How we all do better: (Re)Learning the hard way

The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state. ~Alexis de Tocqueville

In the 1800s, a young Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville spent the better part of a year in America – a freshly-baked country that piqued the interest of thinkers all over the world.

He wrote about what he experienced in Democracy in America. And one of the things he found particularly intriguing was a commonly-held value he observed in Americans.

“[T]he principle of interest rightly understood.”

Americans, he found, recognized that their own lives were improved if they all joined in to make their society better. With time, with property, with whatever – assisting one another meant they, too, were assisted.

You may have heard me refer to it as interpreted by the late Paul Wellstone, beloved Senator from Minnesota: “We all do better, when we all do better.”

That’s a lesson that Republicans have been trying to get us to unlearn for some time, now. Since Regan, half the country has been convinced to believe in a myth of “rugged individualism” – that “interference” by the state makes us weaker, not stronger. That the only thing “big government” and New Deal era “entitlements” accomplish is rewarding people for laziness. (There is a whole lotta racism wrapped up in this as well, of course.)

Meanwhile, Republicans lobby for lower taxes (so these so-called rugged individuals and businesses can be better off) while public education, healthcare, roads and bridges – all of the benefits of modern society that are fed through a societal compact that we’ll all participate – are flailing.

Because a big chunk of the country – and the people they elect – now question if we really all do better, when we all do better. Or whether they’d be personally better off if they cast the rest of society to one side and carried on solo.

And there are consequences to that thinking.

Last week, a woman from St. Louis who had been studying in Italy came home. She spent a few days in Chicago, took the Amtrak down to St. Louis … and then started to feel not so good. So she called the hotline that St. Louis County has set up just to field these kinds of questions, and was told to get tested for COVID-19 (which they helped arrange).

She, and her family, were told to self-quarantine at their home in a fancy area called Ladue. (Think a neighborhood like those you see in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or 16 Candles. Very posh.) She complied, the family promised to comply … and then her test came up positive.

And now we learn that while this 20-something year old had been complying with the quarantine, she was the only member of her family who did. Her mom went to get her nails done (priorities, people! You cannot manage a family health crisis with a bad manicure, can you?), and to the local grocery store.

Dad went to the coffee shop. To the gym. And to his younger daughter’s daddy-daughter dance. Oh – and he went to another family’s home for a “pre-party” beforehand (on a side note, who the hell has a pre-party for a freaking daddy-daughter dance?).

And yes, they knew that their older daughter – the one living with them – potentially had COVID-19.

Selfish. Self-absorbed. Likely caused by the mixed messages that the president and his minions have been sending about the seriousness of the disease.

But yet more evidence of how completely differently we see the world.

Some people’s actions right now are informed by the answer to the question: Will I be personally harmed/killed by this virus?

Other people’s actions right now are informed by the answer to a different one: Does my personal comfort override my responsibility to protect other people from something that will kill them?

Some people think their ability to enjoy a cup of coffee from a favorite coffee shop or get a good manicure is more important than protecting their neighbors. They put more value on their comfort and enjoyment than on neighbors’ wellbeing. On a broader scale, these are probably also folks who care more about their tax bracket, their 401k, their cut of the social security pile, their healthcare costs… than kids in cages, and food insecurity, and the dire situation our public schools are in.

No doubt, their view is the short-sighted one. It’s the three-year-olds “ALL FOR ME” mentality.

Still, if those folks can’t already see the havoc their mindset has wreaked on our country over the past 30-40 years, what can we do to snap them out of their selfishness?

What can we do to reinstill the “self-interest rightly understood” mentality that our country began with?

Does it actually require a worldwide pandemic? Is this virus giving us an opportunity to demonstrate that caring for others is, eventually, caring for yourself? Is this going to be the moment when some people sit up and say – ah. I get it! There are benefits to living in a society where people do things for the collective good. As part of my community I have a responsibility to protect it.

That is likely wishful thinking. But for those of us who look at the world through de Tocqueville’s model of self-interest, it’s something to hope for. And maybe some benefit that can come from this admittedly scary time.

Okay, folks. Stay healthy.

Let’s get to work.

Actions for the Week of March 10, 2020

Tuesday: Vote! (And if you have trouble here are Great Voting Resources)

So, this is a no-brainer: Vote today!

Also watch out for any hanky-panky going on at polling places. If you see or experience anything worrisome, call the voting hotline:

Report an incident or get assistance from trained volunteers at 1-866-OURVOTE’s Election Protection Hotlines:
(English): 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683);
Spanish/English: 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (1-888-839-8682);
Asian Languages/English: 1-888-API-VOTE (1-888-274-8683);
Arabic/English: 1-844-YallaUS (1-844-925-5287)

Wednesday: Practice Self Interest Rightly Understood

Because of COVID-19, right about now, people are starting to change their behaviors – working from home, not going to crowded places, etc. That means that a lot of community members who work in the service industry are going to lose a lot of income.

Whether it’s the yoga instructor, or the owners of the coffeeshop on the corner, or the person who cleans houses. A lot of folks are going to see their finances shrink.

So think about this from a community standpoint. What do you need to do to help the people in your community fare this crisis?

Does it mean paying for a block of yoga classes that you’ll attend in the future? Maybe reaching out to that local coffeeshop – or restaurant – to buy a gift card you’ll use later after all this is over? Do what you can now to support those local mom&pop shops that are often just skating by from one month to another.

If you personally employ people, it’s an obvious idea to find ways to work remotely. But what about those people who have to physically be present to do the job? If you have someone clean your home, or babysit your kids regularly, or work on your yard, maybe you continue to pay them even if they’re quarantined.

Paying people for not working is not an option for most of us, but we’re going to need to be creative to find ways to help lift our neighbors and community members.

Please share ideas with me! Email at

Thursday: Help Kids Find Food

A lot of kids in America rely on the food they receive at school to get them through the week. If more schools cancel classes, which is likely, that means those kids might go hungry.

Donate funds to your local foodbank. You can also call them to see if they are taking donations of food items, but often they are able to purchase food more cost-effectively. They may have special projects underway to address food insecurity during COVID-19. Find your local food bank at

This is also a time to be creative about how we lift each other up. So here are some other ways you can help combat food insecurity right now:

Contact your place of worship to see if they are helping collect or distribute food to congregants that might need it in the coming weeks/months. If it’s not on anybody’s radar yet, consider heading it up yourself. If you have an idea to help, do it!!

Contact your local public and/or private/charter schools to see what you can do to help the kids going to their school that might be on free/reduced lunch.

Contact your local library to see if they are going to be picking up the slack in providing kids’ lunches and meals. Often libraries provide food during summer and after school – this is a great time to find out if they will be expanding if school isn’t in session.

I know this isn’t as direct as an action as I usually provide. But this is one of those times when you can make a serious difference with some creative thinking and foresight. Let me know what you learn!!

Friday: focus on the senate

So, when Elizabeth Warren announced she was suspending her campaign, I was as upset as you were. But I’m throwing that energy into helping flip the Senate. That’s a big, big undertaking, folks. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We’ll just have to really organize!

Indivisible is already putting together a PaybackProject, which you can find here:

They’ve already got texting opportunities for you, and you can learn more about the individual Senators/seats they’re targeting. There are some great Democratic candidates that are running for these seats, so if you live in a blue state or a state that doesn’t have a Senate seat up this year (Hello, fellow Missouri people!) pick one of the Senate targets.

I really do like the ring of “Senate Majority Leader Elizabeth Warren,” if she’s interested and not more interested in “Treasury Secretary Elizabeth Warren”… 😉


P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at or via paypal at
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every e-mail. (Really! I really do!) We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

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