Politics Isn’t a Cure for Loneliness
Editor's Note: John Daly takes over this spot with a column well worth your time.
Michael Brendan Dougherty recently wrote an interesting piece for National Review on how our country's social treasury is depleting. He wasn't referring to funding for our government's social programs like Medicare and Social Security (a different but very real problem), but rather the decline of meaningful relationships in our lives.
While America's economy is strong, our standard of living is rising, and unemployment continues to decline, surveys and studies continue to show that we've become lonelier and unhappier as a nation. A recent Cigna study even categorized the level of loneliness in our country as an "epidemic."
Dougherty includes some supporting statistics:
"Marriage has declined rapidly in our lifetime. In 2000, 55 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds were married. Only 34 percent were never married. In the last few years, never-marrieds are getting close to overtaking married people in the population."
"The average number of people per household has shrunk from 3.33 to 2.57 since 1960. That doesn’t seem like much, but multiply it across an entire kin network and the effect is a dramatic shrinking of the number of people to whom you give, and from whom you expect, some familial loyalty and socializing."
"On average, Americans have one fewer close friend today than a generation ago. Many men report having no close friendships. The youngest Americans, the ones using social media the most, are socializing the least 'irl.'"
"Church attendance has been consistently dropping over our lifetimes. Barna now estimates that the population of 'unchurched' people, 43 percent, has exceeded the population of active churchgoers."
"Fewer Americans know their next-door neighbors. Fewer still regularly interact with them."
Even without the numbers and graphs, I suspect that most people have recognized this trend of disconnectedness through their personal experiences and societal observations. What may not be as apparent is how this relationship gap has carried over into our politics and our affinity for political tribes.
Dougherty calls it "unsurprising" that the "two insurgent ideological trends on the left and on the right — socialism and nationalism, respectively — emphasize shared burdens, our duties to one another." He adds that "politics has become one of the only arenas in which Americans can collectively discuss the quality of their social relations and their sense of morality."
I think there's a lot of truth to that, and it certainly explains why words like "selfish" and "self-centered" are so often thrown around in our political discourse these days — by people on both sides of the aisle — when describing those who don't vote for the same people and issues that they do. Too many people are looking for kinship in our politics, and when they don't find it, they feel betrayed.
This is a problem.
Political leaders and parties shouldn't be so tightly intertwined with our daily lives that they're replacing personal relationships. Political alliances used to be recognized as vehicles by which citizens freely came together to define and advance societal ambitions and interests. Today they're too often seen as social platforms by which people define themselves and pursue team unity. Some even view their party as a patriarchy in which loyalty to the leader of the family is more important than the stated platform and functions of the party itself.
It shouldn't be like this. People's politics should not define who they are. In fact, they should be one of the least important things about a person.
From time to time, I've mentioned in my columns that some of my best friends are liberals. This tends to shock people, and sometimes generates questions like, "How can you be friends with people who hate America?" Such responses sadden me because they really are a testament to the extent of the problem. The same was seen on a much grander scale right after the 2016 election, when lots of admitted Trump voters were disowned by friends and family (and not just on social media).
Politics should not trump friendships, but for many people, it does. In fact, we're often more forgiving of — and devoted to — politicians than we are to the people that really matter in our lives. Just look at all the nasty conduct and rhetoric a lot of us excuse (or even defend) from politicians on our side, when we'd have a much harder time doing it for people we actually know.
Personal relationships are important because they offer not just a genuine and willing support system, but also a sense of normalcy to our lives. They lift our morale and bring us contentment. They drive away loneliness. Political engagement offers none of these things — at least not on any sustainable level.
So what's the answer? I don't think it's to avoid politics, but rather to put it in its place.
Rather than believing that you're at war with your neighbor whose car dons a bumper-sticker voicing support for the other side, get to know him or her (and their family), and discover common interests.
Set aside time on your calendar for dinners with friends (some of whom you may not have seen in a while). Better yet, invite multiple friends who've never met each other, and introduce them.
Do volunteer work in your community, or as Kevin Williamson suggested in a recent piece, join a church.
Travel. Unplug from the political scene, go places you've never been, and unwind. Meet new people and explore different cultures. Go camping. Plan family getaways (even short ones). A change in the environment is often good for the soul.
Of course, some of these things are easier said than done, especially with chaotic work schedules and other time commitments, but they're also pretty important — especially in this increasingly political era.
The world of politics can certainly keep you occupied, but it won't make you happier or less lonely. And if you feel otherwise, you're severely short-changing yourself.