It is not often that we, as a nation, are able to come together to help each other — those we know and those we don’t know. Yes, we do come together to help in disasters like floods and hurricanes, but those are essentially local or regional events and lack the universal sense of purpose that a nation-wide disaster can instill in a people.
Of course, I am talking about the Covid-19 pandemic and America’s response to it, and frankly, I am heartened by what I hear.
In the 1990s I would talk to people who had long memories of hard times in America. They would bemoan, even in the ‘90s, the decline of civility and unity, and inevitably they would recall their lives in the Great Depression and World War II.
These were times of almost universal hardship; the Depression because people had to make do with very little (but nonetheless often did their best to share what they had), and in World War II when rationing required people to forego even what small pleasures, such as coffee and sugar, in order to help the national war effort. Hard times that brought Americans together.
We are now in a similar situation, one which I hope and think is also bringing Americans together. I base this on what I hear and read because my ability to witness things firsthand is limited, like yours, by isolating myself from social contact.
I have to confess that sheltering in place is not much different from my usual routine, so it’s not that hard for me, but for others it is plenty hard. Many of us have no jobs because of the shutdown, and many urban people are learning the rural joys of cabin fever.
There are those who believe that governors who have used executive orders to place limits on gatherings at public events are abridging the individual’s constitutional rights and they are getting pretty exercised over it. When I think of their concerns, I also think of a sentence in the section of the Montana Constitution on Inalienable Rights. Article II, section 3 if you want to look it up. “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights … In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.”
I think we have to weigh the responsibility of keeping friends and family safe from infection against the seriousness of the suspension of some of our liberties. Even Lincoln, during the Civil War, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a person’s major legal defense against unlawful, arbitrary and indefinite imprisonment. This allowed “suspect” persons to be arrested and imprisoned indefinitely without a trial.
That most Americans take the current orders to heart is reflected in the high approval ratings of those state governors who were quick to impose restrictions, communicate regularly with their constituents, and aggressive in securing help for their states.
According to a poll by Microsoft News, reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of April 4, 2020, Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Mike DeWine of Ohio have the highest approval ratings, 84% and 83% respectively.
They are followed closely by Democratic governors Andy Beshear of Kentucky (who won election in 2018 by 5000 votes) and Andrew Cuomo of New York, both at 81%. Public approval is the reward for strong leadership in times of crisis. Roosevelt and Churchill come to mind as prime examples.
But more importantly, individual Americans understand that they are making a sacrifice with a purpose, and that purpose is to help save the lives of Americans they have never met. I hope it lasts. It would be good to live once more in an America with a positive outlook.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.