A Living Manifesto

Everywhere we look in America today we see loneliness, isolation, fragmentation, polarization, and a loss of connection with a common story and a common sense of purpose. It’s happening in our families, our neighborhoods, our big cities and our small towns. These problems have gotten so bad, in fact, that words like “crisis,” “epidemic,” and “national emergency” are starting to make their way into the headlines descrying them.

One way to address these problems is just to take them on one by one:

Rising rates of suicide? Allocate more money for suicide hotlines and prevention programs.

Increasing deaths of despair? Expand access to overdose prevention and rehab programs for opioid addicts.

Kids feeling isolated by bullying? Roll out the awareness campaigns and training programs.

Loneliness epidemic? Appoint a Minister of Loneliness to head up a task force.

Declining social capital? Build civics education programs and incentivize civic engagement with institutional reforms.

Increasing polarization? Create toolkits and challenges to foster dialogue across difference.

The main idea behind initiatives like these is that if the problems are sociological, then their solutions must be too. And there is definitely a vital role for programs like this to play. But what if these targeted solutions are working far downstream of the problem? What if all of these social ills have a single root cause which, if we addressed it directly, would have a far more ameliorative effect than anything else we’ve tried?

In recent months, New York Times columnist and commentator David Brooks has begun to put forward the idea that the solution to these problems is likely not more funds and programs to beat them back, but rather a reevaluation of the underlying culture that has produced them. He’s begun to call this culture, “hyper-individualism.” In a backlash against the conformity and highly prescriptive “we” ethos of the 1950s, he argues, America swung hard in the cultural direction of individualism. This brought with it a strong sense of liberation and autonomy. But over the past several decades, we’ve sort of run out the string on individualism’s utility, he says, and have begun to see its very real dark side—egocentrism, self-absorption, and the loneliness of being an army of one.

This thesis squares with Robert Putnam’s most recent research on the subject as well. In our forthcoming book, Putnam will present statistical evidence of America’s twentieth-century pendulum swing from a culture of “I” to a culture of “we” and back again to “I.” The shape of this meta-trend, it turns out, maps on quite strikingly to the waxing and waning of a host of sociological ills our nation has faced over the course of the century, lending credence to the idea that rather than fight these ills directly, we might achieve more by fighting the culture of narcissism that seems to accompany them.

In May of 2018, David Brooks launched Weave: The Social Fabric Project, an initiative housed at the Aspen institute which is taking aim at this hyper-individualistic culture, and attempting to propose and promote an alternative. The idea is that if the root cause of our nation’s current spate of crises is cultural, then cultural must be the solutions. Accordingly, the first product Weave has developed is a cultural Manifesto, a document that attempts to lay bare the dangers and dark sides of hyper-individualism, and paint a compelling portrait of what the alternative might be.

This alternative is not a call for a return to the collectivism of the 1950s, but rather a new (is it new, or is it as old as the human race?) cultural concept Brooks is calling Relationalism—a sort of third way that doesn’t negate the individualist spirit America so prides itself on, but puts relationships first and foremost; above the drive for achievement, accumulation, and self-promotion.

Brooks and his team (of which I have been a part since October) have done a lot of thinking about how to get this manifesto not only into the cultural water system, but into people’s daily lives. How do we take a document that is meant to be a challenge, an inspiration, and a call to action and get people to begin experimenting with living it out? How to we inspire, as Brooks puts it, a “living manifesto”?

Project Reconnect is my answer to that very question. Over the course of those team conversations, I have come to believe that one way to challenge people to experiment with putting relationship first in their lives is just to experiment with it myself. The hope is to begin to identify all of the ways in which our culture, our collective habits, and our societal norms stand in the way of relationship, and to identify specific tactics we can use to begin clearing the path to connection—one day, one choice, one habit, and one norm at a time. The challenge is to begin to pull the veil back on my own tendencies toward hyper-individualism, and to push myself to reorient toward relationship.

My hope is that together we can chart a path toward a relationalist revolution, which may go further than anything else we’ve tried for solving our nation’s most pressing problems.

I'm a writer who's spending 2019 engaging in a yearlong personal journey back to community, connection, and relationship. It's called Project Reconnect. Join me!

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