This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
Loneliness is not obviously something that public policy can address. But loneliness is a fact of American life today, one with increasingly serious implications for citizens’ physical and psychological health. If the people are sick, can the republic be well?
This is one of the questions to which participants in the American Project have turned their attention. Pete Peterson, dean of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, which hosts the project, told a recent gathering in Washington that he was surprised by how prominently loneliness had featured as a theme in the project’s early discussions. Scholars, journalists, and public-policy thinkers brought to Pepperdine to discuss the future of conservatism had spontaneously converged on the problem of social isolation.
It’s a problem to which both conservatives and liberals have turned their minds before, going back at least as far as Alexis de Tocqueville’s two great works, “Democracy in America” and “The Old Regime and the Revolution.” But a diagnosis is one thing; a course of treatment is another. What cure can politics, however broadly understood, possibly prescribe for the loneliness epidemic?
In the mid-20th century, conservatives such as the sociologist Robert Nisbet identified the growth of centralized power in the federal government as one of the sources of loneliness and anomie. The intermediary institutions of family, church, “guild” (as Nisbet liked to include), and community were crowded out by government initiatives that replaced their functions, while the federal government progressively crowded out more local levels of government, which were once the focus of much American political activity. More than a century earlier, Tocqueville had warned of centralized power’s tendency to isolate the individual by stripping him of the meaningful associations — economically and politically as well as emotionally meaningful — through which he interacted with others.
In “The Old Regime,” Tocqueville argued that this was the real source of the French Revolution: Long before the National Assembly usurped power or Robespierre’s guillotine drew first blood, France’s political legitimacy at every level had been sapped by the Bourbon monarchy’s concentration of power in the king and his court. Aristocrats had status and privilege, but no public responsibility or real power. The rural peasantry shouldered a heavy burden in the form of high taxes and compulsory public service — peasants could be conscripted to help build roads, for example — while lacking both representation and responsible local government. There was nothing to connect them to the nobles. Centralization therefore went a long way toward making the classes of French society hate one another.
Twentieth-century America was not in such bad shape. Nor, however, was it characterized by vibrant local associations and local government to the same degree it had been when Tocqueville sojourned here in the 19th century. In response to this change, conservatives in the 20th century rejected the federal welfare state and fought for decentralization and federalism, to keep as much power as possible within the private social sphere rather than transferring it to Washington. Libertarians, who hated the federal Leviathan and statism for their own reasons of principle, became invaluable allies in this effort, which was both political and intellectual.
But some conservatives today have begun to question this reflexive anti-statism. The cultural implications of libertarianism have long troubled traditionalists, who feared that without a will on the part of government to enforce moral standards, unbridled individualism would result in depravity. At issue today, however, is something more than the old tension between traditionalists and libertarians.
In recent years, many policy-minded conservatives have grown frustrated with an emphasis on anti-statism that prevents them from using government, whether federal or local, to do good. The libertarian protocol within political conservatism precludes various pro-family government initiatives, for example. And it would seem to preclude doing much of anything about the malady of loneliness as well. Libertarianism permits individual efforts, of course, which can be joined together socially and voluntarily. But it draws a line against common effort that uses the binding power of government.
What exactly could conservatives do about loneliness if they were free from libertarian restraints? Various schools of center-right policy thought, including “reform conservatives” and “compassionate conservatives” and “Sam’s Club conservatives,” have made suggestions over the last 20 years. More tax money could be given to religious organizations, including religious schools. The brain drain from rural communities to big cities could be checked by offering loan-forgiveness programs or grants to college graduates to return to their hometowns. Wage subsidies could raise low-income workers’ prospects, including prospects of marriage. Maybe laws against pornography would lead to more marriages, too.
None of these solutions is very promising. They are palliatives for the symptoms, not serious attempts to cure what ails our society. What’s more, they misdiagnose the social illness, which is not the result of bad micro-incentives for individuals, or Americans’ inherent immorality, or even the immorality of America’s leadership class (largely hostile to upholding traditional morality though it may be). Loneliness is instead the result of the kind of society we are, politically and economically as well as interpersonally — and so a cure must be sought at that level. What we need is a Tocquevillian nationalism.
