Due to the vagaries of print magazines, I am writing this on Election Day 2012. Due to the vagaries of Hurricane Sandy, I am writing this from the Jersey Shore where power was restored to my house after seven long and increasingly cold days. I and my family were only inconvenienced by the aftermath of one of the most destructive storms in history, while many more people lost their homes, not to mention their lives.
And yet I’m optimistic about the New York metropolitan area’s ability to rebuild and recover. The response to the storm has been informed by lessons learned from the tragedy of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. When Mayor Bloomberg of New York City announced the opening of evacuation centers, he made a point of saying that evacuees could take their pets with them to those centers: After Katrina, it became clear that many in New Orleans who should have evacuated failed to do so because they didn’t want to abandon their dogs and cats. Leadership at times of crisis takes many forms, but educated leadership learns from the past to make future prospects brighter.
More impressive to me than government leadership has been the outpouring of caring to those areas devastated by Sandy—by individuals, by volunteer organizations, by faith-based groups, by corporations like the makers of Duracell and Tide. That caring won’t end when power is restored and homes are repaired—it’s long been a part of the American psyche.
In his writings on America following a visit in 1831 to the still-young United States, the French proto-sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville lauded the unique American genius for “voluntary associations” in which like-minded people gathered together without any government or upper-class oversight.
Jedediah Purdy, who teaches law at Duke University’s law school, wrote a thoughtful piece in 2009 on the paradox of American life noted first by de Tocqueville. These “supple and pragmatic groupings trained people to take charge of their own affairs and […] fostered the blend of initiative, self-assertion, and mutual respect that makes civic life work.” However, Purdy says de Tocqueville “also saw a bleaker face of American community” in which Americans “fixed their attention on their own affairs and the affairs of those closest to them. They became indifferent to the larger community.” These Americans, de Tocqueville wrote, “owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”
My hope and prayer is that once the election’s storm and fury is over all Americans realize the importance of working together to solve our problems, not least the fiscal issues that bedevil us. What kind of a country, what kind of a people do we want to be in our third century of existence? Our “voluntary associations” will always help define us as a people, but so too will our institutions of law and defense, of governments local, state and federal. Just as with recovery from a natural disaster, we can solve our looming national disaster-in-making by coming together for our common self-interest, for ourselves and the generations that follow us.