Loneliness, Radicalization, and the Fate of Democracy
Page: Senator, there’s a problem at the essay contest.
Senator: Please, son, I’m very busy.
Page: A little girl is losing faith in democracy!
Senator: Good Lord!
-”Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington”, the Simpsons, September 26, 1991
As with so many of its early ’90s heyday episodes, the Simpsons’ “Mr. Lisa goes to Washington” is an inadvertent time capsule of the reality of the times, reflected through the mirror of spot-on biting satire. In the climactic confrontation, Lisa is devastated by the realization that a lone on-the-take Congressman has accepted a suitcase of money from lobbyists to demolish Springfield forest. She angrily denounces the corrupt bargain, causing the entirety of the U.S. government to spring into action to eject the offender and restore Lisa’s faith in the democratic system. “The system works” she concludes in amazement, although not without the actions of a passionate dissenter- Lisa herself- from pushing it into action.
Lisa was a stand-in for 1991 America, for the American people who had grown wary and weary of the foibles of government, yet retained a deep well of belief, even pride, in the sclerotic, flawed system. Yet if Lisa Simpson — a millennial — was a real person, her youthful belief of 1991 would have likely curdled to deep and overriding disgust as an adult a quarter of a century later. For the majority of Americans, millennials most prominently, the system does not work; worse, it may not be worth saving. Behind the sturm und drang of partisan warfare, the entire edifice of American democracy has fallen into disrepute. The permanence of the system itself relies on a reserve belief in its inherent righteousness, tested at times by the oscillation of policy, but firm in the belief that that bedrock principles hold. Under our noses, that reserve has slowly drained. For once, this is not an effect primarily of Donald Trump; rather, Trump is the effect, and not the cause of the slow drip of regard for the last, best hope on Earth. Lisa Simpson today would find no redemption in the American capital.
In 1964, 3 out of 4 Americans trusted their government to do the right thing most of the time. Suffice it to say that such trust is long since gone. A Washington Post survey from October, 2016 found 46% of respondents agreeing with either “I never had faith in American democracy” or “I have lost faith in American democracy.” An earlier study in 2014 found 1 in 4 desiring peaceful secession from the federal government; by early this year, California had reached 1 in 3. Congress, purportedly the personification of the Enlightenment’s most compelling belief, that of the people’s control of their own destiny through elected representatives, is less popular than hemorrhoids, herpes, cockroaches and (perhaps most appallingly of all), Nickelback.
While government has suffered its share of failures since 1964, the loss of faith in government is matched by a similar loss of faith in other aspects of civic life. Gallup’s measurement of levels of confidence in an array of institutions, such as the media, organized religion, public schools, banks, unions and big business are at historic lows. Everywhere, it seems, the cynical have married themselves to the disillusioned. A comprehensive review of the durability of western democracies published in the July, 2016 issue of the Journal of Democracy found a dangerous and accelerating disintegration in the support of bedrock democratic values across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe, with the greatest disdain found in millennials. A shocking 24 percent of U.S. millennials in the study considered democracy either a “bad” or “very bad” way of running a country. In part, this represents a loss of engagement — the share of younger Americans and Europeans professing an interest in politics declined precipitously from 1990. But it also reflects a general sense of democratic derision matched by an increasing acceptance of authoritarian rule. In 1995 just one in 16 Americans agreed that it would be a “good” or “very good” thing for the “army to rule.” Now one in six agrees. The authors of the study note this chilling rise of acceptance of military autocracy in younger Americans:
Similarly, while 43 percent of older Americans, including those born between the world wars and their baby-boomer children, do not believe that it is legitimate in a democracy for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job, the figure among millennials is much lower at 19 percent.
