Reclaiming Our American Project

Reclaiming Our American Project

Something has gone wrong in our political life. On this much the American people, who can’t seem to agree on anything, agree. The unexpected success of Donald Trump’s campaign three summers ago and the subsequent reaction has made this conclusion ineluctable. But what if the problem that assails our political life isn’t, strictly speaking, political, but a broader deterioration of our culture and communities? What if loneliness is the problem with our politics? 

Such is the starting point of a new initiative called the American Project, led by Pete Peterson, Dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, and Rich Tafel, a pastor at Church of the Holy City in Washington, D.C., and managing director of Raffa Social Capital Advisors. In the absence of community, Peterson and Tafel argue, politics has rushed in to fill the void left by our eroded civic life. The result is an increasingly powerful and unaccountable federal government, polarization, dysfunction, and the rise of strong leaders who would protect us. 

Despite a growing economy, historically low unemployment, and all the benefits and comforts of modern technology, we are, as a society, lonelier than ever. Cigna has recently categorized it a “public health issue” of “epidemic” proportions, while the American Psychological Association has warned that it poses a greater public health threat than obesity. Though we are more connected than ever and standards of living are higher than ever, we are also more unhappy than ever. Suicides rates have surged over the last two decades in the United States. 

Part of the explanation may be economic. Despite our recovery from the Great Recession, problems persist, including sluggish wage growth, low productivity, and an alarming number of able-bodied Americans who have dropped out of the workforce altogether. (It seems significant that suicide rates are highest among non-college-educated white men — a demographic that makes up a large share of those outside the labor force and a key constituent of Trump’s base.) Added to this, the dislocations of automation, globalization, and the collapse of manufacturing employment over the last two decades cast a shadow over today’s otherwise rosy economic reports.

But our crisis of loneliness seems, at root, to be psychological, even spiritual, more than economic. Americans are increasingly alienated from one another. We no longer display that spirit of association that Tocqueville famously praised on his visit to the United States. This hollowing out of our civil society has left us an aggregate of atomized individuals. Shorn of relational commitments and responsibilities, the isolated individual, Tocqueville warned, would look to a centralized authority for protection, as a child looks to a parent. We invest too much — often in anger, indignation, and fear — in national politics and too little in our communities. 

Peterson and Tafel do not purport to solve this crisis. The American Project offers instead a political vision that speaks to our “fractured republic” by trying to repair the civic bonds needed to hold it together. This vision — what they call a “conservatism of connection” — is communitarian in orientation and American in essence. It is conservative in that it seeks to recover and conserve our distinctive political heritage as well as the civic virtues needed to sustain it. But it is also invitational, holding up the ideal of democratic republicanism as open to all. 

In June, the Pepperdine School of Public Policy Pepperdine held a three-day conference in Malibu, California called “Toward a Conservatism of Connection: Reclaiming the American Project.” In this new RealClearPolicy series, writers and scholars grapple with the core tenets of this project from various points of view — guided by the conviction that by getting back to first political principles we can better understand and respond to our present political moment. 

— The Editors 

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Politics in the Ruins. In the first essay, Liberty Fund’s Richard M. Reinsch II looks to Walker Percy’s novel “Love in the Ruins” for help in understanding what ails our political community.

Do We Really Need a New Conservatism? In the second essay, the Claremont Institute’s Ryan P. Williams argues that a conservatism grounded in the principles of the American founding should build on, rather than repudiate, Trump’s rise.

Conservatism in the Age of Millennials. In the third essay, Michael Hendrix urges conservatives to stick to their principles rather than “jettisoning beliefs unpopular among young voters simply to win them over.”

Toward a Tocquevillian Nationalism. In the fourth essay, Daniel McCarthy makes a case for the nation-state as fulfilling the requirements of political community.

Renewing Localism for the 21st Century. In the fifth essay, Ryan Streeter contends that localism offers the solution to our divided politics.

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