Cultivating Solidarity

A few years before I retired, I attended an academic conference in Sweden on “Social Citizenship,” a concept commonplace in Europe and utterly foreign to Americans. I came away with a far better understanding of both the concept of “social citizenship” and the importance of a robust social infrastructure.

What do I mean by “social infrastructure”?

The dictionary defines infrastructure as the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” Most of us are familiar with this definition in the context of physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sewers, the electrical grid, public transportation, etc. Within the category of physical infrastructure I’d also include physical amenities like parks and bike lanes. Schools, libraries and museums probably fall somewhere between physical and social infrastructure. Purely social infrastructure includes laws that prevent the strong from preying on the weak, and–importantly– the various programs that make up what we call the social safety net.

What made me think about that conference was a recent essay in the New York Times on the concept of solidarity. It began:

These days, we often hear that democracy is on the ballot. And there’s a truth to that: Winning elections is critical, especially as liberal and progressive forces try to fend off radical right-wing movements. But the democratic crisis that our society faces will not be solved by voting alone. We need to do more than defeat Donald Trump and his allies — we need to make cultivating solidarity a national priority.

For years, solidarity’s strongest associations have been with the left and the labor movement — a term invoked at protests and on picket lines. But its roots are much deeper, and its potential implications far more profound, than we typically assume. Though we rarely speak about it as such, solidarity is a concept as fundamental to democracy as its better-known cousins: equality, freedom and justice. Solidarity is simultaneously a bond that holds society together and a force that propels it forward. After all, when people feel connected, they are more willing to work together, to share resources and to have one another’s backs. Solidarity weaves us into a larger and more resilient “we” through the precious and powerful sense that even though we are different, our lives and our fates are connected.

Social solidarity is the antithesis of the tribalism that is tearing America apart. The essay goes into considerable detail about the efforts of the political Right to undermine connections between groups, and also faults leftists who downplay the important role of policy in shaping public sensibilities. 

Laws and social programs not only shape material outcomes; they also shape us, informing public perceptions and preferences, and generating what scholars call policy feedback loops….. Policies can either foster solidarity and help repair the divides that separate us or deepen the fissures.

I have repeatedly argued that American solidarity depends upon the allegiance of our diverse tribes to what I call the “American Idea”–the governing philosophy underpinning the Constitution and Bill of Rights. E Pluribus Unum envisions that philosophy as an overarching belief system that unifies Americans while respecting our differences.

I have also argued that America’s inadequate and bureaucratic social safety net ignores a fundamental precept of social solidarity: the concept of membership.

Remember that American Express commercial proclaiming that “membership has its privileges”? Several  countries, not just those in Scandinavia, base their social programs on the theory citizens are “members.” 

In today’s America, the Right is intent upon excluding disfavored minorities from “membership,” insisting that only White Christians can be “real Americans”–aka members.

The widespread belief that not everyone is entitled to be considered a “member” is one of the central flaws of America’s social welfare system. You can see it in the dramatic differences in attitudes about means-tested welfare (negative) versus Social Security and Medicare (positive). When a benefit is universal, it unifies rather than exacerbating tribal animosities. I’ve never heard anyone complain “those people are driving on roads paid for with my tax dollars!”

One of the great virtues of a Universal Basic Income is that it would be universal. Not only would it eliminate the costs of America’s enormous welfare bureaucracy and the manifest inequities and humiliations of the present programs, it would avoid the stereotyping of recipients that deprives them of human dignity and excludes them from “membership.”

What if government provided a social infrastructure within which all members would be guaranteed a subsistence livelihood, access to health care, a substantive education and an equal place at the civic table, and in return, would exact “dues:” higher taxes and the discharge of civic duties like voting, jury service and a stint of public service?

A girl can dream….


  1. The fact that we lack real statesmen is, I think, largely attributable to the SCOTUS decision – led by the bafflingly irresponsible Antonin Scalia – to allow money to speak as a voice with the amount of money being the volume setting. Our social infrastructure means nothing to a capitalist let loose in the halls of government. Only profits matter to these people. They don’t recognize any tribe but that which has dollar bills as its logo.

    Advertising, being fostered and funded by the same capitalists do everything in their power to make the consumer society into “me first” society. As a former Squibb Laboratories CEO once said, “We’re not in the business to cure people. We’re in business to make money.” That from a pharmaceutical company leader. Does anyone wonder why U.S. drug prices are multiples more expensive than anywhere else? These guys have a simple plan: “How much will you pay to not hurt or feel better?”

