Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is a mainstream progressive known for supporting a tougher U.S. approach to Saudi Arabia and stricter gun safety regulations.
In December, though, he began taking up a cause not typically on Congress’ agenda: an epidemic of loneliness in the United States that Murphy believes is quietly at the heart of the bitterness and violence wracking the country.
“We’re all searching for the reasons why there’s been a retreat to very hair-trigger hostility and violence in this country,” Murphy told HuffPost in a phone interview in March. “We’re all trying to understand why Donald Trump did so well despite the fact that he focused all his energy on tax cuts for the very elite.”
“I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of things that unite Americans that we refuse to see, and one of those things is the way that many of us are increasingly feeling very lonely, very isolated and increasingly disconnected,” he added.
In discussions in the press and with colleagues, Murphy makes the case that the rise of social media and the isolating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have turbocharged the United States’ already-depleted communal infrastructure and norms. That has, in turn, helped fuel growing rates of mental illness, substance abuse, violence and even, some studies show, right-wing extremism.
Rather than dismiss the uptick in right-wing extremism as evidence of some Americans’ incorrigible inclination for racism and sexism, Murphy sees the American loneliness epidemic as a phenomenon that can help explain that rise in a way that leaves room for constructive solutions without excusing hateful behavior.
“When you’re alone or lonely, that’s often followed by anger, and that’s understandable. We’ve all felt lonely in our life, and we know how frustrating that feels and how it can easily lead to anger,” Murphy said. “The right has offered an off-ramp for that anger. They have offered connections and identity based around hate messages and division.”
“That’s not where people want to go naturally,” he added. “I think folks who end up being attracted to these hate groups could be offered a much more constructive identity or a much more constructive set of connections. But they don’t see that often.”
For now, Murphy is engaged in an awareness-raising exercise without a clear set of policy goals. He aims to convince policymakers to join him but also to demonstrate to disaffected Americans that he is taking their concerns seriously.
“My hope is that we can just spend some time talking about how we feel,” he said. “If disconnected people out there feel like people in government understand how they feel and care about how they feel, then maybe they’ll be open to a conversation about policies that can help.”
“There’s a lot of things that unite Americans that we refuse to see, and one of those things is the way that many of us are increasingly feeling very lonely, very isolated and increasingly disconnected.”
Murphy tipped his hand ever so slightly toward a suite of community-reviving policies that he anticipates both parties can get behind.
“You’re talking about reining in the rough edges of technology, especially as it applies to our lonely kids. You’re talking about rebuilding healthy local communities. You’re talking about supporting churches and civic groups and local newspapers,” Murphy said. “All those things are not easily separated into ‘right’ or ‘left.’ That’s what’s so attractive about this issue.”
Murphy’s initiative comes amid growing research about how loneliness is affecting Americans’ mental health.
About seven months after U.S. society reorganized in response to the coronavirus pandemic, 36% of Americans reported feeling lonely “frequently” — up from 25% before the pandemic, according to an October 2020 survey conducted by Harvard University.
The rate of loneliness among American young people has become a particular cause for concern. More than 3 in 5 — or 61% — of Americans ages 18 to 25 reported frequent loneliness in the Harvard study, compared with 24% of Americans ages 55 to 65.
In retrospect, Murphy believes governments did not adequately weigh the costs of school closures and other pandemic-related measures on youth mental health.
“You’d be foolish not to look back on our decision to keep many schools closed for upwards of two years and see it as a mistake,” said Murphy, who nonetheless rejects the idea that Democrats were more committed to school closures than Republicans. “It is a rewrite of history to pretend that this was a partisan issue.”
He followed that up with a caveat that Democratic-run school systems may have stayed closed longer toward the end of the pandemic, but said “Republican states were closed for a long time, too.”
Scholars have also identified a link between younger Americans’ loneliness and their heavy use of social media, which often reduces the frequency of more rewarding, in-person social interactions. Experts have found that social media has played a role in increased depression and loneliness among adolescent girls.
“It’s possible that girls are even more isolated than boys because boys’ online experience is often collaborative through online gaming — Fortnite or Minecraft — whereas girls’ online experience is often alone, scrolling through social media,” Murphy said.
At the same time, evidence suggests that among adults, men have been hit harder by the loneliness epidemic than women. The suicide rate among men, always higher than among women, also went up considerably more than the women’s rate in 2021.
“When you lose the ability to naturally connect through churches, or social clubs, or even the workplace, that often is a bigger problem for men than women,” Murphy said. “Because without those easy, natural connections, through work and institutions, men don’t do as well as women in seeking out connection proactively.”
There was no one precipitating event in Murphy’s life that prompted him to take this issue more seriously. As the father of two sons — one adolescent and the other preadolescent — Murphy has noticed the effect of technology on young people’s interactions and the world they inhabit.
“I think Republicans supported that bill in part because they share my concern for where this country is heading and the new stresses that surround our kids.”
What’s more, Murphy credits his work crafting a bipartisan gun control and mental health bill in the Senate last June for giving him hope that Democrats and Republicans can take additional steps to address the country’s loneliness crisis. The Connecticut senator was elected shortly before the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The fight to reduce gun violence has been a defining feature of his two terms in the Senate.
“I think Republicans supported that bill in part because they share my concern for where this country is heading and the new stresses that surround our kids,” he concluded.
Murphy’s interest in loneliness is also the product of his efforts to understand the appeal of far-right ideology to young people. To that end, the Connecticut senator spent the summer consuming literature and media by and about the “New Right,” a broad term for the unconventional forms of right-wing ideology gaining traction among some young men, in particular. The designation typically includes welfare state-supporting Catholic fundamentalists like Sohrab Ahmari and monarchists like Curtis Yarvin, but also mainstream economic populists like popular YouTube host Saagar Enjeti.
Although Murphy says that the New Right is “in many ways very dangerous,” because of what he describes as the movement’s “antidemocratic” and “theocratic elements,” he sees room for common ground in the movement’s insistence on community taking precedence over unbridled capitalism.
“If you study the developing New Right inside the conservative movement, you’ll see early signs of a potential realignment amongst people in this country who may not share the same views on abortion or civil rights, but who do believe that our economy and the state of American kids and families have become so unhealthy that government has to take some new action,” Murphy said.
“To the extent I think there’s a realignment coming, it only comes through a rejection of neoliberalism,” he said, referring to the ideology behind the laissez-faire capitalist policies that have taken root in the United States since the 1970s. “Changing the incentives inside the market [is] not going to cure the psychological rot in this country.”