Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Will We Look Back Fondly on This Terrifying Period?

It may seem hard to believe that the time of a deadly pandemic might one day be remembered wistfully by those who lived through it. But something like that has happened before in American life.

A few years ago, I began one of these columns by quoting one of Yogi Berra's most celebrated adages: Prediction is hard, especially when it's about the future.

Yogi was right when he said that (assuming he actually did say it), and I was right in recognizing its wisdom. But it's even more true at the moment, when we are in the midst of a national crisis whose end we cannot foresee and whose consequences we cannot foretell. Perhaps we will grow closer to each other, or perhaps we will continue to maintain social as well as physical distance. Maybe our central cities will depopulate and grow quiet, or maybe they will experience a surge of pent-up energy. One guess is about as good as another.

But there is one prediction I think I can make with reasonable confidence: We will embark on a period of heightened nostalgia.

Nostalgia is pretty much a constant of modern civilized life. It recurs in every generation. Mostly, though, it is a matter of middle-aged people longing for the world they recall (often inaccurately) from their childhood. In particular, most of us as we grow older indulge in sentimental memories of a communal closeness and social order we believe infused our childhood and adolescence.

But there is another, quite different form of nostalgia, and it is highly relevant to the present moment. It relates to societal upheaval and painful crises that the society struggles to overcome. Sometimes it is generated by rapid cultural change: The 1970s are often identified as the most nostalgic of recent American decades, in part due to fond remembrances of the stable, orderly years that the rebellions of the 1960s had brought crashing to a halt.

Yet this is not the whole story. When older Americans were asked in the 1970s about their nostalgia, the decade they most often mentioned was not the 1950s. It was the 1930s. And their reminiscences tended to focus not on the giddy times that preceded the 1929 stock-market crash and ensuing Depression, but on the Depression years themselves — the solidarity, communal identity and helping institutions. Odd as it may seem, these people were looking back with nostalgia on what objectively speaking were the worst years of their lives.

You may question this, but there is plenty of evidence for it. In 1972, Robert Nisbet, the distinguished Columbia University sociologist, wrote a long article called The 1930s: America's Major Nostalgia. He and others explained the attraction to the 1930s as remembrance of a time when ordinary Americans felt themselves in the throes of a challenge, and were invigorated by that challenge. The historian Richard Pells, writing from the perspective of 40 years' distance, argued that in the Depression years, "in the midst of tragedy, there was for some a kind of euphoria — a mood of utopian optimism that was as unideological as the opposite sense of impending doom. If the old order was dying, the new was being born."

In other words, there was a sense of community that shined through the hardship. This is why the aging Americans of the 1970s felt such an unlikely loyalty to the years they spent in Depression America. Their recollection was that among the carnage, social bonds had remained intact and even grown stronger.

A similar form of remembrance came to exist among Britons who suffered through the murderous German air attacks in 1940 and 1941 that came to be known collectively as the Blitz. It's true that as the decades passed, there was a certain amount of nostalgia for the peaceful society and habits of life that prevailed before the Nazis started dropping bombs. But there was an equally fond remembrance of life under the Blitz itself, no matter how dangerous and stressful that life was. "People almost reveled in the dangers of the situation and gloried in standing alone," was the way one cabinet official came to remember the crisis. Winston Churchill himself seemed to agree. Years after the war, Churchill was asked which year of his life he would most like to relive. "1940," he said. "Every time, every time."

IT WOULD BE A MISTAKE to draw too much of a parallel among the Depression, the Blitz and the coronavirus. But when a crisis is over, people don't just feel nostalgic about pre-crisis life. They develop fond memories of life during the event itself. So one question we might ask ourselves now is whether we can find a way to put those feelings to productive use.

Almost any crisis, including the present one, calls forth gestures of community and loyalty that seem to emerge from a swamp of societal self-absorption. Some of these are very small, such as the efforts of local residents to help elderly neighbors cope with their heightened vulnerability to COVID-19. Some are less tangible but much larger. Among these are the respect that ordinary citizens feel for people and institutions they had been apt to disparage: medical professionals and other caregivers; civic leaders who demonstrate an enhanced sense of purpose; governors and mayors who insist on following the best-documented advice from public-health experts regardless of contrary statements from the White House and restless protests from their own constituents.

Will these examples of strengthened community persist beyond the pandemic itself? I can't promise that. But it's not unreasonable to suggest that the solidarity of Americans during the economic hardship of the 1930s eased the way for the communitarian patriotism of the World War II years that followed. The solidarity of Londoners during the Blitz didn't diminish when the bombs stopped falling. It persisted until the last day of the war.

It is no secret that the bonds of community in America are perceived to have atrophied in the past generation. We've seen the growth of an intellectual consensus — from Robert Putnam's 1995 essay "Bowling Alone," which documented the decline of civic participation and recreation; to Marc Dunkelman's 2014 book The Vanishing Neighbor, which traced the erosion of casual but vital neighborhood friendships; to Yuval Levin's recent work, A Time to Rebuild, arguing for the revival of robust institutions — that American communal life has lapsed into a moribund state over the past generation. "An attractive community," Levin writes, "plainly provides a venue for genuine flourishing. But such community requires healthy institutions that attract our loyalty and devotion." We are seeing at least a flickering of institutional revival in these very troubled weeks.

Maybe it's asking a lot to think a post-pandemic rise in communal nostalgia might help to solve our long-standing communitarian deficiencies. Old-fashioned community depended to a great extent on physical proximity. That will be hard to revive at a time when some form of social distancing remains a feature of our everyday lives. But community revival doesn't require us to swarm together in singles bars and mosh pits. It's undoubtedly true that after the pandemic eases, more people will be working from home than were doing so before. But that won't eliminate their desire for social contact; it will generate creative new ways to experience that contact.

States and cities can't foster a new community with legislative mandates and executive decrees. But they can contribute. Cities can make their streets more congenial to pedestrians without forcing them to huddle unsafely. Public spaces can be retrofitted or designed to bring people together without placing them on top of each other. We can devote more of our public resources to supporting the restaurants and retail stores that remain crucial to urban social life. We can come to trust public institutions that behave with prudence and courage, as we are starting to do.

A pandemic is a terrible thing. It may also be a terrible thing to waste.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
From Our Partners