Magazine | April 16, 2018, Issue

Lonely America

(Karsten Bidstrup/Getty Images)
In an era of hyper-individualism, we should rekindle the bonds of community

He held his phone close, eyes searching for privacy. The man scarcely noticed the subway riders around him, nor the 90-year-old artist sketching his hunched frame from across the train. In the seven decades since Alex Katz first drew the outlines of commuters on New York City’s early-morning trains, the chattering riders and newspapers had all but gone. In their places were people who rode alone together, the light in their eyes reflecting the glow of their phones. In his cover art for New York magazine, Katz hints at a profound change drawn across America over the course of his life, one that has profound implications for us, our communities, and our politics.

America is increasingly a lonely nation. The proportion of American adults who say they are lonely has increased from 20 percent to 40 percent since the 1980s. Roughly 43 million adults over the age of 45 are estimated to suffer from chronic loneliness. The unmarried and the uncommitted to community report higher rates of loneliness, with the causality likely being a two-way street. Prosperity has afforded our independence from neighbors and networks, as the Social Capital Project of Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) found, but the relational and emotional collateral damage has fallen hardest on those least able to afford it. Put another way, an isolation of affluence is indelibly marking modern society.

Consider that just three decades ago, the typical American had a little over three close friends. Today, he or she barely has one confidant. Often someone’s closest companion is staring at him in the mirror. It is surely no coincidence that the average household is growing smaller and older. In fact, over a quarter of Americans now live alone, up from 13 percent in 1960 and increasing especially after the Great Recession.

Friend groups, where they exist, are smaller and narrower than in the past. When Americans do confide in someone else, they are more likely to look inward to kin rather than outward to community. Social networks are increasingly folding in on the nuclear family. Yet marriage and family formation are becoming less a rite of passage and more a mark of privilege. Around half of American adults are married, down from 72 percent in 1960, and their age of matrimony is increasingly past the age at which men and women begin to lose friends, which is roughly age 25. The stability of their unions — whether they stay together or have children — is increasingly a function of income. As family formation becomes a luxury amenity, isolation is more likely to be a province of the poor.

This tide of autonomy is washing over the shoals of society. Those who shrug at faith — especially middle-aged Mainliners and unaffiliated Millennials, as Pew found — are simply going their own way rather than gathering in a community. Modern religious life, as with nearly every social institution in America today, is increasingly subsumed by an ethic of expressive individualism. And this autonomy is manifested and reinforced in myriad ways by modern American life — whether it be the three-quarters of Americans commuting alone in their cars or the personalized worlds of smartphones, social media, and video games. 

Loneliness is an emotional response to a rending of the fabric of American society. Why the isolation? The reasons are complex, but the story they weave is simple: The ties that bind us have come unwound in the face of enormous change. The movement from agrarian life to industry coincided with a shift away from the family and toward the individual as the basic unit of society and the economy. Our politics were downstream of these changes and embedded a healthy tension: between a liberal individualism and a moral communitarianism, both oriented toward liberty. Now we appear to be entering a disorienting new era of hyper-individualism and radical diversity.

Today we live Spotify lives — full of options that cater to our every whim. We have liberated our desires from want of choice and given voice to our own identities. Just a glance at our phone instantly widens the horizon of our self. Yet this freedom has come at the cost of our cultural and economic order. Family, faith, and community — the reserves of liberty — have suffered tremendous losses, particularly since the 1960s and 1970s. It turns out that “You do you” is disorienting to anyone who lacks dense social networks and deep wells of social capital to draw on. The result, as Yuval Levin articulates in The Fractured Republic, is that “we have set loose a scourge of loneliness and isolation that we are still afraid to acknowledge as the distinct social dysfunction of our age of individualism.”

As conservatives ponder their future, they would do well to consider America’s crisis of attachment as an orienting challenge of our time. What it suggests is that the individualism that has marked the Right and Left is insufficient at best and destructive at worst to the citizen’s role in the American project. A community-oriented conservatism is best placed to speak to our ills as well as to our better angels. 

The liberal individualism that has been adopted nearly whole-cloth by the Right in recent decades places us above society and the institutions that give us meaning, rather than deeply enmeshing us in them. As Patrick Deneen has pointed out, the libertarianism and internationalism of the Reagan era were “in orientation profoundly opposite to the original Burkean, traditionalist, communitarian form of conservatism.” Modern conservatives are often, at best, half-hearted individualists, always fighting a battle of retreat against progressivism. Today, this essentially democratic ethos is expressed through a nostalgic populism and an introverted nationalism centered in Washington. As the middle ground between man and state withers, it becomes far too easy for our political life to slouch into narcissism and nihilism.

Traditional conservatism stands athwart an unwinding social order. It sees man as a social animal — relationally oriented and networked to community. This sort of interdependence rightly orders our civil freedom toward sustaining virtue through the things we have in common: habits, traditions, and institutions. Rather than simply freeing us from the shackles of government or social constructs, this bonds us to faith, family, and community in such a way as to give meaning and purpose to our freedom. In turn, it is on these social networks, capital, and institutions that we build truly flourishing markets that work for the common good, particularly for “the least of these.”

The notion that our politics could serve as a binding agent is not new. There is a rich vein of thought from Saint Augustine to Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke that conservatism has mined since its founding. More recently, everyone from the writers in National Affairs to the architects of Senator Lee’s Social Capital Project have kept these ideas very much alive. It is at this moment in American history, a time when we the people are coming apart, that we need a conservatism that seeks to weave us into our social fabric.

Restoring a more traditionalist, communitarian conservatism must begin by acknowledging the limits of policy. There is no bill in Congress that can ever satisfy the longings of the human heart for fellowship. Government cannot bind us together. Nevertheless, America’s diversity can be the source of its solutions for the 21st century. We can start by bringing political power closer to our communities and elevating our shared institutions. People who are empowered together are likelier to work together. Ideas should necessarily emanate upward from America’s towns, cities, and states rather than downward from Washington. An urban conservatism, for instance, would be well placed to tackle the barriers in housing, entrepreneurship, and governance that prevent Americans from becoming a part of our most prosperous communities.

America’s emerging startup hubs suggest the shape of thriving communities in the 21st century. A place such as Salt Lake City, Utah, is at once hyper-local and hyper-global — spawning micro-multinationals that reflect the unique character of the place from which they come. Localism is at home with mobility, and nationalism is more of a neighborhood project. Moreover, we see that dense social networks flush with social capital lie at the heart of Utah’s innovative dynamism. Prosperity flows from a healthy community, just as poverty lingers in broken relationships. These are truths that conservatives should voice.

Loneliness will not disappear at the stroke of a pen.

Nevertheless, conservatism should start from the basic human desire for relationship. From there, it should seek to strengthen our bonds as Americans in the context of our local communities. We may still fear being alone, but we should not fear that our politics does not care.

Michael Hendrix — Michael Hendrix is the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute and a contributor to the American Project at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.

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