The loneliness issue

A Midwest political leader was talking about what was on people's minds these days: ``You know about the farmer's problems,'' he said. ``They're real. And we've got our share of unemployment around here. But there's one problem that one hears wherever you go and hardly anyone mentions: It's loneliness. A party that could come up with a program for dealing with loneliness would be in power for years to come.''

So often a politician gives a visiting newsman the usual things: who's ahead, who's in trouble, etc. But in the last few years the problem of loneliness has been cropping up in the findings of reporters and pollsters who are taking readings on what the public is thinking.

Indeed, that highly esteemed political historian Theodore H. White, speaking from his years of looking closely at the American scene, says that ``Loneliness is one of the unshaped political problems of our times. It is the curse of American life. You find it everywhere, from New England to California.''

Loneliness is found among all kinds of individuals and groups: There are increasing numbers of elderly -- and increasing numbers of elderly people without spouses. There's a divorce rate that tells us that hardly a family isn't touched by this social malady. And then there are the youth who are trying out ``relationships'' these days -- ties that so often end in breakup and aloneness. The poor suffer from loneliness. But so do those in the middle and upper income brackets.

The question here is: What does loneliness have to do with politics? How could a party or candidate come up with a program that deals with this problem? Government spending can be pushed for helping the unemployed. Or a growing economy could be supported to provide a trickle-down of jobs for the jobless. And civil rights legislation has had a direct effect on cutting back on discrimination.

But loneliness does have a political tie. A party that addresses itself to affirming the traditional values is certainly talking about ways our society, by approving of certain modes of individual conduct, used to do a much better job of keeping families together.

When I grew up in a small city in the Midwest, hardly anyone was gettng divorced. Indeed, society put a stigma on divorce that undoubtedly caused many unhappy marriages to continue when divorce might have been a better solution. No one can prove that there was more marital happiness in those days, but there wasn't all this divorce and separation -- and accompanying loneliness -- either.

Families took care of their parents and grandparents if help was needed. Often a little house, behind the main house, was provided for parents in their later years.

I'm not suggesting that there wasn't a lot of neglect back then -- or that the device of social security hasn't been a more satisfactory approach, in the main. But with the government aid for the elderly has come a rather detached attitude of families toward their parents. And it has opened the door to loneliness when an elderly person finds himself or herself alone.

Now, here is where politics enters. Indeed, here is where President Reagan comes in the door. Mr. Reagan is a particularly good person to have in your living room on your TV screen, if you are lonely. He is able to project a warmth and friendliness that are particularly comforting for those who are hungry for companionship.

Jimmy Carter, too, was a comfort to many lonely people. They liked the way he would ``visit'' with them -- that chatty, neighborly way he had in dealing with people.

Again, probably loneliness will never be a political issue, as such. Mr. White says there is nothing that government can do about it. But it is indeed an ``unshaped political issue.'' Some leaders -- more than others -- are going to be able to draw the lonely to their side.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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