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The Spiritual Unspooling of America: A Case for a Political Realignment

A left-right convergence around economics is possible—and the side that takes the lead on this will reap major rewards.

A man waits at a dental and medical clinic in rural Virginia
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A man waits at a dental and medical clinic in rural Virginia.

It isn’t normal for a young woman to be shot because she pulled into the wrong driveway. It isn’t normal that every day, more than a hundred Americans drop dead from taking a drug designed to dull the senses and facilitate the withdrawal from life. It isn’t normal for citizens to storm government buildings in the desperate hope of keeping their chosen leader in power.

America feels like it’s unraveling at the edges. You can feel the spiritual disintegration everywhere, from our hollowed-out postindustrial towns to our retreat into our electronic devices to the fracturing of our social and religious institutions. Americans are less hopeful and less happy than ever before in our history, and many are fumbling about in the dark, searching for a politics that will align with their plight.

They find no solace, though, when surveying America’s political conversation. Public debate is centered around either issues that have little obvious relevance to daily life—like President Trump’s handling of classified documents or Joe Biden’s son’s business dealings—or political fights, like immigration or health care, that are highly relevant but suspended in political gelatin. With the possible exception of the outrage industry—the web of media, technology, advocacy, and entertainment companies that make money off pitting Americans against one another—nobody feels themselves well served by our country’s politics.

I think that rather than continuing this alternating obsession with intractable partisan battles and issues that feel distant from their quality of life, Americans want their political leaders to take a step back and ask two simple questions: What makes a good life, filled with purpose, meaning, and happiness? And what does government need to do—and not do—so that more people have access to this life? If more of us asked these questions, we might find that America is not actually as divided as the outrage industry would have us believe. Indeed, there exists a set of shared feelings and fears, on both the right and the left, that could provide a road map for anyone committed to developing policies that address the spiritual unspooling that is happening in many Americans’ lives.

I am a progressive Democrat from Connecticut probably best known for my work fighting to make our nation’s gun laws safer or pushing for a foreign policy vision that centers human rights, so I understand why some may be surprised to hear me make this argument. But over the last few years, I’ve sensed this growing spiritual crisis in my conversations with people in Connecticut and across the country. Unemployment is low, quality of life is high, and yet we don’t seem happier. This isn’t true for everyone, of course, but there are all sorts of signs that people are, on balance, more miserable today than ever before—with a rising number of people attempting suicide, retreating to drug use, and reporting intense feelings of loneliness and disconnection. And just adjusting the dials on existing government programs doesn’t seem to be curing what ails us.  

The Four Sources of Our Unease

It strikes me that in both urban and rural landscapes, and across class, gender, and racial identities, we are all feeling a set of common anxieties. These include: a loss of control over economic and family life; an acute loneliness and disconnection from community; a frustration with the pace and nature of technological change; and an exhaustion with suffocating consumerism. The result is a dangerous lack of meaning or positive identity for tens of millions of Americans—a spiritual emptiness—that leaves us casting about for outlets for our anxiety and anger. But the sources of this unease are not untreatable. They need not represent a permanent American metaphysical state. In fact, they are sitting there, in plain view, awaiting a set of leaders with the courage to talk honestly about them—and to acknowledge that their solutions won’t be found in the stale, partisan orthodoxies of our existing political paradigm.

The first and most obvious source of the American spiritual crisis is a growing loss of economic agency. The link between productivity and worker earnings has been broken. Tens of millions of Americans are working harder than ever before but struggling to keep their heads above water. In 1970, middle-income Americans collected 63 percent of all income in the country. Today, that share has fallen to 43 percent, with the entire 20 percent gap being added to the money piles of the already rich.   

Economic control—the ability for hard work through employment to lead to a higher quality of life—seems a quaint vestige of a bygone era. As American labor law and corporations grew more hostile to collective bargaining, the percentage of workers represented by a union fell from 27 percent in 1973 to 11 percent in 2022 (and considerably lower in the private sector). Manufacturing employment collapsed as the bipartisan neoliberal embrace of barrier-free international markets let corporations offshore jobs to countries with lower wages and weaker labor and environmental standards.

The psychological impact of this change is hard to overstate. There is no more quintessentially American ideal than the relationship between effort and success; but today, with automation and technology replacing hard work as the primary driver of productivity, and with so much of the economy controlled by monopolistic megacorporations, workers feel a paralyzing loss of control over their economic and family lives. This has been uniquely destabilizing for American men, as this loss of economic agency, side by side with the rise of women in the workforce, has taken from them their historic identity as family breadwinners.

