The Politics of Loneliness and Isolation

 

America is bowling alone. That is what Harvard Professor Robert Putnam famously argued at the start of the century in his groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. From well before Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville praised American democracy for its voluntary associations through the 1960’s, PTA’s, gardening clubs, churches, and bowling leagues were the backbone of American life. By 2000, however, many Americans were living in suburbs, not going to church, divorcing, and bowling alone. For more evidence of this disaffiliation, we highly recommend Putnam’s book, especially the updated 20th anniversary edition that will be available this summer. The goal of our project is to understand whether and how youth soccer programs might help to buck these trends. The purpose of this page is to show why doing so is so important. We’re here to lay out the problem.

       

A good deal of social science research has shown that the fewer people interact in voluntary associations—groupings of people around a common interest—generally, the worse political polarization becomes. Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic has analyzed this issue clearly while discouraging excessive nostalgia. Though racial segregation was even more prominent and geographic regions often leaned one way or the other politically, inter-party dialogue was more common. Voluntary associations were spaces where people made friends across political divides. Church potlucks and PTA bake sales required cooperation and encouraged friendship amongst people in different ideological and economic pockets of society. That is decreasingly the case.

Books like Timothy Carney’s Alienated America: Why Some Places thrive While Others Collapse and Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order offer divergent and compelling explanations for the trend.  People are more likely to date, marry, and live in the same neighborhood as people from their own political party. The more people meet each other online rather than through mediating institutions, the truer that becomes. As people become more “atomized,” they also grow less likely to trust people on the other side of the political spectrum. People who are atomized in real life, are more likely to seek community in online spaces—often yielding dangerous and radicalizing echo chambers. From the lack of trust to increased polarization, the atomization of American society harms our nation’s political health.

        

 Less frequently discussed but also important, the atomization of American society degrades our national physical and psychological health as well. When children encounter serious traumatic incidents, referred to in health circles as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE’s, their risk of serious negative financial, legal, educational, and physical life outcomes increase. The best buffer against the negative effects of ACE’s is strong relational health—the sort of lasting, dependable relationship that children develop with coaches, tutors, and religious leaders. When life gives children buckets of lemons, mentors in voluntary associations help them turn it into lemonade.

A myriad of diverse forces challenge Americans today, but some of the most serious ones can be combatted with stronger communities. America may be secularizing, but it doesn’t love sports any less. Sports teams can bring us together. Appealing to what unites us in his breakout 2004 Democratic convention speech, Barack Obama famously declared that “We coach Little League in the Blue States.” Where baseball is generally a spring sport, however, soccer is year-round. Where baseball has only a modified parallel in softball, boys and girls play the same game often for the same organizations in soccer. Where baseball requires players to own a good bit of equipment, soccer players only need a ball and a few feet of space to play. While “soccer mom” has often been used to refer to white, upper-middle-class suburban mothers, we think the phenomenon ought to expand. On this site, we’ll see how our nation’s parents and children might benefit if more children played soccer.