The Politics of Loneliness
Today’s Americans should be the least lonely in our nation’s history: More of us than ever before live in densely populated parts of the country, and technology offers us more ways than ever before to connect to friends, family, and communities with similar interests. But evidence from psychology and sociology show rising levels of aloneness (having fewer social contacts) in recent decades, and high levels of loneliness (feelings of isolation) as well, with disturbing spikes in the last few years during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How can we feel lonelier in a world where connection to other human beings now requires only a click of a button? How can we feel isolated when linkage to the outside world is delivered via nonstop handheld stimulus? Connection is everywhere, and yet loneliness persists—and in certain subsets of the population grows worse, leading some observers to call the problem an “epidemic.” They are right to do so: It is an epidemic. The true cost of American loneliness is both hidden and insidious, and it’s time policymakers started taking this problem seriously.
There is a complicated array of explanations for the increasing isolation of Americans—many of them exacerbated by the pandemic—but two factors stand out as demanding the attention of political and policy leaders. They would come as a dispiriting surprise to those who built the modern neoliberal American order of the last fifty-plus years and hoped that it would create an interconnected, interdependent culture driven by advances in technology and ever-expanding global markets.
First, for all the promise of technology to more seamlessly connect us to peers and new friends, it has in fact left many Americans—especially young people—feeling more alone than ever. Put simply, we have learned that digital communication cannot replace the value of in-person experience. Evidence from psychology, including brain scans, shows that we respond differently to in-person encounters than we do to those that are online. Staying in touch with friends and relatives electronically is better than losing touch altogether, but when interactions on Facebook replace in-person experiences with neighbors and local friends, it can actually drive up feelings of loneliness.
Further, the use of social media, which once seemed to promise an antidote to loneliness, can create resentments that further breed feelings of isolation. Scrolling through endless pictures that have been curated to embellish other people’s lives leaves many users—especially those with developing brains—feeling inadequate and wanting. The effect of this type of “connection” is often feelings of isolation and envy, particularly for young people—more anxiety than fulfillment. My teenage son explained to me that the greatest source of unhappiness for one of his friends who is transgender is TikTok, where the friend scrolls for hours late at night through images of body types he wished were his.
The second important factor driving the loneliness epidemic is the erosion of local community. Connection sometimes happens randomly. But mostly, it happens through local institutions—churches, sports teams, civic clubs, labor unions, and business organizations. Personal meaning often comes from the groupings we create or join, and connection through institutions helps us construct an identity and sense of purpose. It’s both the connection and the meaning derived from group identity that matters. But many large trends have badly weakened local institutions. Among them is globalization, which has drained local economies and diminished the local cultures that facilitate connection, identity, and meaning. This is a challenge that neoliberalism with its blind faith in an integrated global market, did not anticipate and cannot solve.
Growing up, my identity was strongly connected to the town I lived in, Wethersfield, Connecticut, and the “localness” of my daily experience reinforced that identity. For instance, I fondly remember my local grocer, who slipped me a free slice of American cheese every time I visited the deli counter with my grandparents. Today, those local businesses and vibrant downtowns that helped provide Americans meaning and connection have been replaced by the Walmart/Amazon economy. The local grocer is gone, replaced by superstores or food-delivery drivers. And our local institutions are also disappearing. Adults are forced to maintain two or three jobs, just to match the income of a single job that could sustain a family a few decades ago, leaving no time to devote to churches or civic clubs. Overall youth sports participation has plummeted over the last two decades, as overextended parents are too busy to shuttle their kids to games and practices and children become more interested in online gaming. Globalization and technology have helped hollow out institutions and weaken local identity, contributing to feelings of isolation.
But why should all this matter to policymakers? First, there are health consequences to intense loneliness. American suicide rates have risen alarmingly, most significantly among two key populations—teenagers and rural men—disproportionately affected by the changing landscape of American culture and economy. New York University’s Jonathan Haidt argues persuasively that there is also a direct correlation between teenage girls’ use of Instagram and the corresponding spike in teenage girls’ self-harm rates. For rural white men, Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton is convinced that as the white male-dominated “blue-collar aristocracy” vanished, the consequences fell on not just the economic health of places, but also the mental health of white males, whose loss of social and economic status was most acute on account of their privileged place in the previous order. This dislocation, combined with the atrophy of the means of local connection in rural places—churches, civic groups, sports clubs—have driven up feelings of isolation amongst white men, and today record numbers of white men to commit acts of self-harm.