Second, Americans are feeling a sense of disconnection from one another. Self-reported rates of intense loneliness have increased by more than 40 percent in the last 10 years alone. There are many possible reasons for this growing epidemic of isolation. The post-1980s fetishization of individual success at the expense of the common good seeped into every facet of American life, from our politics to popular culture, and has caused many Americans to turn inward. Free time to see friends or relatives is scarcer as full-time jobs often don’t pay enough and workers need to work longer days and on weekends. The places where we met each other (vibrant downtowns and churches, for instance) and learned about each other (local newspapers) are atrophying. And our separation is set on hyperdrive by the rise of social media and streaming services, which pull us away from houses of worship and social clubs and into a co-dependent relationship with our screens.  

This feeling of disconnection comes with enormous physical and social cost. A recent report by Dr. Vivek Murthy, who identifies loneliness as one of America’s most crippling epidemics, suggests that people who feel isolated have a 29 percent greater chance of heart disease and a 50 percent greater chance of dementia in older adults. Another clear by-product of loneliness is anger and frustration. The isolated become easy targets for demagogues and movements built on division. Loneliness quickly becomes the father of political instability, as it pushes people looking for meaningful connection to dark, dangerous places.

Third, Americans feel like technology now rules them instead of working for them. There is no question Americans derive tremendous enjoyment and benefit from the advent of the internet and automation age. It’s still amazing to me that I can listen to any song in the world with a click of a button or have an obscure replacement part for my son’s bike delivered to my house in less than 24 hours. But the dark side of these new technologies is increasingly hard to ignore.

The price of online commerce has been the destruction of small business and vibrant local economies, placing us all into one big soulless, antiseptic global economy. The consequence of social media growth has been growing political polarization, a dangerous addiction to screens among our teenagers, and a culture of soul-deflating envy. The cost of automation has been the erasure of millions of jobs and the prospect of machine learning replacing basic human functions like creativity and conversation. Technology has improved our lives, but it has also delivered an equal dose of spiritual decay.

Fourth, Americans are feeling a sense of exhaustion with an economy that elevates efficiency and profit-taking above any sense of common good or moral value. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the gutsy, commercial spirit of early America but guessed that the nation would not survive if it became simply a venue for wealth creation, devoid of any national moral identity. For much of our country’s history, we did a decent job at balancing profitmaking and citizenship. Many sectors of the American economy, like health care and education, were deemed so vital to our sense of collective moral mission that they were kept out of for-profit control. But today, the idea of forsaking profit for the common good is a laughable anachronism. Everything is scaled to a commodity, from extra fees to sit next to your kid on their first plane ride to for-profit nursing homes that offer the bare minimum of care. As Glenn Hubbard, the chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, once neatly explained, “The goal of the economic system [is] optimizing consumption,” not building healthy, happy individuals or families. 

A Left-Right Convergence on Economics Is Possible

To resolve this growing crisis of spiritual health, I believe Americans badly want our politics to be organized around a shared national project. Instead, our politics today are ordered to serve a set of issues where the two sides—right and left—are hopelessly divided. Abortion and reproductive rights, immigration, and health care are all vital issues, and as a progressive who believes in LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom, and universal health care, I don’t plan on backing down on any of these fights. But our decision to base our political groupings on these issues masks a potentially massive, hidden alignment between Americans on both the right and left—an alignment that could potentially address the set of spiritual problems I have outlined here. 

Why am I so confident about this opportunity to realign the political stars? Because the solution set required to address this economic and spiritual crisis in America is one that can credibly command right-left cooperation. Increasingly, conservatives are open to the public sector playing a more aggressive role in making the free market work to create healthy communities and healthy families. My colleague Marco Rubio recently called for building a new “common good capitalism,” spitting in the face of his party’s traditional the-market-is-never-wrong conservative orthodoxy. “Our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market,” says Rubio. “The market exists to serve our nation and our people.” While I disagreed with many of the policy prescriptions Senator Rubio put forward in a report he published around Labor Day, his support for industrial policy and expanding the child tax credit shows there are important areas where Democrats and Republicans can work together to use public policy, instead of blind faith in the market, to raise wages and support families. 

Of course, the Democratic Party is not immune to the influence of corporate interest and Wall Street. That said, a large part of the reason Democrats overperformed in the 2022 midterms is that we passed big pieces of legislation that showed voters we can and will take on entrenched corporate interests like fossil fuel companies and Big Pharma in order to deliver for Americans.  

