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Conservatism and the Crisis of Loneliness

Conservatism and the Crisis of Loneliness

Dear Reader —

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 have made this conclusion ineluctable. But what if the problem 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 on 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 a 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.

To kick off the series, 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. In the second installment, 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. 

These are some of the many issues lately taken up in our pages. Below you will find just a few more highlights.

— The Editors | RealClearPolicy


The Macro Power of Microtrends. M. Anthony Mills has this Q&A in RealClearPolitics with Mark Penn on the sequel to his book about seemingly minor developments that exert outsized influence on society.

We Might Actually Get Budget Reform This Year. Kevin R. Kosar highlights a new effort to fix the budget process. 

By Picking Brett Kavanaugh, Trump Is Fulfilling His Promise. Tim Chapman argues that by establishing a Supreme Court that honors the separation of powers and interprets laws as written, the president is returning power to the people. 

To Solve the Labor Shortage, Focus on Mobility. Todd Hitt urges lawmakers to work with businesses to incentivize transportation options and attract needed workers. 

Making Science Trustworthy Again. Richard Williams offers ways to eliminate bias in both industry-funded and government-funded research. 

Debt “Double Whammy” Unsettles Emerging Markets. James C. Capretta considers the impact of the Fed’s shifting position on asset holdings and a deterioration in the U.S. fiscal outlook. 

Anthony Kennedy’s New Chapter in American Pluralism. In RealClearReligion, William N. Eskridge Jr. & Robin Fretwell Wilson contend that the justice’s Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion offers a roadmap for balancing gay rights and religious liberty. 

New Medicaid Work Requirements Jeopardize Public Health. In RealClearHealth, Jason Resendez & Carmen Scurato examine the unintended consequences of these changes in some states. 

Are Oil and Gas Really More Vulnerable to Cyberattacks? In RealClearEnergy, Jude Clemente argues that the administration’s rationale for forcing electric grid operators to buy power from coal and nuclear plants does not hold up under scrutiny.

Students Are Consumers. It’s Time to Treat Them That Way. In RealClearEducation, Carol D’Amico urges institutions of higher learning to align their approach to education with the needs and desires of the students they exist to serve. 

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