The Lonely (Political) Crowd

by Ryan Streeter and David Wilde

Americans are cancelling community gatherings and limiting neighborhood involvement in order to self-isolate and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However necessary for public health, these efforts risk weakening our fragile social, civic, and economic ties. They also risk exacerbating political divisions during what is shaping up to be a bitter presidential election. Unlike cancelled events, the national political debate is still turned on and in our faces. During this pandemic, we need to take necessary precautions to stay safe and healthy. But we also need to get creative about maintaining our community attachments, albeit virtually, to avoid social isolation — and the spread of politically charged loneliness.

You see, loneliness and politics go together. People who choose to spend their free time engaging in politics tend to be lonelier than those who do other things in their communities, such as volunteering at local charities. Normally, when people get involved in their communities, social capital grows and loneliness declines. Our research, like that of many others, confirms this phenomenon. But we have also found that political engagement is a lone exception to this rule.

The Survey of Community and Society (SCS), conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, asked respondents about 11 types of organizational membership. Active members of traditional civic organizations such as religious and volunteer groups are three points below the national average on the UCLA loneliness index (a standard scale for assessing people’s degree of social isolation). Members of other civic organizations, such as athletic teams, hobby groups, or school-based organizations, also report lower loneliness scores than the national average. By contrast, active members of political organizations have an average loneliness score two points higher than the national average. It’s the only volunteering activity to register above the national average. In addition, the survey finds that socially active yet lonely — yes, it is possible to be both — young adults ages 18–35 are seven times more likely to volunteer in politics than their socially active peers who are not lonely.

Setting politics aside, it makes sense that civic engagement reduces loneliness. People who spend their free time, say, mentoring children or beautifying a local park with their neighbors, instead of watching TV, would understandably feel more connected to — and thus less isolated from — others. A large body of research shows that community activities, especially religious involvement, build social capital and serve as antidotes to isolation.

The American civic way of life that Alexis de Tocqueville famously documented in the 19th century — whereby ordinary citizens tended to tackle communal challenges that Europeans typically left to the government — still persists in our various forms of associational life today, even as it has shown signs of decline over the years. Fifty-three percent of Americans report being active members of at least one civic organization, and roughly three in 10 Americans (29 percent) report being active members of two or more of these groups.

Civic engagement is related to a number of positive indicators that naturally mitigate the negative effects of social isolation, such as trust. Only 32 percent of civically unengaged Americans say most people can be trusted most of the time, compared to 47 percent who are active members of a voluntary organization and 57 percent of those active in multiple organizations.

Higher levels of trust result from the recurring experience of mutual assistance and being available for others. Civically engaged Americans are much more likely to talk with their neighbors, help others out with things such as baby-sitting or house-sitting, and to work with their neighbors to fix or improve things in their neighborhood than those who are not civically engaged. As a result, they are likelier than the unengaged to say they are happy with how things are going in their communities.

Political engagement is another story. Political volunteers, for example, are less embedded in the social and communal environments that produce trust and social capital. They are more than twice as likely as ordinary Americans, and three times more likely than religious Americans, to say “rarely” or “never” when asked if there are people they feel close to. They are five times more likely than religious joiners to say they rarely or never have someone they can turn to in times of need. And they are also more likely than other joiners to say their relationships are superficial.

Lacking regular community, political joiners compensate ideologically. Eighty-seven percent report that their ideology gives them a sense of community, compared to 63 percent of ordinary Americans. They also derive a stronger sense of community from people or groups on social media than the general population (62 percent vs. 48 percent). And they lean farther left and are more highly educated than the general population. (These are the only two meaningful demographic factors; otherwise, their race, gender, age, employment, or marital status look like the general population.)

These data suggest that something has indeed gone wrong in the ideological nature of politics today. The “groupishness” that characterizes people’s ideological commitments or their membership within a political faction has become emotionally charged and tribal. But something else seems to be going on that ideology and community do not fully explain. Lonely, politically active people in America also seem to be less family-oriented. They are just as likely, and sometimes more likely, than the average American to say they would turn to coworkers, neighbors, and friends when in need. The same is true when asked whom in their orbit they would help with financial needs. But they are considerably less likely than the average American to turn to family for help with financial difficulties or help with everyday tasks. And despite having higher incomes on average than the general population, political volunteers are less willing to help out family members in financial need than the rest of the population. When asked which definitions of the American Dream they identify with, fewer political joiners choose “having a good family life” than other Americans.

It is difficult to disentangle all of the reasons our political culture has grown so acidic, but it appears that less communal association, starting with the family, has played a role. When our tribal needs are not met in familial and communal association, our ideological associations play a larger role in our lives — and nowhere is ideological community stronger than in politics.

As we disengage from community institutions and self-isolate to stay healthy during an election year, we all need to find ways to stay connected to family, congregants, fellow volunteers, and neighbors to keep the business of civil society going. And with added — perhaps unprecedented — economic pressures on families caused by the pandemic, the assistance our communal and associational ties provide will prove critical. Working to maintain our social and civic lives through virtual means may also help to keep politics in perspective and reduce the odds that loneliness — which has routinely been called an epidemic — spreads along with the virus.

This essay is part of a special series of the American Project that seeks to address the crisis of loneliness during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Ryan Streeter is Director of Domestic Policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). David Wilde is a Research Assistant at AEI

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