The policies necessary to promote more social connection hold obvious possibilities for cross-party alignment as well. To promote connection, we need more free time for workers, healthier religious institutions, social clubs, and town centers, and less addictive technology. None of the policies necessary to achieve those goals has clear divisions between right and left. For instance, the idea that one income should be enough to support a family of four—so that a family has enough free time to engage in socially connective activities—is an idea that has for different reasons attracted the support of both Blake Masters, an ultraconservative Senate candidate in 2022, and Bernie Sanders. It’s likewise not hard to see an alignment between Republicans and Democrats in support of public subsidies for institutions that strengthen the social fabric of the community. Conservatives may favor churches, and progressives may favor social clubs and local newspapers, but why not embrace the common interest in supporting local civic institutions? And on the crisis of social media, there are already several interesting coalitions of progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress proposing regulation of the ways that social media platforms addict citizens, endanger children, and undermine our capacity for real-life connection. For example, I’ve worked with fellow progressive Senator Brian Schatz and conservative Senators Tom Cotton and Katie Britt to introduce the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act. 

There are also opportunities for progressives to work with constituencies on the right to address the gutting of civic values. A leading architect of the New Right, a branch of populist and illiberal conservatism, Patrick Deneen, rails against the corruption of our social space by corporate oligarchs and argues passionately to add values and the consideration of social impact back into our national ethos. Look no further than the subject matter at key conservative gatherings like the National Conservatism Conference to see the popularity of attacking corporate power among Trump’s young conservative acolytes. Panels took on topics like “ESG: Evil, Stupidity, or Grift?” and their statement of principles attacks “trans-national corporations” for “showing little loyalty to any nation” and “damaging public life.”

Of course, it must be acknowledged that much of their antagonism toward business elites is a reaction to corporations’ perceived support for causes aligned with the left, like climate change, LGBTQ rights, and women’s liberation. And yes, much of the right’s desire to infuse values back into our national life—especially among the loudest voices on the New Right, largely motivated by white grievance—is a thinly disguised attempt to roll back liberation movements 50 years and restore the white, Christian patriarchy to its pre–sexual revolution stature. 

Still, the fact that growing constituencies on both the right and left—whether secular or religious—are calling for the elevation of nonmarket values and the centering of the common good in our national life suggests an opportunity to find common ground. We should not be so certain that there is not some overlapping space in the Venn diagram of virtues that the right and left hold sacred.

Why We Want Them Inside the Tent

A prominent conservative, who like me is a believer in this coming realignment, told me that he views the two parties as being in a quiet, unspoken race to see which side first discovers this silent majority of Americans who want more economic control, more social connection, and more moral markets. He believes the race will be defined by the simple question of which happens first: Does the Republican Party become more economically progressive, or does the Democratic Party become a bigger tent and accept into its ranks conservatives who may disagree with us on issues like climate or guns but support a higher minimum wage or more regulation of technology?

Of course, the impediments to a realignment like this are easy to see in each party’s infrastructure. The right is burdened by generations of political leaders and corporate backers steeped in an unbending faith in unregulated free markets and low tax rates—not healthy families or positive identity or happiness—as the end goal of all public policy. Right-wing commentator Sohrab Ahmari recently wrote an essay titled “I Was Wrong. The GOP Will Never Be the Party of the Working Class.” Despite his continued support for Donald Trump, he concedes that the Republican Party will always use its power to further tilt the economic power balance away from working people and toward economic elites.

Many on the left, meanwhile, are convinced that by opening up the Democratic Party’s tent to include people who are not totally aligned with the party’s views on civil rights or guns or fossil fuels we will compromise our movement’s fight for abortion rights, sexual and gender equality, gun safety, and climate policy. I understand this fear, especially in a party that has become accustomed to using these issues as litmus tests for membership and therefore has little experience managing a bigger, more diverse collective of voices. 

But the consequence of this decision is to sacrifice a stable governing majority. Currently, the Democrats’ coalition is never robust enough to command, even in good electoral years, more than 53 percent of Americans. Thirty seven percent of Americans identify their political views as moderate, 36 percent as conservative, and only 25 percent describe themselves as liberal, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. In 2019, Gallup calculated there are 25 states that are “more conservative than average,” including 19 states in which conservatives outnumber liberals by at least 20 percentage points. There are only six states in which more residents identify as liberal than conservative, which means that to win the Senate with a filibuster-proof majority, Democrats need to be a bigger tent.