    How do we build a social infrastructure that saves democracy from an attitude like that?

  2. “What if government provided a social infrastructure…” America appears to have lost the “social infrastructure” which most of us grew up in; the days of active “It takes a village to raise a child.”, not being aware of that African adage, is gone. It was simple humanity in neighborhoods when we looked out for one another; we knew who needed some form of help, we knew who had a new baby, we knew who had lost a loved one and needed support. This was not only true of watching over other people’s children’s safety but being aware of the elderly who needed to be watched over. We have lost the ability to care about those beyond our own four walls and their politics, rather than their human condition, are what we watch for. This same sad truth is now found within our families and friends; I have seen a few instances in my local Kroger at the checkout when someone is removing items from their cart that they cannot pay for and others, including myself, have taken care of their shortage. A small example of “the village” mind set from our past, we didn’t ask their politics or their religion and their race wasn’t an issue. Just 10 short years ago, April 21, 2014, (pre-Trump era) I was attacked, permanently injured and robbed on my own driveway at 11:00 in the morning. This was covered by local news channels and on Facebook for two weeks and total strangers in stores, bank, Social Security office, DMV and on streets recognized my battered face and offered all forms of help. Ten short years to lose the American dream of democracy and our “social infrastructure” under the guidance of one fascist-minded man and his cadre of MAGAs, White Nationalists and their Freedom Caucus who have taken over the government they lost the presidency of in the 2020 election.

    Our governmental body once consisted of two major parties who, at different levels, tried to provide that “social infrastructure” for all Americans. We are now facing a frightening possibility of becoming victims of a dictatorship based government; one reason is their “Solidarity” of remaining united under the misnomer of Republican leadership.

    My dreams have become a living nightmare keeping me awake nights.

  3. I would add to the discussion the point that the division that is the current state of our civics is due to the manipulation of our enemies from foreign actors, namely Russia, and is being pushed by the disinformation propaganda machine of Fox “news” and related media, and amplified by the MAGA wing of the current GOP.

    I had not considered that one of the benefits of a UBI is the elimination of the bureaucracy of the welfare system as it currently exists. That is interesting.

  4. As you allude to, the public welfare stopped being popular among conservatives when the concept of the public was enlarged to include Black people, among others. Just look at the relative popularity of private schools and public pools in right wing circles since 1964.

  5. Required reading on this subject – where we are didn’t happen overnight and isn’t by any means just about politics.

    – “Amusing Ourselves to Death” – Neil Postman, 1984 (ironic date!)
    – “Bowling Alone”” – Robert Putnam, 2000

  6. UBI, coupled with Universal Healthcare, would certainly help along those lines of a social infrastructure. The wealth of this country is becoming more concentrated in the hands of the few. Meanwhile, the minimum wage has been stuck for years. This disparity is further driving wedges into the US.

    Someone mentioned propaganda being a problem. Remember, the goal of US leadership (the oligarchy) is to divide and conquer. Keep the majority divided so they can’t use their power to come after the oligarchy. If enough people stopped hating their neighbors and became unified, we could get more done. There is a reason unions have been dismantled and replaced with oligarchy-controlled bureaucracies.

    We are isolating ourselves from the world because the unipolar world has come to an end. The US is a smaller powerhouse on the world’s stage. We now have an unsustainable number of military bases worldwide, costing over 1 trillion dollars. Not to mention, the unlimited wars are no longer uniting Americans. Less and less folks are rallying behind the military. War used to unite Americans, but we are fatigued. Its only purpose is for money laundering schemes.

    As we isolate, seeing how our government responds to our social infrastructure will be interesting. Will they look to unite or censor dissident voices giving the appearance of unity?

  7. UBI would need to be implemented VERY carefully, lest it become a Trojan horse for assistance elimination. $1,000 per month per person sounds like a good idea, until you factor in the loss of SNAP, housing assistance, grants to food pantries and other assistance programs, and the myriad other programs which will vanish.

  8. While you folks dream of “Medicare for All” and UBI the MAGAs will be steadily and singularly marching on over the mass of the fearful. Much bigger problem (and MUCH better chance of fixing) to deal with that….

