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I am humbled tonight to accept an award named for a man who spent his life speaking for those without a voice, fighting for the weak, challenging the strong, and defending till the end of his days the goodness and decency of the common man and woman.
Such is the legacy of Jeff Bell. He understood the times in which we live because he understood the longing of every person to find fellowship, to forge community, to build a home. And he understood that our liberty depends on whether those longings can be fulfilled.
And that is what I want to talk with you about tonight.
We live in a troubled age. Every American knows it, feels it.
Discontent is the theme of our politics, the preoccupation of our popular culture. It is the very air we breathe.
But why? Why—in the words of another American senator—is this most prosperous of nations so troubled in spirit, so rent by division, so anxious and uncertain?
The statistics tell us that we are living in a new age of inequality. The divide between the wealthy and working Americans is wide, and growing wider.
You’ve heard the numbers. As to wealth: The top 10% of the country’s earners control 77% of the country’s total wealth. As to wages: Over the last several decades, inflation-adjusted wages for the working class have barely budged, while income for those at the very top has soared.
But the most telling economic divide in the country is between Americans with a high school degree and those who have four-year college degrees or more. A bachelor’s degree now earns a household in this country double the median income of a high school diploma. As of 2016, families with a four-year degree or higher controlled roughly three-quarters of the country’s wealth. That’s a 50% increase since just 1989.
We are witnessing the rise of a new oligarchy of wealth and education. And not surprisingly, the leaders of this country’s government, its press, its corporations and most of its popular culture most all belong to this same class.
But this oligarchy is not sustainable. Not only because it is unjust that the global economy should work for so few, that so many should be shut out of America’s front row, left without a voice.
It is unsustainable because so many Americans are so profoundly discontent, even despairing.
In September, the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee issued a new report on the soaring numbers of what have come to be called deaths of despair. These are deaths from suicide, from alcohol, from drug overdoses. And the numbers are shocking.
Suicides in this country are at their highest level since 1938. Alcohol-related deaths the highest since the start of World War One. And drug overdoses are at the highest level ever recorded.
The numbers are even more startling for the young. The number of 15 to 24 year-olds committing suicide is greater than at any other time since the government began tracking the data over fifty years ago.
For girls and young women, suicides rates have doubled during the 21st century. Doubled.
Taken altogether, nearly 36,000 American millennials died “deaths of despair” in 2017 alone.
There is now a death from drugs or alcohol or suicide every four minutes in this nation.
These numbers, these lives cut short, are tragic. But they represent more than tragedy. They evidence a profound loss afflicting this country, and they summon us to a profound need.
I am talking about the loss of community. And I am talking about the need to rebuild it.
This is a loss that cuts across ages and race and income, that afflicts every sector, every segment of this nation. It is a loss that threatens our common sense of belonging and ultimately, our common liberty.
And it is a loss that is far from coincidental. It is the outcome of how we have been told for years to think about liberty—and politics and the economy; how we’ve been told to think about ourselves.
That’s why it’s no coincidence that the breakdown in community and the rise of oligarchy have happened together. They are both the products of a worldview. A worldview that has now run its course.
Because what Americans need in this century is not less fellowship, but more; not less family, not less belonging, not weaker bonds of love and association, but stronger ones. Forging those bonds anew is one of the urgent callings of our time.
Behind the staggering record of deaths of despair is an epidemic of personal loneliness and isolation—driven by the loss of community.
Researchers have been documenting it for years. A major study completed in 2018 found that almost half of respondents said they feel alone sometimes, or always. Forty-three percent said they often feel their relationships are not meaningful. And only half said they have genuine in-person interactions on a daily basis.
The results were, again, far worse among the young. Americans aged 18 to 22, the so-called Generation Z, were the most likely to be lonely, with more than half of respondents in this age group exhibiting multiple indicators of isolation.
The decline of community proves to be key.
Young people are participating less in faith organizations, less at school, have fewer friends. They are even leaving organized sports.
Meanwhile, scholars like Robert Putnam have amply documented the decline in social participation across all age cohorts.
Those Americans who came of age during the twin catastrophes of the Great Depression and World War were passionate members of clubs and associations—from the PTA to the Red Cross to the Rotary Club and bowling leagues. But participation in groups like those has plunged.
And it’s not just civic associations that are suffering decay. Church membership has plummeted, down nearly twenty percent in just as many years.
And then there’s the plight of the family. No community is more consequential than the family, and no perhaps no community is today under greater strain.
Fewer Americans are having children. And only about half of Americans are married now, a steep drop over the last half century. The decline has been especially sharp for the American working class.
Which means that more and more, the great middle of our society is missing the security and also the joy that comes from a lifetime of commitment.
Across age groups and regions, across races and income, the decline in community is undeniable. But it is not accidental.
For years we have been told that to be truly free is to be without the constricting ties of family and place, without the demands of faith or tradition.
We’ve been told that liberty means release, separation. And this view has had its effect.
It’s an idea with a long tradition of its own, and a wide circle of influence, back to Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and farther back still to a British monk named Pelagius.
But it is only in the last century that it found true staying power in America. William James was an early exponent, and this is how he described his view of the free person:
“In our cognitive, as well as in our active life, we are creative. . . . The world stands[,] really[,] malleable, waiting to receive its final touches from our hands. Like the kingdom of heaven, it suffers human violence willingly. Man engenders truth upon it.”
This is the individual as creator, as self-creator, maker of meaning and author of reality—rather like Prometheus who in the ancient myth created all mankind. So call this view of the human person the Promethean self.
As it took hold in twentieth-century America, the Promethean ideal taught that the individual self exists apart from all social ties and relations. Our family, our religious society, our neighborhood and town—these communities don’t constitute one’s identity, because who one truly is exists separate from all of them.