Said differently, 81% of millennials expressed support for the legitimacy of a military coup in a democratic nation if the government is not tyrannical, but merely incompetent. Lest one assume that this is a peculiar result of the American experience, the alarming acceptance of the unthinkable is matched in European mature democracies. Hiding in plain sight is that while authoritarianism gathers force abroad, the nation established to be a shining city on the hill, the resurrector of a long defunct two-thousand-year-old tradition of republicanism, is inching perilously close to elective rejection of its founding birthright. We owe it to our progeny to find out why.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. — John Donne
Humans are social creatures, perhaps none more so than Americans. In his famous meditation on American society nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans enmeshed themselves in a remarkable array of institutions and communities which, on a local level, provided the backbone for the continued health of a national republic. Family, local government, church, labor unions, and organizations of all stripes, from the Boy Scouts to the PTA, grounded individuals within the entirety of a vibrant community.
Quietly, this idealized version of American community has become, if not extinct, then certainly endangered. Some twenty years ago, the sociologist Robert Putnam observed in Bowling Alone a burgeoning tear in American civic fabric, a decline he ascribed largely to the individualizing result of technological advancement- — and this, before smart phones or the spread of the internet. The ethos of civic engagement has deteriorated markedly even since Putnam’s Clinton-era observation. Americans have become isolated from one another to a truly alarming degree, with enormous effect on the polity. What was once E Pluribus Unum has become de pluribus, non — out of many, none.
The crisis of the first, and most natural connection in human affairs- the family- has been well chronicled, and debated at length. Less noted is the effect: with a declining birthrate, smaller family size, a high rate of divorce, and a declining rate of marriage, a far greater number of individuals today exist with a tiny or nonexistent familial structure at all. Some 1 in 4 Americans, some 80 million people, live alone. The walls hold their physical as well as mental seclusion: may exist not only physically alone, but often emotionally disconnected from family and friends. Between 1985 and 2004, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled. High levels of education are no antidote: 20% have not a single name to mention. In 1987, just 3% were similarly alone.
Nonfamilial organizations have not sustained lonely Americans in the absence of familial bonds. Organized religion, for centuries the most unifying element among small communities, offers little of the succor that it used to provide. Many Americans no longer believe at all: the number of Americans who declare no religious preference on surveys has almost tripled since 1990- from 8 percent, to 21 percent in 2014. Those that do have stepped away from Mainline Protestantism, which for centuries provided the dominant ethical backdrop and infused politics with its broadly religions but non-theocratic character; its adherents have declined markedly, from 1 in 6 Americans to 1 in 16. Even among the religious, the socializing aspect of religious service attendance has dropped away. Faith has become more of a private, a la carte menagerie of choice. Whatever the benefits of individualizing the personal nature of worship, the unifying and moderating effects of mainline religious churchgoing and its role in the social capital of the community have been muted.
Labor unions used to provide a communalizing influence as well. Some 35% of working Americans were part of a union at America’s industrial height. Unions existed not just as a vehicle for class conflict but as the most vivid experience of solidarity and communal interests for wide swaths of the laboring classes, unifying millions of otherwise nonpolitical individual actors. Unions once combatted the feeling of powerlessness and atomization for millions, but unionization for the private sector today is below 7% — less than 1932, at the depths of the Great Depression. Another door has closed in the face of the isolated American.
At bottom, America is in the grips of a comprehensive crisis of loneliness. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say report loneliness has at least doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. Loneliness is not just a health issue, although it is that as well. It is at bottom an unmooring from the deeper society around us, a casting of the individual away from the enmeshing bonds of shared existence into the abyss of silent isolation. In doing so, it becomes a political crisis in a nation which requires the oxygen of communal regard for sustenance.
