Isolation and the Prospects for Democracy: The Challenge for the Alienated

Does pluralism have an answer to our social estrangement?

Appears in Summer 2018 Issue: Social Isolation
May 24 th 2018

We can’t make modern democracies work without a willingness to engage others across the lines of our differences. Yet those differences matter profoundly. Through our houses of worship, friends and family, neighbourhoods, and workplaces we satisfy the human need for belonging and a sense of meaning and purpose. So the imperative to cross lines of difference comes up hard against an impulse to stay within the lines, to tether ourselves to the familiar groups that foster identity.

Pluralists see this tension between diversity and solidarity as a key challenge to modern democracies. But they insist that easing the tension is not an either/or proposition. We could learn to navigate our deep differences without losing sight of who we are and where we come from. While it would take the difficult work of building the right institutions and cultivating the right civic virtues, we could forge a principled and confident pluralism—a way of living together that takes seriously the coexistence of diverse perspectives and deep fidelity to community.

The key question was not whether my brother-in-law was one of us, but whether he was one of them.

It is an appealing normative vision. But it is an answer to just one question that faces us today. There is another question many pluralists haven’t even asked yet.

Those of us who seek that kind of pluralism have yet to come to terms with another social pattern, a different layer to this tension between diversity and group solidarity. Citizens around the world, and especially in Western liberal democracies, increasingly see themselves as alone. They feel socially isolated and estranged, and they have arranged their lives in ways that reinforce their experience. The evidence is in many places, including lost confidence in social institutions and eroding norms that hold together our lives in common. What’s more, some provocative social science suggests that this social dislocation is partly the result of how we experience the tension between diversity and solidarity. When we confront difference, we tend to know what we are not, but we rarely come away with the pluralist’s confidence in who we are.

You Are What You Distrust

In the summer of 1980, the future husband of my eldest sister visited my family home for the first time. It was the era of aluminum-foiled rabbit ears and four broadcast channels, so television audiences were captive to the party’s nominating conventions, the national rituals that aired gavel to gavel on every outlet. But that was no irritation to my father. He was a political animal drawn to the partisan kibble. So it was against the din of party speechifying that my prospective brother-in-law first knocked on our door to pick up my sister for a date. Dad got up to answer. I could sense a test coming. My memory of the moment suggests no “hellos” or “welcomes.” Instead:

Dad: “Are you a [anonymous party name]?”

The answer: “Yessir, I am!”

Dad, with an approving look: “Well, come on in, then.”

He joined us for a few awkward minutes, but my sister, undoubtedly worried a political discussion would break out, quickly ushered him back the way he came. It was now time to process. My aunt, who happened to be visiting my mother at the time, was there to help. By the end of the discussion the three adults had covered most of the relevant identity markers, as best they knew them: political commitments, ethnicity, religion, vocation, place. My brother-in-law’s social bubble was nearly full-orbed.

What does—or can—pluralism say when difference does not come in the form of group loyalty but rather the distrustful and disaffected, the alienated and isolated, the despairing and lonely?

I have sometimes wondered whether I would have ever had that brother-in-law four decades later if his answer at the door had been no. I have no doubt that my dad would have invited him in for small talk and a good-natured ribbing. But would that young suitor have picked up an unstated message that this relationship probably was not going to work out?

That depends on what he meant by his answer. If my brother-in-law had simply shown indifference or independence—that is, if “no” meant that he did not identify with any party—Dad probably would have imagined a project-in-the-making or a tolerable political wanderer. But if “no” meant an allegiance to the other party—well, then we’d face a problem of political incommensurability, a relationship immiserated by conflicts between partisan tribes.

The markers of political identity worked in the exchange as alarm bells, not invitations. Difference was more telling than co-partisanship. Dad would likely have invited into the family a young man of apolitical or independent extraction. But a man identified with the other side would have put real pressure on the edges of our bubble. So the key question was not whether my brother-in-law was one of us, but whether he was one of them. The other characteristics in consideration worked in similar ways. Mom and my aunt were as interested in what he was not as what he was.

Social networks work in this way. The connections among our groups might be loose or strong, formally organized or informally conjoined, multi-stranded or limited in scope. But whatever form those associations take, they offer us a sense of belonging, a recognition that a church or workplace or family’s living room gathers your people together. We usually attribute that sense of belonging to attraction and choice: I liked the group, so I joined it. But we often (want to?) forget the reverse: Our group life also signals our disloyalties, the “out-groups” we reject. In terms of how groups shape identity, we are not only—or even primarily—what we love. We are also defined by what we distrust.

