This op-ed was originally published in USA Today.
There is no shortage of headlines about the grim state of our democracy. Many forces are to blame: leaders who flout democratic norms and spout “us vs. them” rhetoric, a political system that fuels polarization, growing threats of political violence and election interference, and the divisive and distorting effects of social media. The list goes on.
Another factor, frequently left out of the picture, is loneliness – often defined as the discrepancy between one’s desired and actual levels of social connection.
Although data shows an uptick in loneliness during the pandemic – not surprising given the missed milestones, canceled visits and hours staring at screens – some experts argue that talk of a loneliness epidemic is overstated.
Loneliness can inflict profound damage
Yet, there’s broad consensus and mounting evidence that the adverse health effects of loneliness are profound and that the benefits of feeling connected, seen and valued are vital. The causes of loneliness are not fully known, but leading thinkers have named various contributing factors, ranging from a culture of hyperindividualism to the effects of economic insecurity and trauma.
Looking at loneliness solely through a health lens obscures a harmful knock-on effect: how it subverts democracy. Leaders, policymakers and funders committed to building a more vibrant, inclusive and pluralistic democracy in America need to add loneliness to their agenda by addressing the crisis of connection.
How might we make the case for investing in social connection as part of what’s needed to heal our ailing democracy? Insights from philosopher Hannah Arendt from decades ago are helpful here. “The experience of not belonging to the world at all … is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man,” Arendt wrote in "The Origins of Totalitarianism."
She explained how the feeling of loneliness that people harbor in private becomes a scourge in public life. It warps people’s sense of reality, alienates them and fuels resentment.
Loneliness leads to heightened suspicion
Arendt’s astute observations are borne out by what we now know goes on in the brain. Neuroscientists John and Stephanie Cacioppo found that loneliness causes increased threat surveillance and a heightened focus on negative social stimuli.
In that state, unfamiliar people trigger unease rather than curiosity.
“Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact,” writes journalist Johann Hari in "Lost Connections." “You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense when none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers.”
Seeing those who are different as a threat is a big problem in a diverse democracy. As journalist Amanda Ripley points out in "High Conflict," influential figures in politics and the media exploit conflict for their own ends. These “conflict entrepreneurs” often stoke fear, using divisive messages to scapegoat those on the other side and to reinforce group identities. The fear caused by loneliness also fuels distrust across difference, undermining any sense of unity or shared fate.
These consequences would be trouble enough, but the negative effects of loneliness compound. Because humans have an innate yearning to belong, people experiencing loneliness will still search for connection. But doing so from a place of heightened fear and distrust makes people more likely to find community and belonging in fractured groups.
When loneliness is widespread, a culture of pluralism is stunted; people are not honing the skills and habits like curiosity, empathy, respect and cooperation that are essential for bridging divides. A healthy democracy requires that people talk to each other in good faith across their differences; that’s true from the kitchen table to the halls of Congress.
As Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explains, “When we are deeply connected to other people, one of the great things that happens is that we’re more able to listen to them, we’re more able to give them the benefit of the doubt, and that makes a dialogue possible.”
Healthy connection in our day-to-day lives is a practice field for democratic participation; we build and repair relationships, deepen trust and do things together. Absent such connection, relational muscles atrophy and "breaking” behaviors take over.
“The local, human relationships that anchored political talk have shriveled up,” writes Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in "Them." “Alienated from each other, and uprooted from places we can call home, we’re reduced to shrieking.”
Loneliness not only stokes negative emotions, it also stifles the prosocial behaviors that people hone through connection.
We must guard against the idea that our democracy is heading inevitably toward collapse, but it’s important to be clear-eyed about the fullness of the problem. Leading thinkers on the left and the right, from the Brookings Institution to The American Project, are contending with the impact of loneliness. And nonpartisan initiatives like StoryCorps’ One Small Step, Citizen University’s Civic Saturday and The People’s Supper are centering human connection in the work of mending our democratic culture.
Policymakers, researchers, practitioners, funders and community leaders across the democracy and social connection fields have an untapped opportunity to find common cause: to make belonging and connection core to the work of strengthening democracy.
It’s also timely. As we emerge from the pandemic, this is a moment to reimagine the role of connection in our everyday lives and in our shared future.