The watchword in American cultural discourse and research is “loneliness.” Over the last decade, research from economists and social psychologists has outlined the magnitude of Americans’ social isolation across demographic groups — old and young, rich and poor, and in every ethnic category. The impacts range from declining political participation to increasing suicide rates.
Princeton economists Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner, Angus Deaton, coined the term “deaths of despair” to describe deaths related to this disconnection from others and from civic institutions. As Deaton noted in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, while the initial causes of death may be labeled as “overdose” or “self-inflicted gunshot,” the underlying reason is a “failure of spiritual and social life that drives people to suicide.” Analyzing the work of Deaton, Case, and others on the subject, Dr. Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, added, “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.”
These discussions have been sequestered in social science journals for some time, but they’re about to break forth into policy and politics with the publication of U.S. Senator Ben Sasse’s new book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal,” and Tim Carney’s forthcoming, “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” As a political movement that has become known for its “rugged individualism,” conservatism must hearken back to its communitarian roots in rhetoric and policy in order to adequately respond to this cultural moment.
I first saw the signs of a major shift in conservative thinking around loneliness on our Malibu campus back in June, 2017 when we convened a unique group of 30 academics and activists as part of a new initiative called the “American Project: On the Future of Conservatism.” Participants came from all over the country representing a range of perspectives on the right — from market-driven libertarians to neocons to social conservatives.
What began with some contentious conversations about the president evolved into deeper discussion about these historic levels of alienation, and how an “invitational conservatism” focused on defending civic institutions — including a healthy patriotism — is the necessary response to this era of disconnection. Out of three days of deliberations, we composed a principles document titled, “A Way Forward,” defining a term we’ve come to call a “conservatism of connection.”
“Authentic conservatism is essentially about three connections.” The essay lists:
- Connection to the Past: We retain from our heritage what is valuable and worth cherishing
- Connection to Our Future: We innovate as conditions change to adapt inherited ways to new conditions
- Connection to One Another: Through America’s famed mediating institutions, we connect to one another in achieving the common good.
This is the conservatism of Burke’s “little platoons,” Tocqueville’s “individualism rightly understood,” and also of Robert Nisbet’s “quest for community,” Russell Kirk’s commitment to “voluntary communities”, and, more recently, Rod Dreher’s “crunchy cons.” This conservatism of connection confronts radical individualism and exclusive forms of community on all fronts — from Ayn Rand’s “Galt’s Gulch” nirvana on the right to the left’s identity politics.
Some on the left have derided this conservatism as a yearning for a bygone era in America, when community affiliation was associated with racial segregation. In a Twitter rant on Senator Sasse’s recent essay in which he offered that civic gatherings like high school football games can help temper our polarized national politics, Cornell law professor, Josh Chafetz, exclaimed, “To the extent ‘the whole town’ turned out and rooted for the same team, Sasse is figuring authentic Americanness as involving small, racially, and other homogeneous communities.”
Attacks like this paper over hard problems surrounding the loneliness crisis, including how to foster social cohesion in heterogeneous communities. In one of his lesser-known studies on civic participation, titled “E Pluribus Unum” (2007), Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam found that cities with high levels of ethnic diversity had low levels of civic trust – even within individual ethnic communities. Studying civic participation in 40 American cities, Putnam found, “Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin…to expect the worst of their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community problems less often.” What was the one place in the country where Putnam found high levels of diversity and community-building? Churches.
The “conservatism of connection” isn’t only rhetorical; it carries policy implications. From legislation protecting the religious liberty of faith-based civic institutions mediating the gap between government and disconnected citizens, to a renewed commitment to enhancing social capital (like Senator Mike Lee’s new “Social Capital Project”), policymakers and researchers have roles to play alongside leaders in civil society and the private sector. A crisis defined by declining public trust in most of our major institutions demands a classically American cross-sector response.
Pete Peterson is dean of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy where he co-directs the “American Project: On the Future of Conservatism.”