Election 2020: Loneliness, the Art of Healing and our Democracy

November 3, 2020

By Robin Strongin

The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the protests over the recent murders by police of people of color including George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, have sparked outrage across the country. Summer 2020 bore witness to pent up frustration as anger spilled over and onto the streets - streets painted in neon yellow reminding the world that Black Lives Matter.

The reality of the seemingly endless pandemic combined with the stream of anger and violence exposed in media, is now fused with historic levels of loneliness and isolation.

Data show that COVID-19 is inflicting upon Black and Brown communities disproportionate burdens of illness, poorer health outcomes and higher rates of death. This disproportion of negative impacts also contributes to loneliness. This combination of anger, violence and loneliness is impacting Election 2020.

Loneliness and Social Isolation

The literature and lived experience are overwhelmingly conclusive. Loneliness kills, and lonely adults are less likely to vote. But, positive actions can change this outcome in all communities.

Long before COVID-19, loneliness and social isolation have been growing public health issues; very dangerous ones, with real consequences - both mental and physical. Loneliness increases mortality risk by 30% - the same as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

In 2018, an AARP study found that over one-third of American adults are lonely. That number has nearly doubled since the 1980’s. And loneliness affects everyone, not just older folks.

In her January 23, 2020 NPR article, Most Americans are Lonely, and our Workplace Culture May Not Be Helping, Elena Renken incorporates findings from one of the nation’s leading experts, Julianne Holt-Lunstad PhD, “…feelings of isolation were prevalent across generations. Gen Z - people who were 18 to 22 years old when surveyed - had the highest average loneliness score on the 80-point scale (about 50), and boomers had the lowest (about 43). We might think of older people as being the loneliest, but this pattern is actually consistent with results from other studies,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad. “We need to recognize that no one is immune.”

In addition to the health implications, data are emerging on the links between loneliness, social isolation, and politics. The US is in pain - we, as a society, are bruised by the political polarization that has infected this nation. The social science literature points to loneliness and a lack of belonging as root causes of a detachment to civil society and its institutions. Institutions that include voting.

Dr. Ryan Streeter’s October 1, 2019 RealClearPolitics article, The Politics of Loneliness, reported on a nationally representative survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). It found that “18-to 35-year-olds who are lonely and socially active (it is possible to be both) choose to volunteer for political organizations and campaigns at seven times the rate of their peers who are not lonely (22% vs. 3%). Conversely, socially active young adults who are not lonely choose to volunteer for faith-based organizations at six times the rate as their lonely peers (24% vs. 4%).” 

The findings related to high levels of young people volunteering for faith-based organizations is consistent with data across the decades and data across the globe. One interesting finding from OECD data: “In the United States, 44% of young people report that they are a member of a political party, far higher than in any other OECD country.”

Dr. Streeter, referencing the finding that loneliness among young adults and political engagement is particularly pronounced, explained “We can speculate as to why that is, but I think there’s something about political activity which creates a kind of tribalism. And for people who don’t have other tribes - they don’t have other local communities that they’re a part of - politics creates kind of a sense of meaning and sense of belonging. It seems to attract people that don’t have those other social supports in their lives.”

Loneliness is Contributing to our Increasingly Tribal Politics

Simon Kuper writes in his 2018 Financial Times piece, “Many people in western countries have been struggling to define who they are, and what tribe they belong to….As Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has observed, Americans are increasingly ‘bowling alone.’” Kuper continues, “In short, many Americans and Britons lost their tribes. But now politics is creating new ones. In the US, the tribal divide in political attitudes began to widen from 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Then, in 2016, even many previously apolitical Americans embraced their tribal political identity….And politics has only become more tribal since.” People crave belonging.

These are not new concepts. In 1951, controversial political theorist, Hannah Arendt wrote in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, about the “creation of pan movements, these widespread ideas that overarch national, political and ethnic elements….She gives a portrait of how you produce these isolated people, who then become susceptible to pan ideologies, which give them a place in something.”

Arnedt was prolific. Her essays on the Eichmann Trial appeared first in The New Yorker, and ultimately culminated in the controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Controversial, (though some argue it is more a misreading of her work), since she neither defends nor denies that Eichmann is evil. Rather, “Eichmann participated in the greatest act of evil in world history because of his inability to think critically about his fidelity to a Nazi ideology that he clung to as a source of significance in a lonely and alienating world. Such thoughtless ideological zealotry is, Arendt concludes, the face of evil in the modern world.”

