Editors’ Note: Nancy Rosenblum reflects on the meaning of the “good neighbor” during the coronavirus crisis, expanding upon her 2016 book, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America. This essay is adapted from the forthcoming essay, “The Democracy of Everyday Life in Disaster: Holding Our Lives in Their Hands,” in Democratic Theory (2020).
Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America (Princeton University Press, 2016) is my political theory of the distinct sphere of relations among neighbors: its regulative norms and its relation to the wider civil society and political life. In it, I highlight the ways neighbors can be a source of help and solace, while also giving weight to dark cases: betrayal (Japanese internment), murder (lynching), racial and religious conflict (Crown Heights, Brooklyn), as well as carelessness and callousness. I also focused on disasters, when neighbors hold our lives in their hands. As the social relation of neighborliness has assumed a prominent place in accounts of the response to the novel coronavirus, I’ve outlined for HistPhil some of my thoughts on the meaning (and the limits) of the good neighbor.
Neighbors inhabit a distinct social sphere. After we take account of organized political life, work, voluntary associations, social circles, friends and family, there is this remainder. Its importance owes to the depth and intensity of interests and values we attach to life at home, in proximity to neighbors. The unique power neighbors hold over our lives is explained by that one word: home. There, ordinary vices and virtues are on display, mundane trespasses and kindnesses are inescapable, contests and claims are concrete and immediate. We don’t have to reinvent the terms of give and take on every occasion, for our many and varied relations with neighbors have a structure: the democracy of everyday life.
The democracy of everyday life is a regulative ideal distinct from public principles of justice or fairness, from the legalism of rights, and from civic virtue. In some matters neighbor relations operate under the shadow of the law; still, it is hard to think of any other sustained social relation that floats so free of the institutions, rules, processes, and shared purposes that define roles in other settings. Democratic life is pluralistic, carried on in spheres that are not perfectly congruent with one another. That is, the good neighbor is not the good citizen writ small.
The principal norm among neighbors is reciprocity. Reciprocity is loose and open-ended. It applies to good turns and bad, to giving and receiving recognition, favors, and offenses. Reciprocity among neighbors entails rough parity. Closely related is the democratic ethos that shapes who I count as my neighbor in the dance of give and take. For the most part, our standard for engaging (or not) is that the people next door are “good enough” neighbors who don’t disrupt or intrude on our lives at home and are reasonably trustworthy day-to-day. The democracy of everyday life is therefore inclusive – a practical disregard for race or rank, income, ethnicity, or national origin that shapes interactions in the broader society and provides the material for democratic politics.
The American story was from the start a history of neighbors in which reciprocity was a material necessity. Among settlers on the plains and immigrants in the cities, reciprocity was imperative for survival. Neighbors in poor communities today still deal in daily essentials–a ride to work, baby formula or diapers, cash for groceries until the next check arrives. For the most part, though, we are not dependent on people living nearby for safety or basic needs.
Disaster – natural and political upheavals – changes that. Then, “first responders” are not the first to respond. Neighbors hold our lives in their hands. William James captured the scene in an essay on the California earthquake of 1906. Shaken and disoriented, people emerge from their homes into a physical world turned upside down. A Hurricane Katrina survivor made a similar point: “Every one woke up the next morning and everything was different.” Neighbors are the one familiar we encounter. We see our emotions mirrored in one another’s faces. A sort of awakening comes with mutual recognition. People throw off their initial paralysis and passivity; in James’ words, they exhibit “resistance to immobilization.” They “begin to make things happen.”[i]
Neighbors respond to catastrophe immediately and with local knowledge of who is missing under the rubble, who has pets. Proximity matters. Regardless of the comity of relations before the upheaval, able neighbors respond drawing on the experience of the democracy of everyday life during ordinary times. Collective action is improvised as it is, for example, when neighbors band together to confront a chronic noise-maker. They come to decisions and act without a structure of authority, organization, or standard procedures, and without the partisanship, bargaining, exercise of economic influence or power of office that mark political institutions and many voluntary associations of civil society as well. In disasters, neighbors follow no protocols: they “simply rolled in and took on the unknown,” evacuating nearby ruined houses and dragging people out of flooded streets.[ii]
Later, organized volunteer associations are on the scene and local, state, and federal governments undertake large scale action. Sometimes governments produce a secondary political catastrophe as was true of responses to Katrina and the chaotic federal response to the novel coronavirus. Incompetence, corruption, and arrant political irresponsibility resulted in cruel abandonment of citizens struggling to make sense of things and to survive.
Coronavirus in the United States is a disaster on the magnitude of rivers rising nation-wide or a continent of hurricanes. Like other catastrophes it brings suffering and death to the door, or to the door down the block. Except that the physical world is not turned upside down. Confusion and disbelief are the initial reactions to eerie invisible contamination. Above all, deadly unseen contamination strikes fear.
The significance of home is magnified. It is a comparatively safe place from contamination and at the same time neighbors constitute a threat. Defiant neighbors refuse to wear masks or maintain a safe distance at the mailbox or on the sidewalk. Shelter-at-home orders amplify ordinary offenses: children stomping on the ceiling overhead are inescapable; New Yorkers’ patience has run thin, prompting a 42 percent increase in complaints in March 2020 compared to last year, according to NYC Open Data.
The positive side of proximity is amplified too. Neighbors are the people we see from our windows, hear from behind the wall, and encounter when we venture outside. We strain to see them, for sighting is a comfort: we are not alone in isolation and fear. We relish contact and conversation from a distance. Our back and forth is personal and individual. How are you navigating daily tasks? Are you working? What day is it? The meaning of the most mundane bit of reciprocity is heightened: “how are you feeling today?” is not an empty greeting—the question and the response acknowledge the shared reality of disease and death.