Compare this to the 1960s and 1970s, when Democrats had a much more diverse coalition, especially on issues like abortion, guns, and the environment, and were able to hold sizable majorities in Congress and state legislatures. During that time, not only did Democrats pass historic landmark economic legislation like Medicare, Medicaid, and regular increases in the minimum wage, but steady progress was also made on social issues, civil rights, and the environment. For instance, the big Democratic congressional majorities of the 1970s allowed Congress to pass environmental protection measures like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, even though inside that big majority coalition were members of Congress who opposed those measures. Are Democrats sure that a return to big-tent politics would threaten our ability to protect and expand access to abortion or pass an assault weapons ban? Or might a new, more capacious coalition be the key to making progress on these kind of priorities, even if that coalition included some dissenting voices?

Further, in an era of compartmentalized, polarized news consumption, it is likely better to have dissenting voices inside the tent than outside. If, for instance, alignment on economic issues brings more social conservatives into the Democratic fold, then we have a better chance at breaking them out of the Fox News echo chamber, confronting their biases and prejudices, and winning them over. Keeping them on the outside, in this siloed information-gathering environment, gives progressives almost no hope of winning the argument on social issues with Republican voters. 

To be clear, I do not believe that opening our movement’s doors requires us to dampen the verve of our work on social issues like reproductive choice or gun safety or climate change. No, we can start by simply being purposeful about reaching out to conservative audiences and being less judgmental and quick to ridicule those who don’t agree with us 100 percent of the time. 

Maybe I am hopelessly naïve. Maybe too many on the right are so stubbornly wedded to their anti-gay, anti-choice, pro-gun, or patriarchal views that they will not entertain overtures to join our coalition. Again, I am not suggesting that the left compromise our commitment to equality or justice for women, children, or LGBTQ individuals in order to expand our coalition. What I am proposing is that outreach is worth the try, even if the chances of success are far from certain. What I’m guessing is that some conservative voters who might not agree with me on the question of an assault weapons ban might actually be more concerned with higher wages than with access to AR-15s. Instead of dismissing such people, we should try to win them over. 

There are two other potential options for the reorientation of American politics, besides party realignment. The first is the easier one: The parties could continue to define their identities around the traditional issues while working to find more frequent avenues of cooperation. Nothing prevents Republicans and Democrats from regularly working together on issues like wage growth, industrial policy, support for local economies, technology regulation, or more moral markets.

The second option is more revolutionary and longer term: the creation of a new political movement centered on this realigned consensus. If neither party will shift to take advantage of this hidden opportunity in the coming years, why couldn’t a new movement capture this left-right majority? Truthfully, America is overdue for a shake-up of our long stable, and probably stale, two-party system. The coming realignment offers an alluring opportunity for a set of leaders to do what the parties may not be willing to do.

Whatever the route that is ultimately taken, the good news is that the first step does not require hard political choices, like whether to upset current party orthodoxies or found a new party. The first step is for political leaders to simply convene a conversation about the things we are all feeling. My list begins with economic powerlessness, loneliness, and fatigue with technology and consumerism, but other Americans may add their own items. When we start every political conversation by talking about policy—wage policy or technology policy or regulatory policy—we often react first by identifying and retreating to our political corners. By centering our conversation on our spiritual crises (what are the things I am feeling that I don’t like?), and first principles (what are the elements of a good, fulfilling life?), we produce a less predictable, less prejudiced, and less instinctively confrontational dialogue. It then becomes much easier to move toward a discussion about policies that make us feel better about our lives and our country.

I saw this potential at work in Norwich, Connecticut, a few months ago, when I convened a group of religious leaders to talk about our growing disconnection from each other. Around the table were, no doubt, political conservatives and political progressives. The right and the left. But our discussion was centered not around worn-out policy debates but on the question of what projects we could undertake to help make Norwich residents feel less isolated. We talked about why fewer residents attend religious services. We talked about the barriers to citizens joining social groups. We talked about the mistake of relying on virtual connection to replicate in-person experience. The conversation was seamless, lively, civil, and ended with everyone thirsting for more.

I am a believer in American exceptionalism. We are the first and only nation in the history of the world to choose to blend together all kinds of different people and vest governance in that heterogeneous public. What we have built is majestic, and I believe it is our sacred trust to part the seas in order to preserve it. But there is a spiritual rot underfoot, threatening to collapse the foundation we have built over two centuries. Our choice to settle for a stale politics stuck on the same dividing lines, in willful ignorance of a potential new political alignment built on a broad public alignment on first principles, is an abrogation of this trust. Imagining and executing a political realignment to address our spiritual unspooling will not be easy. But our great nation is coming apart at the seams; too many of our people are unhappy and unfulfilled, ready to be set against their fellow Americans over the slightest grievance by unscrupulous demagogues. Americans on the right and left want a politics built around a new set of issues that can unite, not divide, our nation. A realignment that will infuse vibrancy and relevancy back into our politics is there for taking. We should stop ignoring it.