Reclaiming Our American Project

Reclaiming Our American Project
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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


The Communitarian Case for a Universal Child Benefit. Patrick T. Brown of the Ethics and Public Policy Center explores whether a universal child benefit would reverse the declining fertility rate.

Human Dignity and the New Values Voter. Rachel Kopec Barkley, president of RK Barkley Consulting, explains why values voters should defend principles rooted in natural law and the Imago Dei, or image of God.

Conservatives, Go Local. Hans Zeiger, member of the Pierce County Council in Washington State, exhorts conservatives to recommit to each other and their communities.

If You Want to Promote National Healing, Think Local. Cullum Clark of the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative explains how the promotion of social capital would not only be a boon for American unity, but for our economy.

What the Biden Administration Must Learn about Community. Lee Trepanier of Samford University explores what the expected growth of the administrative state under a new Democratic administration might mean for community.

Public Work and the Renewal of Communitarianism. Harry C. Boyte, Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg University, traces the history of the bipartisan common action which has bound Americans together.

Biden Should Embrace an Identity Politics Based on Place, Not Race. Stephanie Muravchik of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and Jon A. Shields of Claremont McKenna College, the authors of "Trump’s Democrats," argue that, contrary to advice from political scientists, Joe Biden should focus on the economic and social woes of working class voters.

We Are Suffering From a Social Recession, Too. Michael Hendrix of the Manhattan Institute notes that while much of the focus on Coronavirus has concerned the economic recession, we face even greater threats to the fabric which binds us together.

Civil Society Was Made for Moments Like This. Ryan Streeter and David Wilde of the American Enterprise Institute discuss why American civic connectivity is uniquely tailored to help others during the Coronavirus crisis.

Coronavirus and Our False Communities. Bruce P. Frohnen of Ohio Northern University explains why our internet-based means of communication will always fall short of real human contact.

Can Democracy Survive Social Distancing? Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University writes on the need that we — and democracy — have for human association.

Young People Are Lonely, Too. Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College and the American Enterprise Institute posits that while the main focus has been on the effects of Coronavirus on older Americans, young people are just as likely to fall victim to the negative effects of social isolation.

Come Home, America. We're at War. Richard M. Reinsch II, the editor of Law & Liberty, compares the pandemic to war, and reflects on how we as citizens may shape our lives and politics accordingly.

The Lonely (Political) Crowd. As Americans face isolation as a consequence of a deadly pandemic, Ryan Streeter and David Wilde of the American Enterprise Institute discuss how politics and loneliness go together.

What Makes an American? John Wood, Jr. of Better Angels explores how we can find a shared American identity in this era of multiculturalism.

Rethinking Social Justice. Andy Smarick of the R Street Institute and Bruno V. Manno of the Walton Family Foundation reflect on the two competing definitions of social justice at work in debates about K-12 education.

The Conservative Case for Expanded National Service. Luke Nathan Phillips, editor of The Conversation, makes the case for a Civilian Conservation Corps for the contemporary age.

Educating the Human Person. Margarita A. Mooney of Princeton Theological Seminary and the Scala Foundation explains why liberal arts education must have a humanist, and not a pragmatic, basis.

A Quest for American Unity. Christopher C. Hull of Issue Management, Inc. writes that conservative intellectuals must find a broad, uniting platform in order to combat the radicals of the alt-left and alt-right.

Against Campus Activism. Elizabeth Corey of Baylor University argues against the culture of wokeness that pervades America's campuses.

Religion Creates Community. Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College and the American Enterprise Institute writes on a survey which provides evidence that faith fosters societal connections.

Social Capital is America's True Stock in Trade. Erin Rodewald, a Los Angeles based writer, on what's really important to Americans.

A Conservative Homecoming. David Bahr of the R Street Institute reviews "Coming Home: Reclaiming America's Conservative Soul" by Ted V. McAllister and Bruce P. Frohnen. 

Virtue and the Social Fabric. John Wood, Jr. of Better Angels discusses the role of moral character in American life.

Dynamism for the Working Class. Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute writes that conservatism must foster the aspirations of those outside of the elites.

Republicans Take Note: Public Opinion on Inequality Has Shifted. Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College and the American Enterprise Institute details his research on changing attitudes towards poverty.

On Rebuilding the Middle Class. Georgetown University's Joshua Mitchell makes the case for a middle-class commercial republic in which citizen competence can be developed and nourished.

Our Unwritten Constitution: Orestes Brownson and the Foundation of American Liberty. The late Peter Augustine Lawler and Law & Liberty's Richard M. Reinsch II argue that the written Constitution is not grounded merely by natural rights and autonomous individuals, but by a prior, unwritten constitution.

Death by Loneliness. Francie Hart Broghammer, MD, chief psychiatry resident at UC Irvine Medical Center writes of a contemporary America that is prosperous, but uniquely self-destructive.

Toward a Conservatism of Experience. Pepperdine University’s Ted McAllister argues that conservatism has gone astray by embracing abstract rationalism, and urges a return to our shared inheritance.

Look to the States, Not the Swamp, to Solve Our Political Problems. Rachel Kopec Barkley, president of Barkley Consulting, argues that we ask Congress to do too much and should place greater reliance on the states to solve our political problems.

Is the ‘Eggshell Culture’ on Campus Moving Into Our Public Square? Pete Peterson, dean of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, and co-director of its American Project, writes on the need for a public conversation about the state of civic discourse and free expression on America’s college campuses and beyond.

Why Is Socialism on The Rise? Loneliness. Bruce P. Frohnen of Ohio Northern University explains why socialism is increasingly appealing to Americans.

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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