Partisanship, much decried, ferments in the bitter soil of seclusion. What looks like two cohesive, ideological sides in a partisan war is increasingly made up of disparate and dejected souls, seeking each other in the darkness through the broken windows of communities, families, and religious institutions. This human debris of a desiccated polity connects in bastardized versions through the few channels left — the internet, talk radio, and television, and inevitably falls prey to the most alarmist and angry voice in the room. The lonely cannot deflect the anger, the flat-out stupidity of demonization and propaganda, for doing so rejects even the limited human contact they inherently crave. They cannot moderate the extreme of the few by discussion with the many, cannot depend on the socializing effect of mass communal opinion, and so, they fall victim to extremism, embracing it, and sustaining it further. The rise of the conspiracy theorists, spewing toxic idiocy through radio and internet, is a telling window into the effect of isolation on reasoned analysis. Worse, isolation not only breeds receptivity to falsity, but elective disassociation as well: you cannot feel powerfully about a government of the people and by the people if your primary interaction with your countrymen is overarching rejection. Democracy is in retreat because the citizens within are in perpetual retreat into a loneliness and disgust which curdles to apathy and rage. We point at each other over a partisan divide because the feeling of belonging to something, even something defined in the emptiness of tribal opposition, is more compelling than bleak silence. We have become our own islands. The bell is tolling in America for all of us, for our communities, and increasingly, for our democracy.
We aren’t lonely by choice. Wrenching changes in the entwinement of politics and economics have made a mighty contribution to this breakdown in the union of American communities. The dreary stagflation of the 1970s administered the coup de grace to Keynesian economics and its active governance in pursuit of full employment. What rose in its place, and what remains with us now, was a new theory of corporate capitalism, wrapped in the gauzy appeal of “freedom” and “flexibility.” Gone was activist government constraining transnational movement of capital and smoothing the business cycle by pro-employment countercyclical fiscal policies. In its place came the hyper-elevation of markets, competition, international capital flow, and antilabor policies.
The elevation of markets meant, in practice, lower taxes and regulations, lower expenditures on sustenance for the poor, free trade, and the promotion of rent-seeking via finance vice production of manufactured goods. Government became for the proponents of corporate capitalism the economic bogeyman, a theory which found surprising widespread receptivity; ideologically, the argument that government was the problem, not the solution, resonated powerfully with working class white Americans bewildered by demographic and cultural progressivism. Antigovernment sentiment was thus easily manipulated to create consent for the neoliberal economic model, which shrewdly wrapped itself in the uniquely American regard for rugged individualism: pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps remains a primary metaphor in support of harsh economic models even as the factories which once produced the boots are long gone. With the cheering of a public caught in the vortex of economic anxiety, the wheel turned. No longer would full employment be the focus of government; rather, employment would naturally follow the freedom of capital to unleash its animal spirits, with the cheering of shepherd and sheep alike.
And unleashed it is. Capital has indeed prospered: the Dow Jones, which reached a low of 776 in August, 1982 — just 400 points higher than its September, 1929 peak — -has skyrocketed to over 21,000 in the past thirty-five years. But it has done so by mining inefficiencies and cost excesses that look an awful lot like people. Capital’s incredible mobility in a post-Bretton Woods era gave employers the ultimate cudgel to use against legacy labor and the unions that fought on its behalf. “Accept wage and pension cuts or we’ll move our investments to [insert country here]”, unimaginable in a Keynesian model, is a proposition for which there as of yet there is no answer. Labor’s share of national income has plummeted in direct proportion to capital’s climb.
The unmistakable effect of American neoliberalism is the creation of a transnational class of dominant equityholders at the expense of the expansionary promise of widespread middle-income labor. Belatedly, American economic devastation has been well chronicled, with reporters recently descending into red-state rural enclaves like Kipling into Africa to report quizzically on the unlettered natives they barely comprehend. They have found bewildered fear personified. The end of easy credit, like a receding tide, has dovetailed with technological determinism and mass outsourcing of production to expose the erosion below: some 50,000 American factories closed in the first decade of the 21st century. We have seen major economic changes before, but this time is different: this time, there has been no adequate replacement for middle-income job growth. Americans have simply been unable to replace the work lost. The labor force participation rate for Americans 16 and up recently returned roughly to where it was in mid-1985, before women had entered the workforce in full force. The two dips it encountered since its 2000 peak — the dotcom bust and the 2008 Great Recession- have never been recovered. The trend has not just hit prime age men, who have been the focus of so much angst: women, as well, have lost ground since their 2000 peaks, with women’s labor force participation rate back to where it was in the late 1980s. The American jobs creation machine has simply run out of steam in the 21st Century even as capital owners have reaped enormous benefit. The effect has not gone unnoticed.