And with the virus, neighbors are again called on to provide essentials: shopping for food and medicine or offering advice on technology to children struggling with remote schooling. Improvisation may give way to organized volunteerism by neighbors using networking and social media to draw up lists of people living nearby and schedule assistance. Many neighbors are at home with time on their hands, and social service groups and government aren’t equipped to meet unanticipated personal needs. Neighbors offer emotional essentials—sympathy and diversion—playing music to brighten the day for everyone on the block.
As important as the scientific effort to understand the biology of the Covid-19 virus and to administer public health responses, another human struggle is going on. Bubonic plague, smallpox, scarlet fever, now coronavirus bring unthinkable suffering and create a hunger to find meaning in lives turned upside down. Today, we find it not ( or not only) in God’s wrath and the mystery of providence. Rather, we ask what meaning the experience of pandemic has for the nation collectively, and the meanings attributed to this disaster are often political.
For some interpreters, disaster prompts grand interpretations of human nature made visible by the pandemic. On one hand, rituals of solidarity (standing in doorways at 7 pm to applaud or howl for those who care for the sick) model citizenship and prefigure democratic transformation. As Rebecca Solnit has argued, “a paradise built in hell” will arise from this disease, for the citizens any community would need, “the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough, and generous enough, already exist.”
On the other hand the virus illuminates the fragility of institutional arrangements and brings into view latent Hobbesian anarchy. As Timothy Garten Ash wrote in response to Hurricane Katrina, “The crust of civilization is wafer thin.” The virus unleashes chaos, the ‘nasty and brutish’ atmosphere exacerbated by a president who imposes his personal needs and compromised sense of reality on the nation.
There is a certain fit between utopian and dystopian prophecies and the magnitude and misery of pandemic. But the most brazen assignments of meaning to the virus descend from this high ground to partisanship. They mirror the schisms that afflict democracy in America, and confirm that the often-heard exhortation ‘We are all in this together’ is neither a felt reality nor a force for unity in emergency.
On the Republican side, state and local government closings of workplaces and social events provoke ferocious resistance to shut-downs, indeed, to any mandated protective measure. The governor of Florida defined World Wrestling entertainment as an essential service: Americans “have been starved for content,” he told reporters. Conspiracy entrepreneurs unveil the covert meaning of events and partisan officials broadcast them: globalist Bill Gates profits from a vaccine, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci is a “Hillary lover” out to thwart the president’s “total” authority, and Democrats exaggerate the contagion to justify measures that will devastate the economy right before the election. These partisans convert the ‘deep state’ into the real invisible enemy. They convert reasonable democratic skepticism about the privileged authority of experts into a crude wholesale claim that public health measures are despotic, and encourage defiant protesters to rally at state capitals chanting “live free or die” without irony.
For the Democratic opposition, the disaster owes to decades of radical anti-government ideology, unchecked corporate and political corruption, delegitimation of knowledge-producing institutions, and obstruction of democratic oversight – all reaching an apogee in a president detached from and indifferent to the responsibility of governing. For these partisans, the virus proves once again that disaster is not the great equalizer; like hurricanes, it strikes at random, but our capacity to meet it does not, and economic and racial disparities are glaring. The hope is that these insights will propel a popular political swerve toward universal health care and income equality, revaluation of expertise, and public spirited government that works for its citizens and the world.
Political interpretations of the meaning of the pandemic — whether imagined futures, utopian and dystopian, or partisan interpretations, warranted or unwarranted—cannot make sense of what the stricken suffer, of uncertainty about the long-term effects on survivors and of our haunting fear.
In relation to neighbors, we can find meaning where it actually lies: in the felt reality of disaster—the lived experience of disease, death, and social dislocation run wild. Reciprocity among neighbors speaks to this reality. It turns on exchanges about vulnerability and anxiety about navigating everyday life. Small quotidian acts take on enormous significance. Now, “how are you feeling today?” acknowledges a shared reality, direct and personal. Rooted in the democratic ethos, neighbors provide one another this human necessity, or could.
When partisan divisions and divergent accounts of reality define the meaning of the coronavirus crisis and expert knowledge is disparaged, the risk is that ‘we the people’ will judge democratic government itself to be ineffective and unworthy. When political pathology distorts responses to this emergency it prevents us from doing what American democracy does best—muddle through, using available facts, expertise, experimentation, and self-correction until we find something that works.
But governing is not the only casualty. When political accounts of the virus migrate all the way down from public life and institutions to distort the quasi-independent sphere of life around home, the democracy of everyday life is disfigured as well. Of course, falling off from the democracy of everyday life occurs under many circumstances intrinsic to living in proximity. Here, though, neighbors confront one another with incompatible, mutually incomprehensible, and unbridgeable accounts of the meaning of an all-encompassing disaster. Easy reciprocity and disregard for political differences fall away. And when they do, we recognize that democracy is more deeply than institutional or constitutional standards allow us to see.
But if in disaster neighbors maintain the regulative ideal of the democracy of everyday life, we have a compass for maintaining our democratic bearings. When political life has lost its integrity or its sense, is unjust, weak and diminished, and seemingly beyond the power of citizens to correct, the democracy of everyday life among neighbors is a saving remnant.
-Nancy L. Rosenblum
Nancy L. Rosenblum is Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government emerita at Harvard University. Her most recent book is A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (Princeton 2019), with Russell Muirhead. She is guest editor of Daedalus: Witnessing Climate Change, forthcoming (October 2020).
[i] William James, “On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake”, William James: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1987), 1215-22.
[ii] William Langewiesche, American Ground (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 12.