Politicians Should Talk About Belonging
Mayor Pete’s new plan for addressing addiction and mental illness shows the way.
It’s hard to talk about belonging in politics.
Questions about whether we feel “at home” in our communities, schools, workplaces, and civic organizations can be deeply personal. These subjective questions don’t fit neatly into the boxes of public policy, economics, or law. And yet, questions of belonging are at the heart of what politicians everywhere should be talking about and thinking about in the 21st Century. We all need a sense of belonging in order to thrive — emotionally, intellectually, physically. There’s now great and growing empirical evidence that we need social connection as well as purpose and a sense of place in order to lead healthy lives. We know that rich community is associated with better society-wide outcomes including health, safety, civic participation, and even economic productivity.
Belonging ought to be a bigger issue in politics around the world.
So, I was heartened to see that Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana and now a top-tier contender for the Democratic nomination for US president, just put out a first-of-its-kind plan for “healing and belonging.” It’s part of a more comprehensive set of policies for addressing the challenges of mental health, depression, and addiction in the United States. As Mayor Pete points out:
“deaths due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide are characterized as ‘deaths of despair,’ which are often preceded by people and communities being left behind.”
These are fundamental challenges of belonging. This could mean, for example, belonging within a society’s political and economic contract: “parents being laid off from the job they’ve had for decades and a society’s inability to provide them with the opportunity to take care of their family.” In other cases, it could be the result of declining social connection and norms of care and shared responsibility. The new plan contains a diverse range of strategies, including:
- A 10-year, $100 billion grant program to enable local communities to innovate around issues of mental health, addiction, and social isolation — all with an underlying focus on initiatives that amplify the sense of belonging.
- A National Service Plan to enable both youth and older people to work in fields like violence prevention and environmental restoration, where they can encounter a sense of shared purpose that is central to belonging.
- Reducing stigma around mental illness and addiction by training people — starting in public schools — in how to talk skillfully about such matters and how to be a caring friend to a person who is struggling.
I’m particularly enthusiastic about the plan because it gives power and resources to local people and communities to experiment and innovate. There’s no top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to the work of building belonging. Over nearly two decades studying these issues, I’ve come to realize that the work is about empowering people to design and enact customized and adaptable solutions in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, community health centers, and other contexts.
I know the plan might not be adopted in the immediate future. While I admire Mayor Pete for taking this step, I’m aware that it’s an uphill climb to win the presidency and transform the dysfunction and cruelty of the current White House. Still, the power of his proposal is real: It’s starting a vital conversation. It’s demonstrating that a politician indeed can take on questions of belonging. It’s signaling to other candidates and political leaders that these issues can and should be on the policy agenda.
Thankfully, Mayor Pete is not alone. Bhutan — with its world-leading Gross National Happiness Index — has long been prioritizing measures of wellbeing that focus on rich human connection and rootedness in place. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — who has championed the cause of belonging — recently pioneered a new national budget focused on human wellbeing rather than economic growth alone. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has been spearheading similar efforts. And the UK famously created the post of Minister for Loneliness in early 2018. All these steps are demonstrating what’s possible. There are legal and economic points of leverage that we can harness to amplify connection and rootedness. Across the world, our leaders should be talking about belonging.