Three years ago, on August 11 and 12, 2017, a white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally known as Unite the Right took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. The historic parallels are hard to miss. The caustic partisanship, the extreme ideology. And a political community that provides the lonely with a tribal sense of belonging. Without their hoods, the face of evil was once again exposed.

The US is not (yet) a totalitarian state. Election 2020 is arguably one of, if not the most important elections in our nation’s history. Despite the cataclysmic circumstances and divisiveness, creative efforts are underway to address the political rancor, rampant racism, and runaway loneliness.

Reducing loneliness and social isolation - across and between communities - is one way to reconnect people, to reestablish a meaningful sense of belonging and worth, and in so doing, provide an antidote to hate.

How The Arts Help Healing

One initiative that has been around, prior to COVID-19, has stepped up its efforts to work with partners to tackle these challenges: The Foundation for Art & Healing’s (FAH) UnLonely Project. The Project seeks to:

  • Raise awareness about loneliness as a pressing health problem and promote creative expression as an innovative approach to alleviate it,
  • Offer tools, resources, and programs for the reduction of loneliness through creative expression for a variety of populations, and
  • Catalyze and conduct further research into how to effectively and creatively reduce the burden of loneliness for millions of Americans.

Since the pandemic, the UnLonely Project has amplified its programming, expanded its outreach, and sparked creativity as a means to connect communities and reflect. Why is the UnLonely Project so timely? FAH Founder, Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, answers the question this way:

“First, because the problem of loneliness is worrisome and growing, with an urgent need to move past the silence and stigma that prevents us from fully acknowledging its significance; and second, provocative research indicates that creative arts expression, with its ability to engage us and connect us, shows great promise in reducing isolation, fostering improvement in health outcomes.”

Artists themselves are using their talents to help us heal. And they are turning their art into issue advocacy and election messages. The roster of artists and the issues they are tackling have exploded.

None is more personal than the work of artist Manny Oliver. On February 14, 2018, the Olivers lost their son Joaquin (whom they call Guac) at the MSD High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. As co-founder of the Center for Contemporary Political Art in Washington DC, I had the opportunity to meet and work with Manny, and his wife turned activist Patricia Oliver, in February 2019 when we curated a show of Manny’s murals, which he calls the Walls of Demand.

“WALLS OF DEMAND is a nationwide art project, and a way for Manuel Oliver’s son, Joaquin, to have a voice. These murals have a very powerful image so it’s hard to look away, and hard to ignore.”

Researchers and others are studying the linkages between loneliness and mass shootings. In his opinion piece, Tackle the Causes of Mass Shootings: Rage, Fear, Social Isolation and Guns,” that ran on August 8, 2019 in the Tennessean, Dr. Clay Stauffer quotes from David Brooks’ book, The Second Mountain:

“These mass killings are about many things - guns, demagoguery, and the rest - but they are also about social isolation and the spreading derangement of the American mind. Whenever there’s a shooting, there’s always a lonely man who fell through the cracks of society, who lived a life of solitary disappointment and who one day decided to try to make a blood-drenched leap from insignificance to infamy.”

Manny and Patricia Oliver are working tirelessly to make certain that their son Guac still has a voice. He speaks loudly through his parents’ activism and his dad’s art. And this year, as Election 2020 nears, Joaquin Oliver has something critically important to say - and his father has found the perfect medium.

Gal Tziperman Lotan’s headline in the August 11, 2020 Boston Globe explains: “Father of Teenager Killed in School Shooting Designs Billboard with Bracing Message: ‘VOTE FOR ME.’ ”

Each of us, whether lonely or connected, will benefit by acknowledging the importance of art and this election. Honor Guac - and vote this year, for him.



About the Authors:


Robin Strongin is the Founder of Strongin Salon & Gallery. Previously, she co-founded the Center for Contemporary Political Art in Washington DC and created the award-winning Disruptive Women in Health Care Blog. She is currently a Senior Scholar at AcademyHealth and was named a Woman of Impact in December 2015. Robin is the first board chair of the Boulanger Initiative and served on the board of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, founded by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

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