The ties that bind a nation: Unifying narratives to the rescue?

Frank Augstein/AP
People stroll on The Long Walk toward Windsor Castle in England, where the queen's husband, Prince Philip, died last Friday. His death provoked a flood of media coverage that many Britons found excessive.
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Once upon a time, it would have raised no eyebrows. When Prince Philip, the Queen of England’s husband, died last week, the airwaves were filled for 36 hours with news coverage and admiring tributes.

But Britons switched off in droves. One hundred thousand of them even complained to the BBC. Not because they didn’t like Philip, but because he was just the sort of old-style symbol that used to bind people together, but which no longer play that role.

Why We Wrote This

The traditional shared narratives and institutions that used to bind societies together are losing their luster. Prompted by the pandemic, world leaders are seeking to engender a new sense of common purpose.

Those bonds have been fraying for several decades. They have grown thinner, faster, as the internet, smartphones, and social media have nibbled away at shared narratives and created a more atomized landscape where we can each create our individual narratives.

Political leaders around the world, pressed by a pandemic that demands people think of each other, not just of themselves, are seeing to shore up the old unifying bonds, or to forge new ones. President Joe Biden looks to America’s history to foster a unified national spirit. His challenge is to root that spirit in today’s world.

It must have seemed simply the right thing to do. When Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, died last Friday shortly before his 100th birthday, Britain’s broadcasters tore up their usual schedules. For 36 hours, they filled the airwaves with tributes, special news coverage, and a train of admiring retrospectives.

Yet a huge number of Britons turned off or tuned out. More than a hundred thousand went so far as to contact the BBC to complain.

This wasn’t out of personal animus toward Philip. Something deeper was at work, a trend that’s been developing for decades, not just in Britain, but in America and other countries. It has accelerated in recent years, and has now, with the pandemic, assumed critical importance.

Why We Wrote This

The traditional shared narratives and institutions that used to bind societies together are losing their luster. Prompted by the pandemic, world leaders are seeking to engender a new sense of common purpose.

It’s the weakening hold of many of the old institutions, symbols, and traditions – and the shared narratives – that have helped bind people and nations together.

With the pandemic magnifying the need for individuals to care not just for themselves and their families, but for their fellow countrymen and women, political leaders are seeking to shore up these unifying bonds or to forge new ones.

In Britain, Elizabeth still enjoys enormous popular affection. Last spring, when Britain was under lockdown, COVID-19 cases were surging, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson had the virus, it was the queen to whom he turned to bring the nation together. In a rare televised address, she praised frontline workers, comforted the isolated and bereaved, and said, “I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it.”

In the island nation of New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern drew on the pandemic challenge itself to forge a similar sense of unity, describing her country as a “team of 5 million.”

In the U.S., an early thrust of President Joe Biden’s has been to try to bridge the partisan divide with unifying themes: shared mourning for lives lost, for instance, and a message that harks back to an earlier era in American politics, that “there is nothing we can’t do if we do it together.”

Still, the old bonds have been fraying for a long time.

As news broke of Philip’s death, I was deep into a remarkable 750-page tome on America in the 1950s, the decade in which Elizabeth ascended to the throne.

The book is called “The Fifties.” Written by Pulitzer-winning journalist David Halberstam, it’s full of wonderful pen portraits of figures redolent of that era, from Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy to Elvis Presley and Hugh Hefner. But the wider story is of a decade very different than it seemed.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/FILE
A group of friends play music for passersby under cherry blossoms in Bethesda, Maryland. Shared values and narratives have been losing their influence over society, and in the face of the pandemic, world leaders are seeking to restore frayed bonds.

Yes, he writes, it was a time of growing affluence, a rising middle class, in which “few Americans doubted the essential goodness of their society.”

But not least because of the new impact of television – which initially reinforced a new, suburban vision of the American dream, but soon allowed more discordant narratives to emerge – there were the unmistakable rumblings of the wholesale challenge to accepted verities that would erupt in the ’60s. Also, the first stirrings of dissent and protest around a group then largely excluded from the national narrative: African Americans.

The centrifugal forces have only intensified since. If TV played a key role in the American ’50s, it was a minor tremor compared to the impact in our own century of the internet, smartphones, video streaming, and social media.

Like television, all these were initially expected to bring us closer together. They still can, and in some ways still do. But the shared narrative, the agreed story that we once told ourselves about one another as a community or country, has given way to a more atomized landscape in which we can each create individualized narratives of our own.

All that’s here to stay. But the pandemic has provided a powerful reminder of the importance of a shared story. Those countries that did best at containing the pandemic, such as New Zealand, galvanized a sense of common cause against a common challenge.

In those places that have done worst, like the U.S., appeals to citizens to protect one another as well as themselves by taking precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing have often fallen on deaf ears, with many individuals deciding to chart their own course instead.

Whether a new sense of common purpose will emerge – and if so, whether it lasts – is not yet clear. It’s telling, perhaps, that the most eloquent voices championing that cause have sought inspiration less in the future than the past. In her national TV address Elizabeth recalled how, as a young child, she had delivered a similar message to children separated from their parents by war in 1940.

President Biden, too, has looked to history for examples of a unified nationwide spirit. A few days ago, my old high-school friend David Ignatius wrote about Mr. Biden’s foreign policy in The Washington Post. His words could equally have applied to the president’s broader domestic message. He portrayed the president as “a genial, white-haired guy driving a Ferrari” whose ideas about the world were “rooted in the past.”

But he added, more hopefully, that this attitude was tempered by “a very modern view of the art of the possible.”

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