“Nationalism” is a word that makes compassionate conservatives bristle no less than libertarians. Doesn’t it mean centralization, a preference for the federal (i.e., national) government over the state and local levels?
But think back to Tocqueville for a moment. Would subsidies for peasants or more royal financial support for churches have been the solution to the social disconnection he described in 18th-century France? Assuredly not. Tocqueville was keenly aware of the interwoven relationship between economies and locales, between social and economic classes, and between political power and economy at each level of the French nation. What he was concerned with, ultimately, was the relationship between the whole and its parts. In that, Tocqueville was a conceptual nationalist. And Americans today can learn from his approach.
If Tocqueville’s authority won’t do, there is always Aristotle. The political community — the city-state in ancient times, the nation-state in ours — is the community of communities, what Aristotle called “that association which is the most sovereign among them all and embraces all others.” The political community is self-sufficient in a way that no lesser community is, capable of providing for its own and its members’ security while supplying the means to the highest goods in life. Even in Aristotle’s lifetime, however, the city-state was being overshadowed by empire, and today no city-state can economically or militarily resist domination by a great nation — nor can most small nations resist the largest ones. Americans are fortunate that they have a nation that can fulfill the requirements of political community. Therein lies the secret to re-empowering the intermediary institutions of society and counteracting the loneliness that individual freedom seemingly entails.
America’s leadership class, including most conservatives and progressives, does not view our country as a political community, a nation-state. Instead they see it as an economic zone, a component, albeit a critically important one, of a global liberal order. “Centralization” today does not mean exactly what it meant in Tocqueville’s time. Today it also means globalization. Or rather, more accurately, globalization has the same effect as the centralization Tocqueville described. The choices made by our economic and political elites, our own House of Bourbon, lead to the displacement of economic and political responsibility from local levels to higher and larger ones — in this case, not to the capital city alone, but to Washington, Wall Street, and the world market.
A libertarian might object here: Isn’t globalization the very opposite of centralization? It disperses economic activity and weakens the power of national governments. This is good for overall economic efficiency as well as for the individual, whose consumer and lifestyle choices only expand. Tocqueville, a classical liberal himself, might well approve.
A close look at Tocqueville’s social and political thought suggests otherwise. Let me attempt to apply it to our own time.
The upper classes of the 21st century may not be geographically centralized (though to a great extent, in fact, they all live in a few “international cities”). But political and economic power is very much concentrated in their hands. Like the privileged but irresponsible aristocrats of 18th-century France, the global elite is cut off from its “peasantry,” the billions of loosely connected or wholly disconnected individuals over whom it rules. Political irresponsibility is a corollary to social isolation.
Consider the American social order before the age of globalization. As they do now, adults would interact on a daily basis with their employers, their colleagues, and their families. And most Americans would interact with their faith communities on at least a weekly basis as well: They would go to church. Americans were very mobile, which is to be expected in a young and growing country. But they formed dense networks of associations: On top of work and family and church, there were overlapping layers of extended family, ethnic groups, labor and professional associations, and neighbors. These groups reinforced and supported one another (and yes, sometimes clashed, too). In politics, certain families might hold offices over generations, while ethnic or religious blocs had great influence because they acted as units. These were not all voluntary communities — many involved inherited membership and socially (if not physically) coercive pressures. Going to church, for example, was not only a religious duty but a duty to the community as well: Many people went because their parents and spouses and peer groups expected them to.
Anchoring this social order was the localized nature of an agricultural and later industrial economy. The jobs that people worked depended on where they lived, or where their extended family or ethnic and religious contacts lived — or where the opportunities were that their father’s drinking buddy’s brother heard about. The mix of strong social networks and place-based employment provided good livings for families as well as enough freedom for individualists and entrepreneurs to strike out on their own.
