Wanting to “own the libs,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the incendiary congresswoman from Georgia whose colleagues admonished her for supporting conspiracy theories, has called Democrats “morons” and recently wore a face covering with the words, “This mask is as useless as Joe Biden.”
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, crowned “America’s governor” at the beginning of the pandemic, covered up underreported nursing home deaths in the name of political expediency. He’s now having to answer for boorish behavior that at least three women allege was sexual harassment.
  • CEOs earn 940% more in compensation today than they did in 1978, according to the Economic Policy Institute, even as the business world fawns over “corporate social responsibility.” Worker compensation has risen 12% in the same time period.

In each of those cases the moral good has been superseded by individual interests, and in nearly all cases society suffers.

In fact, we’ve sunk about as low as any point in our history in regard to the factors that make up a healthy society, say Putnam and Garrett. The rise and fall of economic equality, concern for one another’s well-being, political friendliness and so forth share astonishingly similar data points when measured over the years, and the resulting mountain-like curve is what forms the basis of “The Upswing.” 

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That shouldn’t be construed to mean we’re living in 1870 again. We’ve made laudable progress in labor reforms, women’s rights and racial inclusion. And the authors are quick to point out that our 20th century prosperity largely excluded minority groups.

Still, the data today is shocking.

Economic equality, for instance, was at staggering lows in the latter years of the 19th century. Large corporations were squeezing workers and stifling competition, and the wealth at the top stayed there. That began shifting around the Progressive Era, and capital starting flowing more evenly. Minus a pause in the 1920s, economic equality rose well into the 1960s, at which point it turned downhill. Inequality, as measured by the gap between the highest and the lowest earners, is now at (or perhaps below) where it was at the height of the Gilded Age, say Putnam and Garrett.

Every other measure follows the same trajectory: marriage rates, church membership, political bipartisanship — each rose from the dust of the 19th century to peak around the 1960s, the same decade that birthed the hyperindividualism we see today. Those metrics have been declining ever since.

Our instinct is to blame the trend on politics and bad policy, but that would be wrong. The key to where we are and how we got here is understanding that culture leads and politics follows.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump didn’t create partisanship; their presidencies were a symptom of it. Elon Musk, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai — some of America’s top-paid executives — didn’t collude to make wealth inequality; they benefit from a culture that has lost its “outrage factor,” as Putnam put it to Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution last week.

The evidence is clear that ours is a culture out of balance. We’ve accepted a lifestyle that turns inward in self-interest rather than self-reflection, and turns outward in cynicism rather than compassion. Is it any wonder our politics and economics look the way they do?

Creating a sea change in America won’t start with a charismatic leader and a string of policies; it will begin at the grassroots level with millions of Americans awakening to a new morality and strengthening their cultural solidarity.

Our upswing

The irony of Brady Sluder’s gaffe is that he had the right idea — sort of.

Face-to-face associations among the younger generation were critical to moving America into the Progressive Era. Young people were eager to find new ways of connecting and serving — think Rotary Club, which was founded in 1905 with the goal of connecting business professionals and exposing them to new ideas and friendships. As Garrett points out, most of the Progressive Era reformers were under 30.

Today’s rising generation has the same drive to connect and make a difference, but the energy needs to be channeled into productive reforms.

Less productive, for example, is the reflex to “cancel” people or ideas because of links to inappropriate behavior. Expelling the guilty from society summons outrage without an outlet. Vandalizing George Washington’s statue, it’s sad to be reminded, is not civic engagement.

More productive, say Putnam and Garrett, is embracing a moral awakening that first looks inward for improvement.

Christians will recognize this principle as the query posed by the disciples when they learned one them would betray the Christ: “Lord, is it I?” they asked. The introspection fosters humility and breaks down barriers between “us” and “them.”

It would also halt the strange resurgence of social Darwinism, a once thriving idea in 19th-century circles that has creeped into the modern day. In an egregious example, a Texas mayor, who has since resigned, complained about people seeking help during the recent winter storm that contributed to at least 58 deaths.

“If you don’t have electricity you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe,” he wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post. “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish.”

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Once we have clear eyes about our shortcomings and can see others more deeply, we should take our ideas and associations to the “laboratories of democracy” — our cities, towns and neighborhoods.

In this it benefits society to think small. Hyperfocusing on the national stage distracts us from our ability to influence the people who really can be influenced — friends and family, neighbors and peers. A groundswell from the bottom up is organic and hard to refute, whereas top-down proposals tend to overgeneralize their audience.

The methods of associating today will look different than they did 100 years ago, but that shouldn’t mean we can’t learn from the best of the past. Social media is prone to lazy activism whereas face-to-face interactions usually force more comity and innovative discussion. Houses of worship, however foreign to America’s youths, remain some of the best institutions for interacting with various demographics at once — old and young, rich and poor worship in unity and allow mingling among groups that otherwise might be divided by geography, culture or class.

Our upswing, if we choose to reject our narcissism, will start with Americans deciding there is a better way, assessing their own moorings and then working among their city blocks to change hearts and minds. The pandemic may have exposed the degree to which we’re “all in this separately,” but if history is our guide, clawing back social cohesion is within reach.