When you ask political scientists or psychologists how a culture can rebuild social trust, they aren’t much help. There just haven’t been that many recent cases they can study and analyze. Historians have more to offer, because they can cite examples of nations that have gone from pervasive social decay to relative social health. The two most germane to our situation are Great Britain between 1830 and 1848 and the United States between 1895 and 1914.
People in these eras lived through experiences parallel to ours today. They saw the massive economic transitions caused by the Industrial Revolution. They experienced great waves of migration, both within the nation and from abroad. They lived with horrific political corruption and state dysfunction. And they experienced all the emotions associated with moral convulsions—the sort of indignation, shame, guilt, and disgust we’re experiencing today. In both periods, a highly individualistic and amoral culture was replaced by a more communal and moralistic one.
But there was a crucial difference between those eras and our own, at least so far. In both cases, moral convulsion led to frenetic action. As Richard Hofstadter put it in The Age of Reform, the feeling of indignation sparked a fervent and widespread desire to assume responsibility, to organize, to build. During these eras, people built organizations at a dazzling pace. In the 1830s, the Clapham Sect, a religious revival movement, campaigned for the abolition of slavery and promoted what we now think of as Victorian values. The Chartists, a labor movement, gathered the working class and motivated them to march and strike. The Anti-Corn Law League worked to reduce the power of the landed gentry and make food cheaper for the workers. These movements agitated from both the bottom up and the top down.