Different places had different resources. There were Steeltowns and Motor Cities, farm towns and commercial centers, whose arteries were first rivers then rail lines and then highways. Not only were local economies varied and specific, so too were state and regional economies. Throughout the 19th and through much of the 20th century, the business of Washington was to balance the interests of farmers and bankers, debtors and creditors, industry and agriculture, consumers and producers. This arrangement made government contentious but had a binding effect on society’s many layers. And it helped to ensure both the political responsibility of elites and society’s investment in public affairs at every level. It wasn’t paradise, but as a nation-state composed of regional and local economies, America worked.
This was a country socially and economically strong enough to endure the increasing centralization that Washington inflicted on it over the course of the 20th century, even as the federal government weakened and displaced older forms of social support. But in the late 20th century, a new threat was added to that of centralization: globalization. Once a system of local and regional economies within a national framework, the American economy now came to be subsumed by the world economy through free trade, offshoring, and high-volume immigration. America’s regions were forced to compete directly with the poorest and least regulated economies on earth as well as the most heavily state supported. While this devastated industry — the Steeltowns and Motor Cities — in return, Americans were free to specialize in purportedly high-value service jobs and the “information economy.”
But service-sector work and much of the information economy is only lightly connected, if at all, to regional characteristics or to old family and social ties. Going to college has become increasingly necessary to make professional contacts and get well-paid work — especially jobs that carry the social status of the middle class. (Plumbers make good money, but their social standing is not equal to their wages.) College is unavoidably corrosive to the traditional social networks that composed America: It involves geographically removing young people from their kin and close childhood friends; separating them from their religious communities and offering them a smorgasbord of new denominations and lifestyles to try; and inculcating them with specialized knowledge and new political values that have the potential to make strangers even of those graduates who chose to return home.
These costs were easily borne by the social order when only a few young men and women with exceptional intellectual aptitude and interests pursued higher education. But once higher education became a universal requirement for membership in the middle class, countless young people, cut off from the traditional sources of social support and thrown into the ocean of the global market, became prey for loneliness. The result is a Tocquevillian nightmare. The towns that were once hubs of regional economic activity, having lost their industry, now lost their sons and daughters as well. Into the vacuum of rural and small-town life rush opioids, methamphetamines, alcohol, and suicide.
Local officials and state legislators are largely powerless in the face of all this. Individual members of the U.S. House of Representatives and even the Senate cannot do much, either. Perhaps only a figure as disruptive as Donald Trump could have broken through the elite consensus that has produced an economy of dis-location and loneliness. Trump articulated, in a crude but clear fashion, what despairing Americans had long felt about the global order. But a deeper, more refined articulation is needed if the opportunity that Trump has created to rethink our predicament is to be turned to the nation’s lasting advantage.
Tocquevillian nationalism is a nationalism of re-integration. It seeks to reestablish the United States as a nation-state and a discrete political-economic being, whose protective borders and laws make possible the flourishing of the regions, localities, and mediating institutions within. Rather than micro-managing individuals’ lives, as compassionate conservatism has too often been tempted to do, the center-right must address the source of the social order’s decay. Instead of a global outlook on economics, status, and culture, we must reaffirm a national perspective. This does not mean an end to international trade or the information economy; it simply means a conscious defense of industry and citizenship, along with a reorientation of status markers away from global economic interests back toward American national interests. In turn, this entails less multiculturalism and “economism” in college and more study of the Western tradition and the world of competing civilizations: an educational program for new leadership that understands and respects both self-government and economic-strategic competition among nations.
A borderless world exposes society to the vacuum of space, decompressing and ripping apart every traditional community, leaving individuals to float as isolated, lonely, interchangeable atoms. A world of nation-states, by contrast, is one in which there is still competition, but it is structured by the nation and the mediating institutions within it. These institutions are in turn connected to one another politically, economically, and culturally — invested in the whole, yet functional and responsible in their own right. Tocqueville rightly perceived these conditions as necessary for a flourishing political regime, and they are no less necessary today.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.