  9. As I noted in a response to Sheila’s blog a few weeks ago, I once visited a very rich lawyer in Stockholm who set me straight on the mechanics of democratic socialism, but that was in 1975. Sweden has since been invaded by capitalist thinking, but certain aspects of democratic socialism have (thankfully) survived.

    Sheila’s views of social solidarity simultaneous with rejection of tribalism make a lot of sense, and that is probably one of the reasons we have not adopted it, since policymaking by our Congress depends upon greed (see trillions in tax cuts to the rich) and not “sense.” Strange, isn’t it, that giving trillions to the rich is not socialism but adopting programs to provide food and medical care for the rest of us is.

    Another reason is that proposed adoption of such a policy would be attacked as the dreaded “socialism” by status quo exponents who have succeeded in making that term the forerunner of communism when from European political history we know that socialists and communists are bitter enemies. The capitalists, who own our means of communication, make Goebbels sound like an amateur in making a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth a political issue when it is primarily a bread and butter issue. Libertarians and communists have to eat, too.

    Truth be told, we already have socialism in full flower – for the rich.

  10. Pierolapithecus, MAY have been the precursor to the human group, and, it is believed, survived, and thrived because it experienced something novel at the time, empathy.
    My email tag, as previously mentioned here, is “I am because we are,” a major concept of the Umbunto, of Africa.
    Those of the MAGA set believe, instead, that “I am because I am, it’s all about me,” an evolutionary throwback with, I suggest, only a dead end in the end. Of course, they would take the rest of us with them, if unchecked
    Lester, you have a good point, there.

  11. Building solidarity going into the presidential election is vital for preserving the democracy that we do have.
    Solidarity is the main strength of Maga fed by their insulated propaganda silos, but their weakness is they’ve got the facts wrong. They are a forceful minority willing to use any means to achieve their goal of authoritarian power over all Americans.
    I would like to see students’ loans forgiven especially in areas where they serve the public good, and don’t have the prospect of becoming rich off their wages. Jobs like teaching, nursing, librarians etc. Who wouldn’t want their child’s teacher or the nurses taking care of loved ones while ill being comfortable while doing their jobs?

  12. Sheila, Sweden is a very good example of a capitalist country with a generous safety net. Interestingly, Sweden has a large number of billionaires for a country its size. This is despite the fact that income tax rates in Sweden are much higher than the US. Everyone in Sweden pays their fair share of taxes to support their safety net.

    Often we throw around words like socialism and capitalism without defining what they mean.

  13. Republicans make socialism the bogeyman. Yet, how many MAGA enjoy social programs supported through Democrats or bipartisan efforts in the past. SNAP…Medicare..Medicaid..SSI…SSD.. Social Security benefits…for themselves or children…lunch programs What about govt loans and veteran programs. Journalists might ask MAGA members about these programs. I can get mine but you can’t get yours. It’s ok to bail out auto industry but don’t bail out students . When a candidate for governor wants to eliminate income tax , just proposing that shows where Republicans are thinking.

  14. Americans have become part of a sick thread running through human history of feeling childishly empowered by the suffering of others.

    Our acceptance of allowing our government to be used as a facilitator for genocide reveals us for who we really are— not what we pretend to be.

    There can be no solidarity when we have become ice cold stone toward humanity itself.

  15. Ian. Americans are not better or worse than people in other countries. Every large population has its hero’s and scoundrels. Each of us is a blend of many characteristics. Your blanket condemnation is just not consistent with reality.

  16. I’m with you all the way on this, Sheila. I read the NY Times piece you reference (in Sunday’s Perspective section), clipped it, and am prepared to make good use of it. I don’t think DeToqueville used the word, but much of what he admired about the America he visited had to do with variations on the solidarity theme. To have a viable social infrastructure has to be seen as a critical element in sustaining democracy in a pluralistic society. We have to learn how to do that.

    It’s curious that David French, just yesterday, provided a sense of where that solidarity should take shape, for starters, with the middle range of citizens, i.e., those not on either end of the political spectrum who, he reports (with evidence) a significant number who are disengaging because they are fed up with the polarizing, compounded by Cable News and social media, and political infighting, among other factors that divide and disappoint. The effect is they don’t seek the information they need to make informed decisions and revert to previous positions and affiliations, so, if they vote, they will be doing so from views/positions of the past not from the current, essential information they need to make better informed choices. Not a good direction for the nation.

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