Sharing a common fate
Frazier graduated from the UC Berkeley School of Law. He is currently serving as a judicial clerk in Montana. His views are his own.
When community members believe they share a common fate, they are capable of incredible acts of sacrifice, collaboration, and innovation. History pages are lined with examples of American troops going to extraordinary lengths to protect one another – feats made possible because every soldier faced the same threat, relied on the same resources, and shared the same goal. A Special Forces detachment tasked with destroying Russian supply depots deep within East Germany serves as one such example. Despite being assigned a “suicide mission,” a member of the detachment recalls that “no one wavered in their commitment to face and deter the Soviet war machine.”
The power of a common fate to spur collective action is possible even when the size of the community grows. Minnesotans, for instance, have worked together to provide food, shelter, and opportunity to refugees from around the world – consider that 15,000 Korean adoptees have ended up in Minnesota since the Korean War and that the North Star State is home to the largest concentrations of Hmong, Somali, and Karen people from Southeast Asia in the country. Such extensive support for so many people is simply not possible unless a community collectively decides to take on a common cause.
Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
A common fate can even inspire individual sacrifice at a national scale. During World War II, when powerful enemies threatened American interests around the globe, members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) took the place of the millions of farmworkers who had gone to war and, as a result, helped maintain the nation’s food production. Notably, the WLA started on an informal basis – women around the country merely stepped up when they heard pleas from farmers in danger of losing crops. When the government formalized the program, women continued to rise to the occasion despite low pay and long days. As summarized by Amy Tikkanen of Britannica, “Most workers did not join the WLA to make money but wanted to contribute to the war effort.”
In the absence of a common fate, collective action becomes a lot harder. When a lifeboat exists for some but not all passengers on a sinking ship, those fortunate enough to see a way to survive have little incentive to stop and think about the fate of those searching for anything to hold onto.
Collective action in response to a common fate is more difficult today because income inequality has given elites the equivalent of life yachts – megaships that withstand tsunamis – while the rest of us attempt to blow up our floaties. The fact of the matter is that a growing segment of Americans simply do not face the same challenges as the rest of us. Back in 1971, 61 percent of Americans lived in middle-income households and brought in about 62 percent of the nation’s aggregate income.
Fast forward to 2019—the middle class has declined by ten percentage points to 51 percent and the class’s share of the nation’s income has dipped to around 43 percent. Over that same period, Americans in the upper-income class jumped from 14 percent to 20 percent and their share of the nation’s income climbed from approximately 29 percent in 1971 to nearly 50 percent in 2019.
You may share my initial reaction to this information and think, “More than half of Americans are in the middle class? That seems like a large enough group to rally around a common fate?”
A sad but true lesson of history squashed my hope. The lesson is that whether the “elite” adopt the common fate of the “riffraff” has an outsized impact on that community’s ability to collectively act. A survey of the rise and fall of hegemonic powers—think the Roman Empire, Britain for a while, the US for a spell—by Michael Mazaar of RAND included the finding that elites play a “critical role” in “shaping national destiny, especially when they view themselves as full members of the larger society . . . with a responsibility to ensure general harmony and development.” In support of this argument, Mazaar quotes Jacob Burkhardt who summarizes that members of the nobility during the Italian Renaissance “habitually mix[ed] with other classes on a footing of perfect equality, and [sought] its natural allies in culture and intelligence.”
Regrettably, I see little evidence that America’s elite have opted to take on any responsibility for the well-being of the rest of us. I also have few examples of elites intentionally “mixing” with other classes. In fact, Zoom, Uber Black, and an abundance of other services and apps seem to cater to a robust market for elites remaining as far away from the rest of America as possible.
Collective action hinges on a common fate. And, a common fate depends on elites adopting that fate as their own. A massive cultural shift is necessary for elites to fulfill their vital role. What’s clear is that the perpetuation of the status quo will result in a future where the elites sail over problems that sink the rest of us.
A shock to the system that jolts elites into joining ranks with the rest of us could come in the form of mandatory national service. A two-year program that sent every 18-year-old to a part of America wholly opposite of their own would at least create an opportunity for the next generation of elites to be aware of the problems facing the majority of Americans. Obviously, this program would provide a litany of other benefits to participants and communities across America. For instance, if the program included a range of service opportunities, such as time with AmeriCorps, Report for America, or Teach for America, then participants could receive valuable training that may influence their career decisions. And, an influx of aspiring journalists and educators would surely fill some gaps in communities across the country.
Mandatory national service is necessary given the dearth of other opportunities for the upper class to mix with the rest of America. Higher education institutions no longer provide such opportunities. Elementary and secondary schools similarly draw from fairly homogeneous socioeconomic areas. And, our Armed Forces--made up of less than two million Americans--are simply too small to allow for meaningful mixing.
Additionally, as I can personally attest to, the Armed Forces may deny applicants for arbitrary and unnecessary reasons (in my case, the Navy Judge Advocate Corps dismissed me as a result of an eating disorder I experienced in the fourth grade), which makes it even less likely to facilitate the sort of mixing necessary to shock elites into solidarity with other classes. It was beyond disheartening to have my attempt to serve alongside Americans committed to our national project denied. If a culture of service and a communal spirit is going to spread, then there must be numerous and accessible opportunities to serve.
This opinion piece will not fully dive into the pros and cons of a mandatory national service program, nor discuss the ins and outs of what such a program would entail. What matters most is that mandatory national service may result in elites giving a damn – mixing, mingling, and learning from and with Americans from other classes. It’s true that such a program could not guarantee such a shift, but it should be one part of a larger effort to nudge (if not push) elites into situations where they’ll be exposed to the plight of the common man and woman.
America faces problems that demand collective action. Climate chaos will not be stemmed by a few people using metal straws. Civic fatalism will not be reversed by partisan Americans tweeting more. The technology that unleashes innovation and economic growth across the US will not be developed by a few dudes in a garage.
One key step to motivating a large, diverse community to sacrifice and collaborate is developing a shared belief in a common fate -- that everyone is “in this together.” As long as America’s elite are practically and emotionally removed from the fate of everyone else, no such common fate can give us the necessary kick in the pants to work together. So here’s to any and all programs that introduce more Americans to one another -- rich and poor, urban and rural, Democrat and Republican. A national service program seems like a good first step to making sure Americans feel like they face similar threats, rely on similar resources, and share the same goals.