We can take the argument a step further. In strictly analytical terms, there is no necessary connection between one’s in-groups and out-groups. I might have a powerfully negative emotional response to an out-group—a racist hate group, for example—to the point that I see it as an intolerable threat to my identity and my community. But my affective response to that group does not by itself initiate me into another group—racial minorities as a community, or organizations and movements such as the NAACP or Black Lives Matter—that counters the threat. I can reject a group—and find social and political meaning in that rejection—without offering my loyalty to its opposite.

It is a subtle point, but it can play out in crucial ways in liberal democratic politics. Consider three common narratives about the current shape of public life in the United States.

Polarization: In full disclosure, I’m one of those political scientists, among other social observers, who thinks the most important feature of our deep political divides is not ideology or policy preferences—liberal versus conservative, pro-choice versus pro-life—but our deep-seated emotional responses to group identity. Polarization is tribal. But that tribalism is not merely about intense loyalty to partisan groups. Indeed, to the extent the United States has become more divided, the story is less about commitment to us than rejection of them. The evidence about party identification illustrates the point. It turns out that Republicans and Democrats are not entirely sure what to make of their own parties; they identify with them, but many “partisans” are not especially emotionally invested in the parties themselves. Those partisans are, however, obvious in their forthright disdain—not disagreement, but disdain—for the opposition. Stanford’s Political Communication Lab, the Pew Research Center, and several other scholarly teams have chronicled soaring cross-partisan antipathies over the past three decades. The upshot is that, while polarization in the United States is partly about loyalties to groups, the increase in negative evaluations of the opposition accounts for most of the widening partisan gap.

Populism: Populism gets its power by a similar mechanism. A conventional take is that a populist movement mobilizes around and for “the people.” But invoking “the people,” an amorphous assemblage, is rarely an effective mobilization strategy. The better move is to identify who opposes the people. The populist undercurrents of the 2016 election are a matter of continued—maybe eternal—scholarly study, but we do know that anti-elitism was one of the most powerful shared predictors of support for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. While they were profoundly different in nearly every other way, both candidates activated their supporters against an identifiable group of elites in government, media, or business (and, in Trump’s case, the academy) whom they alleged rigged the economy or undermined the culture. Who the “people” were in these movements is much less clear—and less relevant.

The challenge of the alienated suggests the need for a more capacious vision of pluralism. But I would suggest we find resources to meet that challenge within pluralism itself.

Trust: Democracy does not work without trust. If our fellow citizens or our institutions are unreliable partners, then there is little point in agreeing to work together on public matters. But not all trust is the same. Scholars have often made a distinction between two mechanisms for trust: bonding and bridging. Roughly speaking, bonding trust is exclusive; bridging trust is inclusive. Bonding trust connects me to people in my in-group; bridging trust connects me to people in my out-groups. Much of the literature on social (or interpersonal) trust tends to assume that (1) bridging trust is important to democracies, because it facilitates interaction across lines of difference, and (2) there is something like a negative relationship between bridging and bonding trust. To elaborate on the second assumption: If I have high levels of bonding trust, I’m less likely to seek solidarity outside my group. If I have high levels of bridging trust, I’m less likely to think about my in-group in exclusive terms. But Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist and well-known dean of trust scholars, reminds us that the two forms of trust are not necessarily related in this way. I might have very low levels of bridging trust—I might even find members of out-groups morally reprehensible and threats to the republic—without having a correlatively high bond of trust in an in-group. I might identify with the den Dulk family, members of my church, or my workplace—my in-groups—but more or less distrust everyone, regardless of their group status, “in” or “out.” I will return to that point in a moment.

All three of these narratives—polarization, populism, trust—suggest that groups can shape our identity powerfully even when we do care much for any group in particular. Put another way, groups matter even when we are generally alienated from them. And increasingly, I would argue, that alienation is a fact of our troubled political culture.

Alone in Community

A friend and I were chatting the other day about the state of political talk in our social bubbles. But after some back-and-forth, he had an abrupt revelation. “I’m just lonely,” he said.

