Opinion | Politics Can’t Fix What Ails Us

One of the most important and interesting articles you should read this week is a Reason magazine story by Elizabeth Nolan Brown on one of the most vital issues in the world today: declining fertility. With precious few exceptions (Israel notable among them), fertility rates are declining well below replacement levels in virtually every developed nation, and no one has any realistic idea what to do about it.

Declining fertility (especially if it’s declining from a high rate) isn’t always a crisis. There is nothing inherently wrong with parents enjoying much greater control over the size of their families. But when fertility rates fall too low, there are simply not enough young people to sustain a civilization — in Brown’s words, “not enough to support the welfare state, not enough to preserve the culture, not enough to keep advanced economies young, thriving and entrepreneurial.”

But what’s notable about Brown’s piece isn’t the assertion that having too few children can imperil a civilization, but rather the observation that governments can’t seem to figure out reasonable, feasible means to restore birthrates to minimum replacement levels. As she notes, nations such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea have spent significant sums to encourage childbearing, yet fertility in those countries has still either declined or remained well below replacement levels.

European social democracies, which tend to offer substantially greater benefits to young families than the United States does, also have fertility levels similar to America’s. Authoritarian countries, such as Russia and China (even after China lifted its one-child policy), also have low fertility. China is struggling to reverse course, now permitting families to have as many as three children, after its two-child policy failed to increase birthrates.

I’ve been watching this phenomenon as well, and wrote my own, similar piece, back in 2021. But it’s worth contemplating in part because it is but one of multiple significant negative cultural changes that doesn’t seem to have clear political solutions. In fact, I’d submit that one reason our politics are so angry and performative at the moment is that we know that a series of profound, negative cultural changes are underway, and we’re looking to politics to solve crises that are beyond its reach.

There was another example in the pages of The Times just this week. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote a personal and moving piece about America’s epidemic of isolation. “At any moment,” he said, “about one out of every two Americans is experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” These findings echo the conclusions of a recent “Belonging Barometer,” a report by the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council, and Over Zero, a group that studies and combats identity-based violence at home and abroad.

The barometer attempted to measure “belonging” as the perception that a person is “emotionally connected, welcomed, included and satisfied in their relationships.” The findings were deeply discouraging. Most Americans report significant feelings of non-belonging. As the report notes, “64 percent of Americans reported non-belonging in the workplace, 68 percent in the nation and 74 percent in their local community.” Even worse, “nearly 20 percent of Americans failed to report an active sense of belonging in any of the life settings,” the report measured. It also found that non-belonging correlated with a lack of prosperity: “Americans were more likely to report belonging if they also saw themselves as better off or much better off economically than the average American.”

The Belonging Barometer is not the only report to find a relationship between social class and loneliness. In December 2021, the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life released its own study showing that non-college-educated Americans have fewer friends, are involved in fewer community groups and belong to churches, synagogues and mosques at lower rates than their college-educated counterparts. Friendship and religious membership had declined for both groups, but the decline was much more pronounced for those with no college education.

I don’t want this newsletter to be too depressing, but there are many more similarly disheartening social statistics. In my short tenure at The Times so far, I’ve written about rising teen depression and anxiety and the crises of suicide, drug overdoses and the educational achievement gaps afflicting American men. While not every American social indicator is negative (the American economy is outperforming its rivals, for example), there are good reasons millions of Americans feel deep in their bones that something is very wrong with the country they love.

Moreover, because the “something” that’s wrong often involves the most deeply personal and meaningful relationships in our lives, there is no way to simply ignore the challenge and live your life unaffected. You can tune out silly culture war fights over things such as Bud Light or library books in a school district far, far away, but you can’t ignore your daughter’s depression, your son’s aimlessness or your own loneliness.

Or take, for example, the decoupling of sex and love (much less sex and marriage). The pain of American young people — especially young women — has been the subject of recent moving essays by Christine Emba in The Washington Post and Emma Camp here in The Times. This decoupling breaks hearts and destabilizes relationships, and unstable relationships can directly affect abortion decisions. Yet what is the government program that can answer the question that one woman asked Emba, “Can we not just love each other for a single day?”

