A judge’s recent decision to strike down the federal mask mandate on public transportation has spawned immediate analysis about its impact on law and public health. But how Americans respond is also vitally important, because it speaks to the health of the nation’s democracy.
A few years ago, I sat down with Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Yale University who, despite humanity’s challenges, remained convinced that “the arc of our evolutionary history ... bends toward goodness.”
Historically, he said, America has been unique in its ability to create relationships that cut across in-groups. “You might go to a different church from someone else, but you had connections with them,” he said. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville made the same point. Essentially, America was able to throw off autocracy because of its citizens’ tendency to work together.
In short, the genius of America has been its ability to create a sense of community that crossed lines of division. Recent years have severely tested that. The culture wars are dividing America into ideological lines that seem harder and harder to cross. Mask mandates have been one particularly stark example, though there have been many others.
In our recent Q&A with journalist Mónica Guzmán, author of “I Never Thought of It That Way,” she says, "I believe that the most important thing we can do for our democracy is to talk with people who disagree with us, rather than about them.”
So from the perspective of American democracy, the most important questions unspooling from the mask mandate decision might not be about who “won” or “lost.” But whether we are willing to put aside our divisions to treat one another with kindness and humanity.