The Democracy of Everyday Life in Disaster

Holding Our Lives in Their Hands

in Democratic Theory
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  • 1 Harvard University, USA


Neighbors inhabit a distinct social sphere whose regulative ideal is the democracy of everyday life. Its chief elements are reciprocity and a practical disregard for the differences and inequalities that shape interactions in the broader society and in democratic politics. The democracy of everyday life has heightened significance during disasters. Neighbors hold our lives in their hands. But COVID-19 differs from physical disasters in ways that alter neighbor interactions. Contamination makes relations more fearful at the same time that isolation makes them more valuable. When the meaning attributed to the virus is not shared experience of disease and mortality but rabid partisanship, neighbor relations become distorted. This degradation of the democracy of everyday life signals that democracy itself is imperiled more deeply than political paralysis, corruption, and institutional failure suggest.

Neighbors inhabit a distinct social sphere. After we take account of organized political life, work, voluntary associations, social circles, friends, and family, there is this remainder. Its importance owes to the depth and intensity of interests and values we attach to life at home, in proximity to neighbors. The unique power neighbors hold over our lives is explained by that one word: home. There, ordinary vices and virtues are on display, mundane trespasses and kindnesses are inescapable, contests and claims are concrete and immediate. We don't have to reinvent the terms of give and take on every occasion, though, for our many and varied relations with neighbors have a structure: the democracy of everyday life (Rosenblum 2016).

The democracy of everyday life is a regulative ideal distinct from public principles of justice or fairness, from the legalism of rights, and from civic virtue. In some matters neighbor relations operate under the shadow of the law, still, it is hard to think of any other sustained social relation that floats so free of the institutions, rules, processes, and shared purposes that define roles in other settings. Democratic life is pluralistic, carried on in many spheres that are not perfectly congruent with one another. That is, the good neighbor is not the good citizen writ small.

The principal norm among neighbors is reciprocity. Reciprocity is loose and open-ended. It applies to good turns and bad, to giving and receiving recognition (“how are you feeling today?”), favors, and offenses. Reciprocity among neighbors entails rough parity. Closely related is the democratic ethos that shapes who I count as my neighbor in the dance of give and take. For the most part, our standard for engaging (or not) is that the people next door are “good enough” neighbors who don't disrupt or intrude on our lives at home and are reasonably trustworthy day-to-day. The democracy of everyday life is inclusive—a practical disregard for race or rank, income, ethnicity, or national origin that mark relations in the broader society and provide the content of democratic politics.

The American story was from the start a history of neighbors in which reciprocity was a material necessity. Among settlers on the plains and immigrants in the cities, reciprocity was imperative for survival. Neighbors in poor communities today still deal in daily essentials—a ride to work, baby formula or diapers, cash for groceries until the next check arrives. For the most part, though, we are not dependent on people living nearby for safety or basic needs.

Disaster—natural and political upheavals—changes that. Then, “first responders” are not the first. Neighbors hold our lives in their hands. William James captured the scene in an essay on the California earthquake of 1906. Shaken and disoriented, people emerge from their homes into a physical world turned upside down. A Hurricane Katrina survivor made the point: “Everyone woke up the next morning and everything was different.” Neighbors are the one familiar we encounter. We see our emotions mirrored in one another's faces. A sort of awakening comes with mutual recognition. People throw off their initial paralysis and passivity; in James’ words, they exhibit “resistance to immobilization.” They “begin to make things happen” (James 1987: 1215–1222).

Neighbors respond to catastrophe immediately and with local knowledge of who is missing under the rubble, who has pets. Proximity matters. “Right now” is totally absorbing. Regardless of the comity of relations before the upheaval, able neighbors respond drawing on their experience of the democracy of everyday life during ordinary times. Collective action is improvised as it is when neighbors band together to confront a chronic noise-maker, say. They come to decisions and act without a structure of authority, organization, or standard procedures, and without the partisanship, bargaining, exercise of economic influence, or power of office that mark political institutions and many voluntary associations of civil society as well. In disasters, neighbors follow no protocols: they “simply rolled in and took on the unknown” (Langewiesche 2002: 12), evacuating nearby ruined houses and dragging people out of flooded streets.

Later, organized volunteer associations are on the scene and local, state, and federal governments undertake large scale action. Sometimes governments produce a secondary political catastrophe as was true of responses to Katrina and of the chaotic federal response to the novel coronavirus. Incompetence, corruption, and arrant political irresponsibility resulted in cruel abandonment of citizens struggling to make sense of things and to survive.

The coronavirus pandemic is a disaster on the magnitude of rivers rising nation-wide or a continent of hurricanes. Like other catastrophes it brings suffering and death to the door, or to the door down the block. Except that the physical world is not turned upside down. Confusion and disbelief are the initial reactions to eerie invisible contamination. Above all, deadly unseen contamination strikes fear.

The significance of home is magnified. It is a comparatively safe place from contamination and at the same time neighbors constitute a threat. Defiant neighbors refuse to wear masks or maintain a safe distance at the mailbox or on the sidewalk. Shelter-at-home orders amplify ordinary offenses: children stomping on the ceiling overhead are inescapable; New Yorkers’ patience has run thin, prompting a 42 percent increase in complaints in March, 2020 compared to the year before, according to NYC Open Data.

The positive side of proximity is amplified too. Neighbors are the people we see from our windows, hear from behind the wall, and encounter when we venture outside. We strain to see them, for sighting is a comfort: we are not alone in isolation and fear. We relish contact and conversation from a distance. Our back and forth is personal and individual. How are you navigating daily tasks? Are you working? What day is it? The meaning of the most mundane bit of reciprocity is heightened: “how are you feeling today?” is not an empty greeting—the question and the response acknowledge the shared reality of disease and death.

