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 rise of Donald Trump and its political fallout have 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 the American Project, an initiative of Pepperdine University led by Pete Peterson, Dean of the 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 appear to be more connected than ever and standards of living are higher than ever, we are also unhappier 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 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.

The American Project offers a political vision that speaks to our “fractured republic” by trying to repair the civic bonds needed to hold it together. This vision — 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 this RealClearPolicy series, writers and scholars from diverse points of view grapple with the American Project’s core tenets and consider possible policy prescriptions for what ails our political life. These sometimes-philosophical reflections are guided by the conviction that by getting back to first principles we can better understand and respond to our present political moment.

— M. Anthony Mills, Editor | The American Project

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The Case for Local Government. The Manhattan Institute's Michael Hendrix contends that local governments are vital to our democratic order.

The Quest for Political Community. M. Anthony Mills, editor of the American Project and associate vice president of policy at the R Street Institute, argues that James Madison’s vision of an “extended republic” can provide the basis for a shared conception of citizenship.

Renewing Localism for the 21st Century. The American Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Streeter contends that localism offers the solution to our divided politics.

Toward a Tocquevillian Nationalism. Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age, makes a case for the nation-state as fulfilling the requirements of political community.

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

Do We Really Need a New Conservatism? 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.

Politics in the Ruins. 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.

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