Acton Institute Powerblog

A lonely nation: Restoring true community in an age of individualism

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Given the rise of social media and our expansive interconnectedness from globalization, one would think that our social bonds would be stronger than ever. With such an abundance of ways to connect and engage, trade and exchange, how could it possibly be otherwise?

But amid the countless blessings of modernity, our expansion of freedom and prosperity has also been accompanied by new idols of individualism, leading many to pair our comforts and conveniences with a materialistic or hedonistic focus on the self.

The result, as Gaylen Byker describes it, is a “liberal paradox”—“a hunger for meaning and values in an age of freedom and plenty.” That widespread hunger comes from a wide variety of places, but one of the clearest can be seen in the deterioration of human relationships and community life across America.

“America is increasingly a lonely nation,” writes Michael Hendrix in National Review. Even with tremendous channels and opportunities for interaction, collaboration, and friendship, “prosperity has afforded our independence from neighbors and networks.”

Drawing from a range of data, Hendrix summarizes the situation as follows:

The proportion of American adults who say they are lonely has increased from 20 percent to 40 percent since the 1980s. Roughly 43 million adults over the age of 45 are estimated to suffer from chronic loneliness. The unmarried and the uncommitted to community report higher rates of loneliness, with the causality likely being a two-way street.

…Friend groups, where they exist, are smaller and narrower than in the past. When Americans do confide in someone else, they are more likely to look inward to kin rather than outward to community. Social networks are increasingly folding in on the nuclear family. Yet marriage and family formation are becoming less a rite of passage and more a mark of privilege. Around half of American adults are married, down from 72 percent in 1960, and their age of matrimony is increasingly past the age at which men and women begin to lose friends, which is roughly age 25. The stability of their unions — whether they stay together or have children — is increasingly a function of income. As family formation becomes a luxury amenity, isolation is more likely to be a province of the poor.

In the transition from agrarian life to the industrialized world to the the age of information, much has changed. American prosperity was once buoyed by the strength of certain institutions—religious, civil, political, economic, and otherwise. Yet the religious and institutional vibrancy that Alexis de Tocqueville once hailed appears to be dwindling, making the space between the individual and the state increasingly thin.

“Modern religious life, as with nearly every social institution in America today, is increasingly subsumed by an ethic of expressive individualism,” writes Hendrix. “And this autonomy is manifested and reinforced in myriad ways by modern American life — whether it be the three-quarters of Americans commuting alone in their cars or the personalized worlds of smartphones, social media, and video games.”

But while it can be easy to focus on the surface-level features that help insulate our lives from others, we should be careful to note that the real roots of the problem are distinct from the material stuff. Our smartphones and social networks may not make the path to authentic community any easier (at least, at first), but they are not the source of our loneliness.

We should ask ourselves: What’s truly happening in our hearts and minds, before and beyond our tools and technologies? What’s truly needed to fruitfully inhabit our modern world with vigorous human relationships and authentic community?

When asking such questions, we shouldn’t pretend that we have easy political or social solutions to these sorts of problems, which are fundamentally spiritual, social, and cultural. But we should also be aware of the types of attitudes, mindsets, and socio-political systems that either help or inhibit our efforts as we aim to cultivate those micro-level solutions.

As Hendrix points out, for conservatives and libertarians, it will require an imagination that weaves together the best of both our communitarian and market-oriented instincts:

Traditional conservatism stands athwart an unwinding social order. It sees man as a social animal — relationally oriented and networked to community. This sort of interdependence rightly orders our civil freedom toward sustaining virtue through the things we have in common: habits, traditions, and institutions. Rather than simply freeing us from the shackles of government or social constructs, this bonds us to faith, family, and community in such a way as to give meaning and purpose to our freedom. In turn, it is on these social networks, capital, and institutions that we build truly flourishing markets that work for the common good, particularly for “the least of these.”

…Restoring a more traditionalist, communitarian conservatism must begin by acknowledging the limits of policy. There is no bill in Congress that can ever satisfy the longings of the human heart for fellowship. Government cannot bind us together. Nevertheless, America’s diversity can be the source of its solutions for the 21st century. We can start by bringing political power closer to our communities and elevating our shared institutions. People who are empowered together are likelier to work together. Ideas should necessarily emanate upward from America’s towns, cities, and states rather than downward from Washington. An urban conservatism, for instance, would be well placed to tackle the barriers in housing, entrepreneurship, and governance that prevent Americans from becoming a part of our most prosperous communities.

Indeed, we can already see the fruits of this paradoxical dynamic in select regions across the country, from the oil pioneers in North Dakota to the communitarian startup culture of Salt Lake City, Utah.

As Hendrix concludes, “Loneliness will not disappear at the stroke of a pen.” It’s time to re-plant the seeds that made us strong, constraining what we can from the top down, but focusing more heartily on freedom, virtue, and spiritual revival from the bottom up.

We are called to a higher freedom and higher engagement than the individualism and loneliness of our age. But it’s up to each of us to be the moral witnesses of that freedom and community in our families, churches, schools, businesses, and neighborhoods.

Image: JD Hancock / Lonely Traveler (CC BY 2.0)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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