Why did Hillary Clinton lose the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump? That is a question a few Democrats are still asking themselves seven years later, as the legacy of Trump’s victory casts its long shadow over the 2024 elections.
All manner of explanations have been put forward, including Russian misinformation campaigns, rising racism, growing inequality and popular anger against elites. But these days, Clinton’s circle is tossing a new idea around: loneliness was also to blame for the loss. Writing in The Atlantic this week, Clinton noted that surveys have pointed to a sharp increase in isolation among Americans. “As the trust and social ties that used to bind communities together have frayed, apathy, isolation, and polarisation have undercut the old ‘we’re all in this together’ ethos,” she says.
This follows a startling advisory earlier this year from the surgeon-general Vivek Murthy that decried of an “epidemic of isolation and loneliness”, backed up by a blizzard of statistics and charts. Apparently, “social isolation, measured by the average time spent alone” increased from 285 minutes per day in 2003 to 333 minutes per day in 2020, and “this decline is starkest for young people aged 15 to 24”. Meanwhile, “almost half of Americans in 2021 reported having three or fewer close friends”, while “only about a quarter reported the same in 1990”. Unsurprisingly, isolation worsened during the pandemic.
While Murthy’s report fretted about the impact of this epidemic on our physical health, Clinton fears for the health of democracy. She argues that it was this loneliness, exacerbated by social media, that helped extremist views to spread in 2016, fanned by Trump operatives such as Steve Bannon.
Clinton’s detractors would dismiss all this as special pleading. Bannon, for example, has told me that the real reason for Trump’s 2016 victory was popular fury aimed at the establishment. And Clinton’s 3,500-word essay will undoubtedly spark plenty of snarky comments. Writing this week in the Rupert-Murdoch-owned New York Post, Rich Lowry, editor-in-chief of the conservative National Review, slammed her essay as being “as absurd and self-serving as you’d expect from a woman who managed one of the more shocking losses in US presidential history and has been offering excuses ever since” and “a case study in the myopic self-righteousness of the left”.
Whatever you think about the 2016 election, it is worth turning over what Murthy and Clinton are fretting about. In some senses, their concerns about alienation are hardly new. More than a century ago, Émile Durkheim, the French sociologist, invented the word anomie to describe the social alienation he feared had been created among workers after the explosion of industrialisation. Like pundits today, Durkheim fretted about rising suicide, rage and revolutionary fervour, which he partly blamed on technology. What would Durkheim have made of similar social dynamics in the high-velocity context of the internet and social media?
This trend is occurring alongside other similar dangers. First, the networked nature of cyberspace appears to be fuelling a widespread decline in respect for authority figures, coupled with a rising reliance on peer groups for advice, approval and camaraderie. Second, the shift into cyberspace seems to be creating more social tribalism, because we can so easily customise our identities and social groups online. One result is that those we imagine as angry loners are not so alone anymore.
Lowry’s solution to Clinton’s claims is that Americans should re-embrace traditional values, such as marriage and family. “According to a 2020 Gallup survey, 41 per cent of single people reported being lonely the day before, whereas only 16 per cent of people married or in a domestic partnership said the same thing,” he noted in the Post.
Clinton’s solution is to reduce our reliance on tech and, building on the themes of her book It Takes a Village, create stronger community engagement via churches, sports teams, schools, unions and volunteer groups. I would go a step further and require all young people to engage in a form of military service, or its civilian equivalent like the Peace Corps, as a way of creating a common sense of identity.
None of these ideas is likely to fly any time soon, least of all Clinton’s proposal to curb tech. But if Murthy’s advisory is anything to go by, loneliness could play an even bigger part in who wins this election than it did in the one Clinton lost.
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