I pressed him about his reasons. After all, he seems to have rich networks in the usual places: work, church, family. He responded that it was simply a creeping feeling, long in coming yet exacerbated by the 2016 election, that all those sites for meaning and community “have left me, or I’ve left them.” He could not talk to a sibling or members at his church anymore, because most of the conversations he wanted to have—conversations about issues that matter, both public and personal—would descend into mutual anger and confusion. Because communication and community are inextricable, he no longer imagined himself as fully belonging to his community, and he had little hope of regaining his footing in the foreseeable future. A sense of loss and alienation hounded him.

My friend’s experience has become commonplace. We can see the evidence of social dislocation in how people understand the institutions that historically nurture the purpose and community he seeks. Trust in each other and public institutions, the sine qua non of living together peaceably, is in alarming decline across the developed countries of the West. Confidence in nearly every institution in civil society has eroded over the past four decades. One of the few institutions that has grown its support is the military—a telling fact, given its coercive capacity, both symbolic and real, to offer security in an era of disorientation and fear. As confidence wanes, people participate less. In the United States, the decline of religious affiliation and participation is the iceberg’s tip of the broader problem of social disengagement. The problem takes different forms in other places, but the pattern persists.

So what accounts for these trends? Social scientists, historians, and theorists have proposed a range of possibilities that are well beyond the scope of this essay. But I want to focus on one cluster of arguments about social isolation and loneliness. It is, in the interest of fair warning, not comfortable to discuss. Nor is the social science entirely clear in its message. But it is sufficiently compelling, especially in its implications for pluralism, that it deserves our attention. The idea is that our exposure to diversity itself contributes to widespread social isolation and disaffection.

The argument that exposure to diversity—ethnic, religious, class, gender, and so on—explains polarization is not difficult to make. A great deal of social-scientific work suggests, as Putnam puts it in his 2006 Skytte Prize Lectures, that “diversity and solidarity are negatively correlated.” Exposure to diversity not only exacerbates out-group distrust but also shores up in-group unity, especially in the face of competition for limited resources. Social scientists often call this argument “conflict theory,” and while any reader of Karl Marx will see his fingerprints, the variety of accounts of this diversity-versus-solidarity dynamic go well beyond Marxian assumptions. The theory is often contrasted with so-called contact theory, which suggests the opposite, that is, that exposure to diversity breaks down the high walls of in-group loyalties while building up out-group solidarity. For contact theorists, diversity creates a kind of healthy social osmosis.

But for those of us who come to pluralism out of Christian conviction, I see opportunity to develop that response within the community of faith itself.

Putnam notes that for all their differences, both the conflict and contact theories share the assumption that feelings toward in-groups and out-groups are inversely related—an assumption he rejects, for reasons similar to those we have already discussed. But he does not stop there. He also lays out a claim that provoked a great deal of discussion in both the social sciences and the attentive media: Exposure to diversity (in his Skytte Lectures he explores ethnic diversity, but analogous arguments are plausible in other areas of identity) usually decreases trust and community cooperation across all groups. Diversity does not diminish trust in either one’s out-groups (as conflict theory suggests) or in-group (the contention of contact theory), but both. In relatively diverse areas, people “hunker down” and lose trust in everyone at higher rates than regions with greater ethnic homogeneity. After controlling for an impressive array of confounding factors, Putnam concludes that immigration and diversity more generally foster social isolation, not in-group bonding or out-group bridging.

Some caveats: Putnam himself emphasizes that these findings are snapshots in time (and, I would add, place: he focuses primarily on the United States); they do not tell us whether these dynamics change as people adapt to shifting patterns of diversity. He reminds us that identity is not deterministic—people do change how they understand themselves and their relationships. And societies change too, often by generating new institutions, policies, and norms that open up opportunities for “a more capacious sense of ‘we.’” It is also worth noting that subsequent research has clarified, extended, and sometimes challenged Putnam’s thesis.

Still, Putnam’s work is a strong empirical and normative challenge, and quite a few studies complement its findings. In her book Hearing the Other Side, the political scientist Diana Mutz has shown that people with significant “cross-cutting” (heterogeneous) networks are less likely to participate in public life than those who interact mainly with others of like mind. The mechanism appears to be a kind of sociopolitical paralysis: exposure to diverse perspectives introduces moral complexity that is not only difficult to navigate but also sometimes a threat to one’s own identity—and the most common response to such threats is to flee rather than fight. Hence exposure to diversity results in political withdrawal and, in some cases, self-isolation from groups in one’s own network. Threads of evidence from other studies fill in the picture: Compared to residents in diverse regions, respondents in homogeneous areas report greater openness to discussing political ideas with opposed groups; social media has unleashed and reinforced alienated voices that are often hateful and sometimes teeter on the edge of violence; ethnic diversity tends to diminish pro-social attitudes at the neighbourhood level; and so on.

