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  • In America today, class-based resentment towards cultural elites helps to explain at least some of the volatility in our current political climate. Tweet This
  • If we are witnessing a crisis of loneliness and distrust, the way out is through a flood of human connection and more easy-access avenues of active citizenship for people of all backgrounds. Tweet This

It’s been a decade now since we first moved to a mostly white, working-class town in southwestern Ohio, with the purpose of being close to people whose voices were rarely amplified by national media. Today, we grieve the moment we’re in—marked by contention, distrust, anger, and even political violence like what happened at the Capitol—and we reflect on how we got here.

Something we’re seeing from the vantage point of our little dot on the map is the landscape of loneliness. It is the backdrop for our current plot, the setting of our national story. 

In 2014, we wrote an essay for First Things called “Alone in the New America.” We described how working-class young adults, and particularly young men, are increasingly alienated from work, family, and other civil society institutions, and outlined some hopes for a remedy of solidarity. Loneliness often emerged in our interviews with young adults, who often described the same emotion in a myriad ways. 

“I just felt so alone,” Anthony said about the time after he quit his job and his fiancée left him, driving him to the brink of suicide. 

“The biggest thing is I don’t like to be alone,” said a single mom about why she jumped quickly into relationships.  

“There’s a lot of depression and people feel like there’s no one to care,” Cassie observed about why friends got into relationships—at a time when she was in a relationship she would later acknowledge was driven by loneliness. 

The deepest loneliness often stems from disruption and disorder in the family, which ought to be a haven of love and a school for trust but is too often the place where another lesson is learned: people will leave and let you down, so you’ve got to look out for yourself. 

Loneliness in full flower is distrust. The fruit of distrust is division.

In a fascinating essay on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s idea that loneliness can lead to totalitarianism, Samantha Rose Hill explains that “because loneliness radically cuts people off from human connection,” it changes the way we think as well as our relationships with others and ourselves, leaving us susceptible to ideology that is disconnected from reality. She says that Arendt:

defined loneliness as a kind of wilderness where a person feels deserted by all worldliness and human companionship, even when surrounded by others. The word she used for loneliness in her mother tongue was Verlassenheit—a state of being abandoned, or abandon-ness. Loneliness, she argued, is ‘among the most radical and desperate experiences of man’, because in loneliness we are unable to realise our full capacity for action as human beings.

It is striking that loneliness even affects our relationships with ourselves. A few years after moving to Ohio, and because of growing friendships with some of our neighbors, we began to realize that what often seemed like inexplicable dysfunction from the outside (and too often ended in “deaths of despair”) was a strong sense of shame, worthlessness, and failure, which young adults often summed up with the phrase “screw up.” Described another way, it is a basic distrust of one’s self. 

Late one night, Ashley, unable to sleep after a fight with her boyfriend, texted Amber: 

I feel like I’m a reject or defective. I’m broken like no one can love me and I can never do anything right. I keep digging myself deeper in debt. can’t keep a job. how could anyone love the screw up. I’m the messed up child in my family. how could god forgive me and love me when I can’t? how can anyone love a screwup?

We heard a chorus of voices like this. Like Cassie, a single mom who berated herself for all the times that she had made bad choices, with the result being, “I think I have a very big lack of trust as far as in myself.” Or the tough guy with a pistol in his pocket who broke down in tears in our living room.

The depth of this pain is heartbreaking, and over the past few years, Pope Francis’ many words on mercy have been prescient as we have come to see that at the root of so much anger and bad behavior in the world is a tragic and emaciated sense of self. 

This sense is compounded by the feeling of being looked down upon for not having a college degree and bearing the stigma of being from the blue-collar, “white-trash” part of town. Cassie says she prefers to shop at the Kroger in her part of town because when she goes to the Kroger in a more upscale zip code, people look at her like she doesn’t belong there. Other neighbors talk about being profiled by the police because of their neighborhoods, tattoos, and clunkers. Or almost worse, not being seen at all.  

These attitudes, both explicit and implicit, are salt in the wounds of people already struggling to believe in their own dignity. As ridiculous as it was for President Trump to tell the rioters, “We love you. You’re very special,” we couldn’t help but note that he seems to know his followers, which include those who have not heard those words enough. 

Just as British condescension created growing resentment among American colonists in the years leading up to the American Revolution—including on the part of George Washington who chafed at the unfair treatment of colonial generals by those British-born, and of Virginia planters by British merchants—so today does class-based resentment towards cultural elites help to explain (but never excuse) at least some of the volatility in our current political climate. Today, symbols of the American Revolution are common on the Facebook pages of our neighbors, who draw parallels between the recent storming of the Capitol and the Boston Tea Party. 

To heal our nation, we must dig deep in search of the roots of division to cultivate American solidarity. 

Yet most people want peace, something we heard in interviews with our neighbors this past week. Tyler, a forklift operator, told us that while he would like to see the formation of a Patriot party and supports the right to peacefully protest, he doesn’t approve of what happened at the Capitol. He thinks the biggest problem facing America is “division.” Others in our town regret voting for Trump because of the events of last week, like the Democrat turned Trump voter who was as appalled by the January 6 pro-Trump mob as he had been by the riots of this past summer. 

But some of our neighbors are beginning to believe that violence is inevitable, if undesirable. Lance is concerned about voter fraud because, he told us, a “free election” is “what our whole democracy is founded on,” adding: 

People on the right are feeling like there was no justice served. They’re feeling undermined. They tried to do it right. They tried to do it peacefully. And I believe what happened at the Capitol was just imploding. People saying, ‘You know what?  We’ve had enough. Here’s what the next step is if you don’t start listening to us.’ 

It’s tempting for some to look at the images of Trump supporters mobbing the Capitol—including many working-class people, though by no means exclusively so—and to double down on campaigns to shame and shun “people like them.” People who broke the law on January 6 should no doubt be held accountable for their actions. But the way forward should be exactly the opposite of stereotyping and shunning. 

Instead, we need a doubling down on building trust in both the private and public spheres—in relationships and in politics. If we are witnessing a crisis of loneliness and distrust, the way out is through a flood of human connection and more easy-access avenues of active citizenship for people of all backgrounds.

A society with more trust will also be a society with a marriage ecosystem that makes it easier for marriages to endure and for families to thrive. This work of strengthening families involves various efforts, from the slow and hidden work of living out family life well in one’s own home with supports like religious congregations, nonprofits, and mental health professionals; to reducing the rule of meritocracy and celebrating working-class dignity in our culture, to implementing better work family policy and reviving the American labor movement.

Listening to those who are different from us is also crucial. As Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) put it during a Braver Angels gathering in response to January 6, “This is happening for a reason, and it’s because people don’t feel heard. Blame can be cast in all directions on all of us, but the antidote is clear: and it’s to open our ears and then our hearts.”

To do so we should organize platforms where ordinary people on all sides are able to meaningfully participate in politics, and as much as possible demystify political processes with the goals of simplicity and transparency.

Ultimately, we can’t address what we don’t understand. We won’t heal hidden wounds. To heal our nation, we must dig deep in search of the roots of division to cultivate American solidarity. 

Amber Lapp is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a qualitative research inquiry into how white, working-class young adults form families and think about marriage. David Lapp is a co-founder of Braver Angels, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.