We are relearning, as our Gilded Age predecessors once well knew, that economic stagnation and inequality have deep cultural effects. Individual workers originally responded to the magnetic possibilities of optionality as buzzwords like flexibility, freedom, and choice, are appealing across class and time- “I can choose my own hours as a freelancer rather than slave away at a desk” is a tangible appeal to individual autonomy. But without sufficient high-wage jobs or opportunities, the social effect of such freedom is the atomization of society, from the collective we to the promotion of the individual as the predominant, even sole, actor. Flexibility and freedom become for the laboring classes a forced battle for the scraps that remain- some 60% of jobs today are hourly, not salaried positions, with the loss of benefits among the result. Through labor’s eyes, the overarching result of neoliberalism has been the pervasive privatization not only of business, but of personal risk.
Even many of the winners have lost. Those who have prospered have mostly done so by discarding the remainder of existence to stay ahead. The college educated workforce, tapped into the knowledge-work privileged in the new world, works longer, deeper hours than ever- more than 4.5 weeks per year more than a comparable worker in 1979 — ever-connected to work by the reserve army of the desperate below them and the perpetual electronic leash contained in their pockets. Those who have fallen behind have seen work drop dramatically: Americans on the bottom, whose social capital depended on industrialized work within the confines of a labor union now exist on the jagged edge of perpetual desperation, withdrawing into the haze of lonely despair and, increasingly, painkillers.
The common thread is that prospering or withdrawn alike have neither time nor resources to dedicate to intersectional social connectivity. Nor, in their isolation, do they see each other as compatriots any longer in any event. Competition as a defining economic modality has seeped into the entirety of civic life. While competition has always been with us, generally for the better, the ravaging of the social net — taxes to fund it are sacrificed to the alter of unleashing capital — drops individuals who fall behind into the vortex of grinding and pervasive poverty. The capture of the political system by capital’s dominance only reinforces the trend: the bailout of certain financial and industrial powers as “too big to fail” leads inexorably to even greater demands for austerity which inevitably means the sacrifice of benefits for workers and the unemployed. Prosperity and working poverty exist uneasily together, each drawing further apart, understanding or caring of each other less, and coarsening our view of each other. As the raison d’etre of neoliberal economics is that competition is the highest virtue, the corollary is that those who rise and those who fall behind deserve their fate: not for nothing is the President’s favorite epithet “loser”, a telling example of economics turning everyday life into a permanent war for survival and dominance. Enshrouded in the free fall of poverty in a society dedicated to consumption, the former workers of the Keynesians become the embarrassed, angry loners of the new era. Freedom and flexibility come to appear awfully similar to the freedom to live in lonely poverty for some, and the flexibility to no longer be our brother’s keeper without guilt for others.
Promoting competition as the defining religion of American social life yet denying that most individuals are destined to lose the game played in low growth permeance, reinforced by the brutal penalty for failure, has weaponized citizenship and eroded the civic connections which built American social cohesiveness. Marx would recognize it, albeit in bastardized version: this yawning gap between capital’s prosperous orbit and the teeming mass of labor’s oppression has suffocated American democracy. We have flattered ourselves that our democratic robustness is based on shared values, stretching back to the tradition of Magna Carta. But the patina of principle obscures the real sinews of democratic strength: broad-based economic growth. With it, factions vie within norms for the common surge of prosperity, lest that prosperity be disturbed. Without it, factions rip apart at the long-standing rules in an angry struggle for the diminished spoils of the state. It is the latter which is the backdrop for the entirety of our enraged politics today. We cannot be surprised at a backlash against the governing system when too many are pressing their shrouded faces to the glass to watch the warm glow of prosperity within: there are only so many times that Lucy can yank the football away from Charlie Brown before he boots her directly in the face.