And with the virus, neighbors are again called on to provide essentials: shopping for food and medicine or offering advice on technology to children struggling with remote schooling. Improvisation may give way to organized volunteerism by neighbors using networking and social media to draw up lists of people living nearby and schedule assistance. Many neighbors are at home with time on their hands, and social service groups and government aren't equipped to meet unanticipated needs. Neighbors offer emotional essentials—pleasure and diversion—playing music for dancing on rooftops or in the street—at a safe distance from one another.

As important as the struggle to understand the biology of COVID-19 and to administer public health responses is another human struggle. Bubonic plague, smallpox, scarlet fever, now the coronavirus bring unthinkable suffering and create a hunger to find meaning in lives turned upside down. Today, we find it not (or not only) in God's wrath and the mystery of providence. Rather, we ask what meaning the experience of pandemic has for the nation collectively, and the meanings attributed to this disaster are often political.

For some, disaster prompts grand interpretations of human nature and of the future the pandemic has made visible. The meaning lies in utopian and dystopian prophecies. On one hand, rituals of solidarity (standing in doorways at 7pm to applaud or howl for those who care for the sick) model citizenship and prefigure democratic transformation. “A paradise built in hell” will arise from this disease, for the citizens any community would need, “the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough, and generous enough, already exist” (Solnit 2009: 2).

On the other hand the virus illuminates the fragility of institutional arrangements and brings our latent Hobbesian anarchy. “The crust of civilization is wafer thin” (Ash 2005). The virus reveals the chaos, the “nasty and brutish” atmosphere exacerbated by a president unchecked and able to impose his personal needs and compromised sense of reality on the nation.

The most brazen assignments of meaning to the virus descend from this high ground of human nature to partisanship; they reflect the schisms that afflict democracy in America. “We are all in this together” is neither a felt reality nor a force for political unity in emergency.

On one side state and local government closings of workplaces and social events provoke ferocious resistance to shut-downs and conflict over what activities are essential and exempt from regulation. The governor of Florida defined World Wrestling entertainment vital: Americans are bored by reruns of televised sports, “people have been starved for content” (Fernandez 2020). Conspiracy entrepreneurs pronounce the real meaning of events and partisan officials broadcast them: globalist Bill Gates unleashed the virus to profit from a vaccine, whistleblowing Inspectors General exploit the disease to undermine Trump, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony S. Fauci is a “Hillary lover” out to thwart the president's “total” authority, and Democrats exaggerate the contagion to justify measures that will devastate the economy right before 2020 election. These partisans convert the “deep state” into the real invisible enemy. They convert reasonable democratic skepticism about deference to the authority of experts into a crude wholesale claim that scientists are a malignant political force. Public health measures are cast as despotic and defiant protesters rally at state capitals chanting “live free or die” without irony.

For the partisan opposition, the meaning of the disaster is proof of decades of radical anti-government ideology, unchecked corporate and political corruption, delegitimation of knowledge-producing institutions, and obstruction of democratic oversight reaching its apogee in a president detached from governing and from reality. The pandemic has a hopeful turning point because it delivers insight: disaster is not the great equalizer; like hurricanes, the virus strikes randomly, but our capacity to meet and adapt to it varies enormously, and economic and racial disparities are glaring. The meaning the virus holds may propel a popular political swerve toward universal healthcare and income equality, revaluation of expertise, and public spirited government that works for its citizens and the world.

These political accounts—whether imagined futures, utopian or dystopian, or partisan interpretations, whether warranted or not—are truncated. They cannot make sense of what the stricken suffer, uncertainty about the long-term effects on survivors, and haunting fear. Neighbors have the possibility of finding meaning where it actually lies: in the felt reality—the lived experience of disease, death, and social dislocation run wild. Reciprocity among neighbors corresponds to this reality; it turns on exchanges about vulnerability and anxiety about navigating everyday life. Small quotidian acts have enormous significance. Now “how are you feeling today?” acknowledges a shared reality, direct and personal. Rooted in the ethos of the democracy of everyday life, neighbors provide one another this human necessity, or could.

When partisan divisions and divergent accounts of reality define the meaning of coronavirus and expert knowledge is replaced by political fiction, two profound consequences follow. For one, the political pathology distorting public health responses to this emergency delegitimates the fundamental democratic notion of loyal opposition. The result: Democrats or Republicans and not corona-19 are said to be contaminating the nation. Partisan meaning prevents us from doing what American democracy does best—muddle through using available facts, expertise, experimentation, and self-correction until we find something that works. There is the risk that ‘we the people’ will judge democratic government itself to be ineffective and unworthy.

But governing is not the only casualty. When political pathologies migrate all the way down from public life and institutions to distort the quasi-independent sphere of life around home, the democracy of everyday life is disfigured as well. Neighbors confront one another with incompatible, mutually incomprehensible, and unbridgeable accounts of the meaning of this disaster. Easy reciprocity and disregard for political differences fall away. When they do, we recognize that democracy is deranged more deeply than institutional or constitutional standards allow us to see.

But if neighbors maintain the regulative ideal of the democracy of everyday life in disaster, we have a compass for maintaining our democratic bearings. When political life has lost its integrity or does not make sense to us, is unjust, weak and diminished, and at the moment seemingly beyond the power of citizens to correct, the democracy of everyday life among neighbors is a saving remnant. Never more than during disaster, when we hold one another's lives in our hands.


Contributor Notes

Nancy L Rosenblum is Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government Emerita with Harvard University. E-mail:

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