Personal health is not the only consequence of American loneliness about which policymakers need be concerned. Anger is another. And anger is everywhere in American culture today. Recently I met with the head of the Transportation Safety Administration, and I asked him if the increasing number of viral videos of outrageous customer behavior on planes was representative of a trend. He told me that all through the transportation sector, outbursts and confrontations are growing in number, and he shook his head at the decaying sense of social civility that puts his employees at risk. This growing culture of anger is clear in our politics, too. The American right and left now view each other as existential threats to the nation, and result is an increasing coarseness to our public dialogue and an increase in political violence.
This anger, sitting astride the diminishing availability of positive identities like family, place, or institution, tends to make negative identities built on hatred and distrust of others more attractive. The newly isolated become supple targets for demagogues who offer up scapegoats to blame for the decay of these traditional sources of meaning. America was shocked in 2017 when a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville drew thousands, but this should have been no surprise. Loneliness is driving people to dark, dangerous places, and those young, white men carrying tiki torches are only the tip of a giant iceberg of isolated, angry people whose search for meaning might lead them to a seething antisemitic or racist mob.
None of this must be our destiny. Yes, loneliness and its negative byproducts are on the rise. But there are levers the government can push and pull to decrease American isolation, and this project must become a priority for both Republicans and Democrats. The good news is that the policy work required to combat loneliness is not fraught with political peril—the solutions are not easy, but they already enjoy broad bipartisan support.
There are a few places to start. First, why not acknowledge that the consequences of technology’s unstinting advance are not value-neutral, and steer technology companies toward products that breed happiness, not anxiety and loneliness? I know this sounds like a herculean task, but there are already efforts underway to better protect children from the dangers of online addiction by increasing the minimum age of children that technology companies can target with their products. Other legislation seeks to increase social media and tech companies’ legal liability for the damage their products are doing to our kids. In Europe, policymakers are considering requiring that social media algorithms breed less addiction and polarization.
A second starting point would be to purposefully advance policies aimed at restoring the health of our local communities and institutions. The erasure of local businesses, local social clubs, and local news has dried up traditional sources of connection to friends and peers as well as traditional means of non-political, non-ideological identity. A new strategy of economic nationalism—working to bring key industries with good paying, full-time jobs back to the United States—is a good place to begin. In western Connecticut, citizens proudly called themselves citizens of the Brass City, the Silver City, the Hardware City, and the Hat City. Identity and meaning were created by an association with the industrial character of places because those jobs paid wages that could sustain an entire family—generation after generation. By building an updated version of the early- to mid-twentieth century blue-collar aristocracy, we can restore personal and community economic meaning that disappeared with the jobs lost to globalization.
Ensuring that one full-time job provides an adequate living wage would, in and of itself, help these institutions by freeing up more time for Americans to participate in non-work activities. In his campaign for the Senate, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s stump speech ended with a recitation of all the local institutions his grandfather helped build and support because his good paying, 40-hour-a-week union job allowed him the time and peace of mind to commit himself to endeavors beyond economic survival. But we need to do more than just create additional free time. Federal, state, and local government should consider more direct subsidies for community institutions, civic groups, and local newspapers, in addition to reining in the neo-monopolies that put so many local grocery stores, booksellers, and the like out of business. Antitrust policy can make for good anti-loneliness policy.
Everyone, at some point in their life, feels alone. There are few more paralyzing, destabilizing human emotions. And isolation has a habit of spiraling downward, often leading to irreparable dangerous behaviors and choices. Loneliness will always be a part of the human experience, and policymakers cannot erase it from American life. But today, social isolation threatens devastating consequences for the social fabric of our nation. It will be some time before we understand all causes of, and treatments for, this growing catastrophe. But talking frankly about the crisis, its consequences, and potential solutions, is a vital first step.