I’ve written for years about the wounds politics can’t heal, but I fear that formulation understates the problem. We’re suffering from wounds that politics often make worse. Politics is destroying social cohesion. Republicans and Democrats despise each other. By overwhelming majorities, they perceive their opponents as close-minded, immoral and dishonest. At a time when Americans need connection, my inbox fills with stories of friendships and even families fracturing over political disagreements.

And while I’m the last person to say that law and politics are inconsequential (for example, I strongly support Mitt Romney’s child allowance plan for its effect on child poverty alone), for the vast majority of Americans they do not decisively influence the fates of ourselves and our families.

A clear pattern emerges. Too many of us rightly feel a sense of loss, wrongly turn to politics to fill the hole in our lives, and then grow increasingly frustrated when the political process invariably fails to live up to the expectations we place upon it.

The true answer to our cultural challenge is much more parochial and personal. I’m reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville’s quote about American civic associations:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small.

It is in these associations — these human connections — that we find purpose and meaning. And note the nature of the associations: Most of what de Tocqueville describes is a collective response to a local need. Too many of our current local efforts are dedicated to fighting national fights. In my own community, for example, right-wing activists have mobilized to fight progressive influence in schools as if they live in the heart of San Francisco rather than in Middle Tennessee. They’re so energized against theories about race and gender that they condemn even books and lessons that teach conventional American history (including stories about Ruby Bridges desegregating schools and Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Washington) as “anti-white” and “anti-American.”

I was in law school when I was first truly exposed to the concept that the personal is political, and there is real insight in the idea that political structures can and do influence our personal conditions. But there are times when the personal is, well, personal, and it only becomes political because we misdiagnose both the causes of and solutions to our personal challenges.

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating: As a general matter, each of us (including columnists!) can have a large amount of influence over a small number of people, but only a small amount of influence over a large number of people.

We are superpowers in our own homes, and our influence tends to diminish with every step we take beyond those walls. Yet how much does our mental energy or effort reflect that reality? I know men who have children and grandchildren who want their attention, yet when you’re around them, they want to talk mainly about what they watched on Fox News. They have zero control over the border, for example, yet it is there that they exhibit maximum concern.

How much of our emotional energy is properly calibrated? How much are we focused on the people we actually influence rather than the issues we can’t truly control?

When I see the deep challenges of our time, from the waning desire to have children to the sadness and hopelessness that plagues so many of the children we do have and the profound loneliness that afflicts too many of us and our friends and neighbors, I don’t think of five-point political plans. I think of something far more timeless and something far more within our own control. To quote the prophet Malachi, it is time to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” Otherwise our despair and loneliness will only escalate, and no politician or political movement will heal our wounded hearts.

Before I sign off this week, I wanted to briefly revisit my Sunday column. My argument was relatively simple — even though Disney (and other corporations) doesn’t have a right to receive tax incentives or other favorable treatments from state governments, it does have a right to express views on matters of public concern without fearing that the government will retaliate by taking away those benefits.

As I noted in the column, this is a standard element of American First Amendment jurisprudence. There are multiple Supreme Court cases reaffirming the idea that Americans have a right to speak without fear of government retaliation.

Yet this rather conventional expression of constitutional law triggered a volcanic reaction from the online right. Ben Shapiro was typical of the responses. He tweeted, “Nothing says defending first freedoms quite like taking special tax benefits and then using your corporate power to lobby for the sexual indoctrination of children.”

That snarky response misses the point entirely. My First Amendment freedoms do not depend on the underlying morality of my viewpoint. Ron DeSantis and Ben Shapiro and every member of the Republican Party can disagree with Disney about its stance on sex education in public schools, yet that is precisely irrelevant to its constitutional rights. The issue is not: Should Disney have disagreed with DeSantis? Instead, it’s: Does Disney have the right to disagree with DeSantis?

The answer is yes, and that right includes a right to be free of government punishment, even if that punishment “only” consists of yanking government privileges. Any other conclusion gives the government immense power over free speech by granting or withholding government benefits entirely on the basis of agreement with whoever is in power in government.

Conservatives have long fought against granting the government such power. The Trump and DeSantis right, by contrast, covets it. And if it attains the power it seeks, then prepare to watch American liberty diminish and American division increase. No person or corporation’s right to free expression should depend on a governor’s grace.

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