U.S. senators hold one of the most influential positions in the country, with the power to shape policy and confirm nominations that may remake the judicial and executive branches. But that authority only goes so far. Not every issue can be easily solved through legislative means, and some challenges are so nebulous that they must first be identified before they can be addressed.
Senator Chris Murphy believes that one such problem concerns the American psyche. It is a condition that divides and isolates people, yet has serious repercussions for collective society: loneliness.
“People need meaning, they need identity, and they can find that in healthy places or very unhealthy places,” Murphy told me in an interview last week. “We’ve stripped away access to positive connections: Churches are disappearing, social clubs are vanishing, local communities are less healthy, our downtowns have all given way to the Amazon economies.”
Without access to those focal points of community, people become isolated and unhappy, which can threaten not only their own health but that of the larger society, Murphy contends. Studies have shown that prolonged social isolation is associated with a greater likelihood of early mortality and can have health risks equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The crisis of loneliness in the United States has only deepened since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw schools and businesses close for weeks or months on end. In 2020, the former surgeon general identified loneliness as a public health crisis, arguing that the pandemic would incur a “social recession.” A study the following year found that 36 percent of all Americans, including 61 percent of young adults, feel “serious loneliness.”
Murphy, who is perhaps best known for his support for gun control legislation—and was a lead negotiator of the gun safety legislation that passed last year—noted the link between loneliness and firearm deaths. A recent study by Harvard Public Health found that 54 percent of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides. Moreover, more than half of all suicide deaths are by gun. “I’m generally hostile to [blaming] our gun violence problem on people’s mental health, because we are not the only country with mentally ill people or loneliness,” Murphy said. “But it is true that people are driven to a gun often through their intense feelings of loneliness.”
Loneliness is also at the root of some of the nation’s larger struggles, as people put increased faith in demagogic figures who argue they can cure societal ills through authoritarian means. Although loneliness is an abstract concept, its effects are concrete. Social isolation can result in disillusionment with institutions and the strictures of society, which in turn can lead to radicalization. “The demagogic movements and those hate-filled identities—they’re always there. But they are gaining more traction today because people have less means of identifying themselves in healthier ways,” Murphy argued.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt argued in 1951 that loneliness “has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century,” and that “prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world.” That trend has arguably accelerated in recent years with the rise of social media, which has nurtured misinformation and blurred the lines between the truth and lies.
Murphy believes that social media can breed discontent in another manner as well: by making people lose faith in the efficacy of democracy. “People know that social media is a corrupting influence. It’s in front of their face every day. People know that social media is driving their kids into cultures of envy and lives of isolation. And then they see government do nothing about it,” Murphy said. “So they wonder, ‘What’s the point of democracy, if paving a road through my neighborhood is heavily regulated but the [site] that my kids spend five hours a day on has no regulation?’”
Although the senator acknowledges that he is “still developing this critique,” he believes there may be a larger connection between government policy in general, or the lack thereof, and the issue of loneliness. In recent think pieces, he has argued that loneliness is a consequence of the national emphasis on individualism and the failure of neoliberal policies.
“We’ve made some intentional public policy choices in the last 30 to 40 years that have driven up people’s sense of disconnectedness and isolation,” Murphy told me. “And I think that there’s a pretty straight line between the way that people are feeling in this country right now—increasingly isolated, fractured—and the policy choices we’ve made in the last 40 years to gut local communities at the expense of a global market and to throw technologies onto our culture before we’ve thought through the possible significant downsides of those innovations.”
Neoliberalism, which emphasizes deregulation and free trade, rose in the 1970s, became the dominant ideology in the ’80s under President Reagan, and continued apace under President Clinton. Though popular within the Democratic Party of that era, deregulation in particular has become a bête noire for modern Democrats. Many in the party recently blamed the train crash in East Palestine, Ohio, and the failure of Silicon Valley Bank on regulatory rollbacks during the Trump administration.
When I asked Murphy whether he connected the failures of deregulation to a rise in loneliness, he said that “the exercise of regulating the market is the way in which we look out for the common good.”
“When you outsource all morality to the market, and you deregulate every industry, you’re removing an opportunity for us to have a connected conversation about our morals [and] our values,” Murphy argued.
In an op-ed published in Time last week, Murphy and his co-author, Harvard professor Richard Weissbourd, cited the nineteenth-century philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. While de Tocqueville “recognized that America’s future greatness and power likely lay in its citizens’ obsession with individual advancement,” Murphy and Weissbourd wrote, he worried that emphasis on individualism would lead the country to “descend into a morass of avarice, self-interest and envy.”
Given America’s obsession with individualism, is the crisis of loneliness inevitable? “I don’t think it’s impossible to have a healthy balance between the value of individualism and the value of protecting the common good. I would argue that we’ve actually managed to find that balance for much of our nation’s history, and it’s only in the past 20 to 30 years that we’ve gone off course,” he said. “I don’t think we’re destined to be a hyper-individualistic, unhealthy country.”
But identifying the problem is one challenge; addressing it as a senator is quite another. Murphy said he would “do a disservice to this debate” by claiming that loneliness could be entirely solved through public policy. He also argued that conversations about how to legislate on loneliness—through regulation or by strengthening local communities—should not originate in the Senate, where the conversation could be poisoned by partisan politics. Murphy said he had reached out to more socially conservative organizations to find common ground. “I think it’s up to people like me to go out and build some bridges to groups and organizations and individuals that wouldn’t be natural political allies,” he said.
It’s a daunting task to convince Americans on both sides of the aisle that loneliness is a national problem—and that politicians can and should do something about it. But Murphy sees it as his duty to try. “The mission is to go out and build that right-to-left consensus around an agenda of connectedness,” he said, “and then bring that consensus to Washington.”