The Politics of Loneliness

The Politics of Loneliness
Liz Martin/The Gazette via AP
The Politics of Loneliness
Liz Martin/The Gazette via AP
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Are political activists lonely? Maybe. With so much acrimony in our politics today, one wonders why any young person aspiring to make the world a better place would choose politics over humanitarian or other nonprofit work. Why not work with groups producing tangible results, such as teaching schoolchildren or beautifying community parks, instead of a job that involves shouting at your Twitter feed and wondering who will stab your back tomorrow? 

One reason young people get involved in politics might be loneliness. In a nationally representative survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, 18- to 35-year-olds who are lonely and socially active (it is possible to be both) choose to volunteer for political organizations and campaigns at seven times the rate of their peers who are not lonely (22% vs. 3%). Conversely, socially active young adults who are not lonely choose to volunteer for faith-based organizations at six times the rate as their lonely peers (24% vs. 4%). 

Lonely, socially active young adults — defined as those who have multiple friends with whom they interact every week yet report high levels of loneliness — participate in nearly every type of political activity at considerably higher rates than those who are not lonely. This includes expressing support for a candidate on social media (51% vs. 33%) to displaying campaign posters and bumper stickers (30% vs. 18%). Ironically, the only activity in which non-lonely young adults outperform their lonely peers is in voting in elections. The lonely crowd is apparently better at telling others whom to vote for than actually getting to the polls themselves. 

Partisanship plays no role in this phenomenon. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, if you are young and socially active, your loneliness level is a better predictor than your political ideology of whether you will choose to get involved in politics instead of some other community-based activity. 

Lonely young adults attracted to politics seem much less enthused about community-based civil society — the part of the private sector endeavoring to address public challenges with non-governmental resources. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they balance out their low view of civil society with a higher view of government. 

Americans of all ages have been losing confidence in the federal government for several decades, but socially active, lonely young adults hold it in higher esteem than non-lonely young adults. Thirty-seven percent of the lonely group say you can trust the federal government most of the time or almost always compared to 16% of their non-lonely peers. The lonely group is also more likely to believe they can influence the federal government and more inclined to believe that inequality is an issue that government needs to address. 

We see even bigger differences between the lonely and non-lonely groups on issues pertaining to civil society. People who have a lot of faith in government and politics tend to think less of civil society. Thirty percent of the lonely group answer “not much” or “not at all” when asked whether local charities make their community successful, compared to 16% of the non-lonely group. About one in four (26%) of the lonely group says the same about families’ value in the community, compared to 7% of the non-lonely group. An astonishing 33% of the lonely group say local schools do not matter much for community success, compared to just 5% of their non-lonely peers. Their lower opinion of community institutions extends to community amenities such as grocery stores, parks, libraries and community centers. They simply do not regard the role of local institutions as importantly as young adults who are not lonely. 

The picture that emerges of socially active young adults suggests that politics fulfills the tribal needs of lonely individuals more than it does for those who are not lonely. The latter group generally has a higher opinion of all sorts of community institutions. This may be because their lack of loneliness is directly attributable to their embeddedness in richer local networks. For lonely young adults, politics provides the sense of purpose and mission that their non-lonely peers get from church, their favorite local charity, or their kids’ school. 

Ryan Streeter is director of Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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