Instead, the Promethean self creates her own reality, her own truth. She forges her own meaning. And this effort at self-creation is a solitary business. The demands of community too often get in the way.
For the Promethean self, the only time community is truly worthwhile is when it is freely chosen, and then only on the individual’s own terms. For the claims of community must never inhibit the individual’s powers of self-expression. Or so we are told.
This Promethean idea has by now become so thoroughly ingrained in American culture, so ubiquitous in our public life, it’s impossible to escape it.
It is preached in our universities, celebrated in our music, rehearsed in our literature and film. It’s even the stuff of judicial decisions.
Remember this? “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That’s Justice Anthony Kennedy in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992. I doubt you needed the citation.
And you can see how this idea of the Promethean self, the self-creating, self-sustaining person, suggested a particular kind of politics—a politics centered on the solitary individual.
In this kind of politics, individual choice, and even more, individual achievement are what count. And that makes sense: if our personhood is something we create and not discover, if it is something we assemble entirely for ourselves, then personhood is an achievement; it is something we do.
And place and home don’t matter much. And civic participation is beside the point. And church, synagogue, family—these are fine, but only as groups of individuals, and only if they don’t have too much say in society and don’t control too much of your life.
The Promethean vision has an economic side as well. It gives us an economic policy focused on individual advancement, where advancement means making more money and consuming more stuff. So in popular culture billionaires become heroes, and the everyday working man becomes just some guy who never realized his potential.
Both major parties have embraced some version of this Promethean politics. And both have made it central to their agenda, for decades.
But if you want a life built around home and family; if want to live in the place where you grew up, with the people you love and know; if your ambition is not to start a tech company but to serve on the PTA, well, this politics doesn’t have much to offer you.
And that’s the problem with the Promethean self. It’s an idea that rewards the privileged and entrenches the powerful. And here’s why.
If freedom is about creating your own reality, then those with the greatest access to power will be the most free. And in today’s society, that means those with the most money, the most credentials, with the most influence.
And let’s be honest, a society that prizes the self-creating and the powerful will prize fame and fortune and status, and look down on, or just ignore, those who don’t have them.
And if this sounds like 21st century America, it should. Because our society increasingly rewards credentials and degrees, it lionizes wealth and the size of your social media audience, and it calls these things “merit.”
As if getting them makes you more valuable than anyone else. As if success is a matter of what we can amass.
And where does this leave those without power or money? On their own.
If you’re a worker with a high school degree in the urban core who can’t get a good job, you’re told it’s your fault and you should work harder, get more education, stop being lazy.
If you’re a farmer or working a trade in the middle of the country and can’t support your family on what you bring home, you’re told you should move, that smart people live in cities, and you should have made better life choices.
It’s no wonder so many Americans feel so unappreciated and unheard.
It’s no wonder so many young people feel desperate to get another credential, another good grade, another like on Instagram—so that they can matter.
It’s no wonder so many of our fellow citizens feel so desperately alone.
Because here’s the reality. The Promethean self, splendid in his isolation, needing nothing from others but the space to create, doesn’t exist. The Promethean ambition leaves us lost and unmoored. And the market worship and cultural deconstruction the Promethean vision has inspired have failed this country.
The collapse of community in America has been underway for decades now, and as it accelerates, it threatens our common liberty.
Our families and farm cooperatives, our churches and labor unions—they bring us together, they relate us to each other, they tell us what we have in common. And they tell us a story about ourselves, as Americans.
They tell us that what unites us is not race or ethnicity or religious confession. What unites us is the deep conviction that every life matters, that you matter, that every person is uniquely called and uniquely gifted.
They tell us that you don’t have to be rich or famous to be important, that ordinary life—the life of work and marriage and family and worship—that life is valuable, it’s wonderful, it’s what we were meant for, it’s what changes the world.
Our communities of home and worship and labor tell us all this because they draw us into living these convictions together. And this country is built on those convictions. Which means the future of this country depends on rebuilding the communities that make us who we are.
Because in the end, it is community that makes authentic individual life possible.
It’s community that gives individuals strength. It’s community that helps us find moral purpose. It’s community that joins us together to exercise control over our lives.
And so as it turns out, our cherished belief in the liberty of every individual, and the dignity of every person, is rooted in the life we share together.
For in the words of an old theologian, “We do not exist in isolation, [but in] a world of love and hate, blessing and curse, service and destruction . . . where nobody, fundamentally speaking, belongs to himself alone.”
That’s something the Promethean vision has never understood. But then, the Promethean vision never really understood the individual—or love, or liberty. And it is time now to leave Prometheus where he belongs, in the myth of the past.
I will leave you with a story from Missouri.
This summer I traveled to some of the most economically distressed areas of my state and talked with people there. I talked with normal people, not politicians—with nurses and barbers and small farmers, with people out of work, with moms and dads.
We’d meet at the local McDonald’s or in coffee shops, sometimes a local diner.
And I’d ask them, one after another, why are you still here? Why do you still live here, in this place—where jobs are too scarce and drug use is too high and after so many have gone?
And what they told me, again and again, was very simple. They said, This is my home. I can’t imagine my life without it.
That’s the power of community.
And to heal the divisions of this country, to end the oligarchy of power and privilege, to halt the epidemic of loneliness and despair, we must rebuild it.
We must forge in this century a new politics of family and neighborhood—a new politics of love and belonging—a new politics of home.
That will mean rethinking old positions and revisiting old orthodoxies. It will mean challenging the old priorities of the political class. But we cannot wait any longer. Our life of liberty, our life together, cannot wait.
So let us strengthen the hands that are feeble and steady the knees that give way.
Let us renew our hope in what might be.
Let us begin.
Thank you and goodnight.