Americans are now forced to see each other as obstacles to a diminishing opportunity to survive rather than potential collaborators in a vast national project. The rising tide does not lift all boats: rather, it forces those in a leaky raft to fight each other to avoid drowning. The unyielding pressure of permanent capitalist struggle without succor eviscerates family ties, breaks down communities, and isolates Americans from pursuing communal ties. Our loneliness is proportionate to our social and economic schism. We cannot join with each other in defunct unions, cannot turn to families strained beyond the breaking point by economic stress, and cannot turn to each other in moderating faith if we are battling constantly with each other for the remainder of the fading chimera of the American Dream. And so, we retreat into the anger and sadness of loneliness, and fall prey to the angry voices pointing to the scapegoats we intrinsically seek. Only in this environment could plutocratic populism ever seem even remotely appealing. We continue the policies of corporate capitalism only by smothering the very heart of American democracy.
A brief final word on what we are seeing before us: Loss of faith in institutions. Economic malaise hitting working-class men the hardest. Rapid cultural upheaval upending traditional mores and faiths. An atomization of the connective tissue of civil society. A soaring transnational elite sitting precariously atop an increasingly-hard pressed mass of society. There is the ring of familiarity about these conditions. They are the among the most salient conditions that have led to extremism and radicalization in Muslim societies. Seemingly without comment, without notice, they may well have the same effect here. Radicalization, American-style is no longer purely abstract.
Our conscious minds immediately reject such a statement. Radicalization, like terrorism, has been defined almost exclusively as something which is endemic to the “other” and not of us. We know it as a shadowy path leading inexorably to hyper-religiosity in the service of association with a violent subgroup, the end result only revealed in the flash of an explosion at a concert, a train station, or a pizza parlor. Radicalization is often used synonymously with violence. We often speak of a young Muslim man radicalized only after he has committed some horrific act of extremist violence against innocent people. That, we tell ourselves with some haughtiness, isn’t us at all. It is what “they” do to “us.”
Yet radicalization and violence are not the same: the latter is only a specific outcome of a path which begins long before. That Americans are generally not committing themselves to extremism-infused violence does not suggest that the basic paths which Muslim rejectionists have trod cannot themselves be walked by Americans. For the precursor to choosing to pick up the mantle of a rejectionist strain of certitude is abandonment, disillusionment, and eventual refutation of the social and cultural system that has birthed such animosity. Radicalization is the process of rejecting the known status quo and adopting increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals. We now know that the predicate is occurring. It is simply a question of what extreme ideals will be adopted if the trends do not change. Our radicalization will not look like that of the Muslim world, perhaps, because the cultural markers in a Western republic are different. It will look like a broken down and degraded group of formerly prosperous and culturally powerful individuals choosing a system of political organizing that tends toward militancy and victimization. Looked at it through that lens, the radicalization on the margins of American society has already begun.
What is the rise of the “alt-right’ but the radicalization of swaths of downcast, angry young men? In the alt-right and its growing and emboldened cohorts, we see a rejection of liberal democracy in favor of a whitewashed version of patriarchal civilization requiring neofascistic supermen to save it from feminists, liberals, and foreigners. We see a romanticized version of a lost past of racial and gender ordering and a determination to restore it by any means necessary. We worry about men learning of radical Islam online and leaving the United States to fight for ISIS, but the seemingly greater threat is the increasing use of the internet by white supremacists and their fellow travelers in downtrodden white communities to radicalize men whose loneliness and rage at the vicissitudes of victimization by neoliberal economics makes them easy converts. Dylan Roof is the most obvious and visible example of how easily a downcast and angry loner can in short time become a willing convert to an ideology which leads inexorably to unfathomable violence. There will, almost certainly, be more.
In his farewell address, Barack Obama called for the American citizenry to be “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.” But we cannot resuscitate an ailing patient by oratory, no matter how soaring, alone. Democracy’s flame is dimming in working-class twilight. To save ourselves, and our nation, we will need to seek out a new economic dogma which permits the individual to once again seek in others the positive connectivity necessary to sustain a healthy demos for our generation and those yet to come.