With recent orders by several governors that residents “stay home,” the restrictions imposed state by state on the American public in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency have become nearly as severe as those imposed during World War II, when curfews and rationing were as common as serving the country via the military draft. The open question facing today’s population is whether we remain culturally capable, as we were 70 years ago, of abiding by such restrictions on our personal freedoms for the greater good.
Recent history does not augur well for us. The last time Americans were asked to sacrifice significant material comforts in the name of the public good was 1979. The nation was enduring shortages of oil and gas, and unrest was becoming rampant. In early June, gas riots broke out in the iconic American suburb of Levittown, Pa; shortages of fuel threatened a suburban way of life built on the ready access to fuel, cars and the open road.
In response, President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterMeghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Afghanistan and the lessons that history does not offer MORE took to national television and asked the nation to sacrifice. In what became known as the “malaise speech” (although he never used that word), Carter lamented that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. ... We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”
The alternative route, the president said, was to recover a sense of community, of a willingness to see past self-interest to further a common purpose. “There is simply no way,” Carter said, “to avoid sacrifice.”
Few believed him at the time. The speech was widely reviled as a political disaster; Ronald Reagan used it as a foil for his “It’s Morning in America” campaign theme. Carter, soundly defeated in his reelection bid, later would recall that “it was like pulling teeth to convince the people of America that we had a serious problem [and] that they should be willing to make some sacrifices.” .
In the perspective of 40-plus years, and of the early days of COVID-19 restrictions, is there any doubt that the road America has taken has been that of “fragmentation and self-interest,” the “mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others” that Carter identified as “a certain road to failure”?
In the years since, most notably after 9/11 and the financial shock of 2008, the public has been asked explicitly not to sacrifice, not to alter its spending or its relentless pursuit of self-interest, even as our political culture has degenerated into what Carter described as “every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath, by one unyielding group or another.”
Not surprisingly, the early reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has reflected that political culture: panic buying, hoarding of water, meat, other essential products, fights breaking out in grocery store aisles as multiple people try to squeeze the Charmin, claiming in essence “the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others”; long lines forming in defiance of public health warnings at bars in cities across the nation; internet images of beaches crowded with spring break revelers, careless of their health and everyone else’s as well.
Restrictions have been heightened because the virus is spreading, to be sure, but they also have been heightened because too many Americans have been ignoring them, placing at risk the health of millions.
As Congress and the executive branch address the material rebuilding required by the pandemic's severe upending of American life, they also should consider taking steps to rebuild American political culture to make our civic culture more resilient. A universal service requirement — a requirement to sacrifice for the public good in either military or civilian form — should accompany the ready provision of cash and other aid to Americans.
For the question isn’t really what our government owes us. A universal service requirement — encompassing civic volunteerism, infrastructure rebuilding, or military service — will go a long way toward reframing the question as President Kennedy did so long ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, and what together we can do for the good of mankind.”
Although Carter’s warning is 41 years old, it is not too late — indeed, it may be essential — to recover the sense of shared sacrifice that has been the source of America's strength. The encouragement of universal service, not the promotion of narrow self-interest, is the key to making America great, and the world healthy, again.
John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.