My point is not to weigh all the evidence for the diversity-as-isolating thesis. I simply note the thesis because it raises questions about a pluralist vision. What does—or can—pluralism say when difference does not come in the form of group loyalty but rather the distrustful and disaffected, the alienated and isolated, the despairing and lonely? What would the pluralist say to my friend?

When “the Other” Is Alone

I submit that many normative accounts of pluralism do not have easy answers to these questions because a basic assumption pushes social estrangement outside pluralist boundaries. These accounts generally posit two primary loci of activity in public life. On the one side, there is a cluster of associations, often described as “civil society,” composed of discrete groups or communities that have their own purposes, rituals, and beliefs, and all of which, barring severely anti-social behaviour, deserve to flourish in their own way without undue restriction. On the other side, there is the state, an institution with a key role as protector of the freedom of these groups in civil society and arbiter of disputes among them. Hence these pluralist accounts, like many other perspectives on diversity and solidarity, are rooted in the dynamics of group loyalties, and those groups always seem more or less coherent and their members more or less committed. The groups are carriers of worldviews. They have discernable practices and shared histories. They make claims on others. We can imagine their representatives around a table: the Muslim there, the evangelical there, the New Atheist somewhere in the mix. It is far more difficult to see where a person with weak group commitments would sit. What do they even represent?

The challenge of the alienated suggests the need for a more capacious vision of pluralism. But I would suggest we find resources to meet that challenge within pluralism itself.

Recent notable work urges pluralists to take better account of communally embedded practices. Consider Matt Kaemingk’s argument in Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. His focus is not only on the juridical structures that mark group boundaries and prescribe rules of engagement when Christians confront the flow of Muslim migration; he also insists that pluralism is a set of virtues—hospitality, for example—that ought to orient a Christian’s posture toward “the other.” And he draws from some familiar names in these pages—Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw, James K.A. Smith—to argue that the church has a vital role in forming Christians for that virtue of hospitality. Like many others, however, Kaemingk argues on that familiar pluralist terrain, the contestation of group loyalists, Christians and Muslims committed to their faiths. I wonder how we might apply that same pluralist argument about practices-that-form-virtues when we encounter those who are more alienated than committed.

Perhaps that seems to ask too much of this kind of pluralism, which historically emerged out of deep-seated conflicts between and among religious and other groups. But pluralism is not fundamentally about group contestation; it is about seeking a way of life that respects deep conviction while recognizing the reality of deep differences. Those differences are easily identifiable when they come in group forms, but increasingly the disaffected embody those differences too. Besides, the fact that alienation is related to the tension at the heart of pluralism—diversity contending with solidarity—suggests that pluralists ought to have something to say about its increasing prevalence in our day.

I didn’t have a full response for my friend when he confided in me, and I don’t have one now. But for those of us who come to pluralism out of Christian conviction, I see opportunity to develop that response within the community of faith itself. We might start by doubling down on the witness of the church. I can think of few places where the tension between diversity and solidarity is felt more acutely, and the church does indeed struggle mightily with an inclusive vision. Yet the church is clearly called to seek an earthly approximation of peoples “from every nation” gathered before the throne of the Creator God. This poses its own challenge when we consider that seeking that vision can itself lead people to break away and hunker down in self-isolation. But the calling persists. One of the church’s difficult tasks is cultivating practices that foster a vision that includes those people too.


Dr. Kevin R. den Dulk (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin at Madison) is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science and the Executive Director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. His work focuses especially on how religion works through civil society to foster democratic citizenship, both in the United States and abroad. He has co-authored or co-edited several books, including Religion and Politics in America (Westview), A Disappearing God Gap? (Oxford), Christianity in Chinese Public Life (Palgrave), and Mediating Religion and Government (Palgrave). His latest book (with J. Christopher Soper and Stephen Monsma), The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Six Democracies (3rd ed.), was recently published by Rowman and Littlefield.