The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The political lessons Americans should learn from Hurricane Harvey

Volunteer rescue boats make their way into a flooded subdivision to rescue stranded residents as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise on Aug. 28 in Spring, Tex. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

We’ve been hearing for years now that we Americans are fixated on our tribal divisions. We have nothing in common anymore, we’re told. The old civic spirit that once so impressed foreign visitors is gone, eroded by echo chambers and social media navel-gazing and geographic self-selection. We’re Balkanized, incapable of talking to each other, hopelessly sliced and diced according to the dictates of identity politics.

Now take a look at those pictures from southeast Texas. The story that’s emerging here is completely different. Jolted by the scale of the catastrophe unleashed by Hurricane Harvey, local leaders appealed to citizens to join in the rescue effort — and they’ve responded in droves. They’ve jumped into their bass boats, their canoes and their jet skis, their dune buggies and their trucks, and they’ve set off to help people they’ve never met before — often responding to requests for help posted on social media.

No one ordered them to do this. No one told them what to do. We’re witnessing a massive outpouring of volunteer initiative. It turns out that a lot of ordinary Americans have a huge, untapped longing to do the right thing.

I’ve been watching the footage on television, and I’ve seen Hispanic Texans rescuing white Texans, white Texans rescuing African American Texans, African American Texans rescuing Hispanic Texans – not that you would necessarily notice, because no one seems to be asking many questions about who’s who. And that makes sense, considering what a diverse place this part of the country is. Houston is a blue city in a red state. (The city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, is a Democrat and an African American.)

Journalists on the East Coast, who often report on Texas as if it were some sort of semi-barbarous Christian fundamentalist banana republic, are gushing over Texans’ “heroism.” I doubt very much that the rescuers see themselves in those terms. I think they’re just doing what comes naturally. (Full disclosure: I’m a native Texan with a longtime family connection to Houston.)

So, what lessons should we draw from all this?

First, it turns out that Americans are entirely capable of uniting in the name of a higher cause. That’s a point worth absorbing. These days our country often seems caught up in a national frenzy of shade-throwing and trolling and industrial-scale snark. Civility is often in short supply. Yet now Texans are giving us a textbook lesson in civic awareness.

Perhaps we need to think about how we can build on this. Texas is showing us that it’s possible to transcend our divisions and work together. Is there something here we can project back into our political culture?

“I’ve met more of my neighbors in the last 24 hours than I have in the last 20 years,” said Steve Hresko, one of the volunteer rescuers. I think it was Winston Churchill who made the observation: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Second, Americans still know how to organize themselves. Sure, the rescue effort in southeast Texas has been an entirely ad hoc effort, a massive improvisation, not terribly sophisticated. Yet this capacity to seize the initiative and get important things done is a heartening reminder that we can act constructively when we want to.

Third, social media doesn’t have to be a destructive force. The grass-roots rescue effort probably wouldn’t have happened without Facebook, which has served as an efficient, decentralized information clearinghouse throughout the crisis. Hopefully this will serve to remind Americans that the Internet can be a powerful tool for coordinating positive action, not just a medium for lobbing spitballs.

Perhaps I’m being optimistic when I hope that our society can gain something positive from the Harvey disaster. But I can’t help feeling that we’ve just seen a glimpse of the United States we should strive to be.