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Is Democracy to Blame for the Loneliness Epidemic?

Tocqueville warned that the American ideal could lead to increased rootlessness and isolation.

A few years ago, the psychiatrist of a man who had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge discovered the final written words in his former patient’s journal: “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.” The complex nature of depression, and mental disorder more generally, should never be dismissed. At the same time, this story pierces our souls because it is indicative of the social and cultural forms, or the lack thereof, that enable conditions where the saving grace of concrete human interaction is wanting.   

Unfortunately, such disturbing stories are becoming rather common. In an essay in the Harvard Business Review, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy writes of his deep concern over the emerging but too often unnoticed health epidemic in the United States: loneliness. According to Murthy:

rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher. Additionally, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees—and half of CEOsreport feeling lonely in their roles.

Loneliness was the most common ailment that Murthy witnessed in all his years as a physician. To his credit, he recognizes social isolation as both a prior cause of many psychosomatic pathologies, as well as a neglected factor in their exacerbation. Coupled with research on the increasing sociological reality of loneliness is the continual inundation of technology. As we become more “connected” to our screens, we also disconnect from those proximate relationships with our families, friends, and neighbors that give existential depth to our lives.

In light of such findings, it is worth pondering what’s led to this spike in reports of loneliness since the 1980s. Murthy provides this insight:

Why has this feeling increased over past decades? Partly because people are more geographically mobile and are thus more likely to be living apart from friends and family. Indeed, more people report living alone today than at any time since the census began collecting this data. In the workplace, new models of working—such as telecommuting and some on-demand “gig economy” contracting arrangements—have created flexibility but often reduce the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships. And even working at an office doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections.

There is little doubt that geographic mobility, which is a reality across socio-economic levels, is considered something of a sine qua non of American life, and Murthy is right to draw attention to its potential for creating disconnection. But while Murthy’s position is supported by research, there is still a lacuna present. In attempting to examine the root causes of loneliness, Murthy has given what could be considered the fact of geographic mobility without fully explaining the why of that fact. If we are to consider why loneliness has been on the rise for decades, we could answer that Americans move with a high regularity. This frequent moving makes settling in a place, and thus the cultivation of a sustained communal life, rather difficult, although not impossible. That raises the question: Why do Americans move so often? Why is it, in other words, that being unsettled is a common social locus of American practice?

The present increase of loneliness in American culture was predicted by the 19th-century social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville in his magisterial work, Democracy in America. Comparing some of the fundamental differences characterizing the social conditions of aristocratic and democratic societies, Tocqueville zoned in on what is perhaps the most illuminating distinction:

Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain…. Each man is thereby thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

According to Tocqueville’s observation, the shift from aristocratic to democratic conditions is not merely a change of political forms. Democracy produces a set of psychological and even imaginative changes that cause democratic citizens to see themselves in a new way. The novel manner thus described is one in which citizens gradually come to view themselves as separated and cut off. The displacement from nature, family, place, and intergenerational bonds that once held citizens together is what gives rise to a democratic society.

In addition to this first point, it is important to draw attention to Murthy’s claim that human beings have “evolved into social animals.” While there is certainly truth to this view, it is nevertheless incomplete because it lacks the sort of explanatory power needed to ground his position at a deeper ontological level. If human beings have evolved into social animals, then it can also be claimed that we can, for the sake of our survival, evolve out of it. Thus, understanding the destructive effects of loneliness as an epidemic requires a more nuanced defense of the relationship between sociality and human flourishing. Social scientists will need a prior, and more philosophical, explanation that articulates that human beings are intrinsically social because of their nature.

Tocqueville is concerned with precisely this. The social nature of human beings is based in need, but this is not considered to be a deficiency. Our sociality is not merely for our survival; it is necessary in order for our human nature to be complete as the type of thing that it is. Such a view was a first principle in aristocratic societies, and is witnessed in the prevalence of various associational forms and the types that permeated them. In democratic societies, on the other hand, this is not the case. It is more common that Americans conceive of themselves as individuals, isolated from others in such a way that it becomes an imperative for them to form their own meaning for their lives. As Tocqueville says, we will be tempted more and more to find the reasons for things “in ourselves alone.”

In one respect, there is something about the mobility afforded in democratic societies that is good. Dire socio-economic conditions, or the destructive effects of one’s family life, make the possibility of changing places a welcomed opportunity. At the same time, embedded within this affirmation is the understanding that we are primarily individuals. That means, among other things, that we’ve been educated to break away from intermediate associations that are meant to provide attachment to our families and local communities in order to be free.

The plethora of social scientific evidence provides an unsettling indication that such a worldview is not just an epidemic; it is unlivable. The social nature of human life means we are ordered to be in communion with others across a spectrum of various associational types. As already mentioned, the intermediate associations of family, polity, and neighborhood are meant to be focal point whereby we are drawn outside of ourselves into the broader order of the real. The difficulty in democratic times is that there is a strong urge, a tendency, to be released from these associations as forms of oppression and tutelage. This modern account of “liberty,” notably expressed in the effect of our geographic mobility, leaves us wanting for concrete and local connections that ever seem to escape our grasp.

We live in a time of great confusion and illness, and it is certainly understandable why we’d be anxious about the future. However, democratic societies have a real opportunity for recovery. One of the essential keys will be to draw from the wisdom of Murthy’s insights, or even that of Senator Mike Lee’s “Social Capital Project,” and combine it with the philosophical recognition that loneliness is the perennial temptation of democracies.

This is not to say that loneliness and isolation are inevitable, but that the conditions of democratic life tend strongly in this direction, and that their increases are an acknowledgment that the great struggle at the heart of modern liberal democracies is resurfacing.

The usual platitudes about defending democracy, the rule of law, free markets, and individual rights will sound uninspiring to exhausted citizens who hardly know the names of the people living on their streets. As such, democracy cannot merely be understood in terms of democratic institutions, but as a genuine life together that is a form of shared activities. In this way, we need to relearn the art of coming together that marks the foundations of social life, as well as be moderated away from the extremes of a “democratic faith.”  

Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.



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