More Republicans and Democrats are placing politics at the center of their lives. Both sides seem to believe that a grand solution to our political dysfunction can be found inside politics. If only we could vanquish those evil people waving a different banner, this thinking goes, we’d be on the road to national recovery.
‘ Loneliness is everywhere in the U.S., across every sector of society. ’
But nothing that happens in Washington is going to fix what’s wrong with America. It’s not that our battles over the Supreme Court, over dignity for accuser and accused alike, over issues like taxes and regulation and immigration don’t matter. They matter a lot. The problem is that our ever more ferocious political tribalism and mutual hatred don’t originate in politics, so politics isn’t going to heal them.
Humans are social, relational beings. We want and need to be in tribes. In our time, however, all of the traditional tribes that have sustained humans for millennia are simultaneously in collapse. Family, enduring friendship, meaningful shared work, local communities of worship—all have grown ever thinner. We are creating thicker, more vehement tribes around our political differences, I believe, because there is a growing vacuum at the heart of our shared (or increasingly, not so shared) everyday lives.
Loneliness is everywhere in the U.S., across every sector of society. A survey of more than 20,000 American adults conducted earlier this year by the health insurer Cigna and the market research firm Ipsos found that a majority of us are lonely, based on responses to the UCLA Loneliness Scale. The highest scores were reported by the youngest adults, ages 18 to 22. The researchers describe it as a “loneliness epidemic.”
None of this should surprise us. Americans today have fewer shared projects than our parents and grandparents did, and we belong to fewer civic groups. Because we change jobs more often, we have fewer lasting work friendships. We delay marriage, have fewer children and live in larger homes, more separate from those of our neighbors. We move from place to place for relationships, economic opportunity and better weather—and we end up with economic opportunity and better weather.
The Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam chronicled the collapse of associational, neighborly America in his book “Bowling Alone” (2000). In the nearly two decades since, the smartphone has further undermined any sense of place by allowing us to mentally “escape” our homes and neighborhoods. We can instantly connect with the supposedly more exciting lives of others. These moments add up, until we’re in an almost permanent state of dissociation, punctuated only by the most urgent demands of life, to which we tend halfheartedly.