Smiling and waving like it's 1997. (Theo Wargo/WireImage)


August 15, 2023   5 mins

Let’s indulge in some nostalgia for a moment. It’s Nineties America and “political apathy” is the complaint on every politician’s lips. The end of the Soviet Union is a recent memory and Western democracy has emerged triumphant, though the average voter is annoyed and bored with the whole charade. Academics write articles about the lack of vibrant public debate. The Times Mirror, a major newspaper publisher, releases a study referring to America’s “Age of Indifference”.

These were the good old days, especially if you were Hillary Clinton. By 1997, the First Lady of the United States had published It Takes a Village — “a textbook for caring” for America’s children — and followed it up with a conference on “What New Research on the Brain Tells Us About Our Youngest Children”, at which only one neuroscientist spoke and didn’t say anything new. There, she gushed about how experiences during the first three years “can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens”. Rob Reiner, who had devised a recent national public education campaign (also not a neuroscientist), claimed that what we know about brain development during the first three years of life was “the key to problem-solving at every level of society”.

If only that were the case; if only healing America’s broken electorate had simply been a matter of socially engineering a new one. Instead, in the three decades since, the country’s atomisation continued to fester, compelling Clinton to once again return to the frontline. Eight years (and another book) since Trump ruined her presidential party, this time her weapon of choice is a 3,500-word essay for The Atlantic, in which she laments the rise of “loneliness” and its manipulation “by dark forces that are threatening American democracy”.

Once again showing a stubborn penchant for reducing social problems to biology, Clinton believes that an “epidemic” of “loneliness and isolation” not only explains the rise of the “alt-Right”, but is also infecting American society to its core, threatening citizens’ “personal health and also the health of our democracy”. Turning her “basket of deplorables” into a “basket of the debilitated”, she confirms that America’s political elite is inclined to view the politically dispossessed in two ways: risky or at-risk; swarming or sick; dangerous or disordered.

What this forgets, though, is that treating voters as vulnerable, malign loners rather than disenfranchised political agents is part of the problem. Just as in the Nineties, Clinton seems incapable of reckoning with people as conscious actors. For her, problems are not solved by negotiating with the affected, but by prescribing expensive social programmes that seek to alter their behaviour. Yet being treated as passive recipients of “behaviour change programmes” will backfire unless the political class that Clinton represents addresses the political vacuum once filled by representation and contestation.

No one needs to be reminded of Clinton’s “deplorables” comment, or her warning about the risks posed by “low-information voters”. But few seem to recall the brief stunned moment following Trump’s election win when political pundits and social-media experts were bursting with performative self-reflection (though admittedly not a little emotional incontinence). Maybe we needed to reflect; maybe we needed to listen a little more to the “left behind”. It didn’t take long for soul-searching to be replaced by waves of condemnation towards those “ignorant” voters who were duped by Facebook, Google and Vladimir Putin into allowing the “darkest impulses” of the human psyche out into the light of day.

Like the flick of a switch, this new narrative became “the truth” about 2016. No, no — it was nothing we did. People had been swindled out of doing what was good for them, lured into the deep, frog-dwelling recesses of the internet. It’s not that we failed — it’s that the forces of evil were too powerful. Defeating them became an all-consuming passion. Suppress free speech. Curtail freedoms. All so that the greater good can triumph.

In this narrative, the disenfranchised became both victim and villain: they are duped and they are malign. Neither, however, places any importance on political agency. Clinton’s latest reflection on “loneliness” is only the latest manifestation of this. As she describes, before these voters became dangerous, they were just vulnerable young men, the offspring of broken families in broken communities: “There have always been angry young men alienated from mainstream society and susceptible to the appeal of demagogues and hate-mongers,” she writes. “But modern technology has taken the danger to another level.” And, crucially, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Throwing herself behind the lofty political aim of finding the electorate (adequately vetted) friends, she echoes other campaigners who liken loneliness to obesity and “smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day”. She takes this medicalisation of the problem further, comparing it with the public-health threat presented by HIV/AIDS, arguing that it is time to “sound the alarm”. The rationale here is straightforward: by medicalising loneliness, it can be safely transformed into something much more isolable and soluble than something such as real democratic representation. Indeed, it medicalises democracy as a whole, diagnosing it as infirm and in need of a cure.

Here, the political enemy becomes sick, not an object of hatred but of empathy. “Researchers also say that loneliness can generate anger, resentment, and even paranoia,” she writes. “It diminishes civic engagement and social cohesion, and increases political polarisation and animosity.” She cites the US surgeon general to argue that unless this crisis is addressed, “we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country” — the implication being that voters didn’t distrust Clinton or her ilk; they were just “lonely”.

To this effect, she complains of Steve Bannon’s conspiracy to turn isolated “rootless white males” of the online gaming world into the “shock troops of the alt-right”. But is transforming them into patients-in-waiting and seeking to quarantine their discontents really any better? For Clinton, there is no other choice: “Like many others, I was too slow to see the impact this strategy could have. Now the surgeon general is telling us that social disconnection is not just a problem at the margins… but is in fact an epidemic sweeping the country.” The language of “epidemic” leaves readers with no doubt that this is not a political but medical problem.

What is the treatment? She suggests that governments bring opportunities back to hard-hit areas, stem the need to leave communities to find work, and put the family first — none of which would be disagreeable if it weren’t an excuse for more intervention with the aim of creating the right sorts of citizens. Just as her demonisation of “deplorables” makes her promises to support the same voters ring hollow, treating people as objects of behaviour management techniques is hardly a winning formulation. Across Europe and around the world, people are voting less for the ascendent populists than against the condescending political mainstream that Clinton has come to represent. Every insurgent political movement of the past decade shares one thing in common: its members want to be subjects instead of objects.

Still, there is a kernel of truth here. A growing number of voters in America, and the West more broadly, feel alienated. Today’s society is characterised by ongoing individuation and social fragmentation and a loss of collective projects beyond the self. Union membership has collapsed and what is left of them is just as sceptical of political agency, often expressed through the infantilising rhetoric of health and safety.

Yet there clearly remains something distinctly sanitising about grouping problems together under the umbrella of health. This is not a phenomenon that can be solved by completing a checklist and finding the appropriate intervention. People are politically dispossessed: more important than the feelings that result from alienation is the disenchantment, political or otherwise, that follows.

In other words, loneliness isn’t the problem, but disenfranchisement. The political sphere has been emptied of all meaning and mainstream politicians are happy to keep it that way, perhaps even longing for the comfortable, stabilising political apathy of the Nineties. For a time when “getting people excited about politics” didn’t involve Steve Bannon, but a “rock the vote” talk at a local high school; when a policy can be marketed with a PowerPoint presentation and people are passive recipients of your charitable interventions.

But they won’t get that. There is no going back. Political frustration will inevitably reappear elsewhere — in conspiracies and populist figures who promise to tell it like it is. Trump had his moment, and most will not be blind to his embarrassing inability to accept a backslide from his presidency. Yet until those in power reckon with the need to see people eye to eye, Trump-like figures and movements will replace him. Trump didn’t cause the circumstances that made him and, at least if Clinton is listened to, those circumstances won’t be changing soon.


Ashley Frawley is an Associate Professor in sociology at Swansea University and author of Semiotics of Happiness.

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