Vanity Fair: Chris Murphy Wants to Make America a Little Less Lonely

By Eric Lutz

November 7, 2023

[…] “There are just real practical impacts to people feeling lonely and disconnected,” Murphy told the crowd of community leaders. “Political instability and polarization is driven by people feeling upset and angry when they can’t find positive connection and they go find it in darker, more dangerous places. But I think as I get older, and I get deeper into this job, I just have come to the conclusion that it’s not good enough for me just to kind of adjust the dials of public policy, and as a policymaker I have to step back and ask questions about how people are feeling.”

If you know Murphy, it’s probably as Capitol Hill’s conscience amid this country’s never-ending plague of gun violence. The guy giving impassioned Senate floor speeches calling on his colleagues to offer more than “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the latest mass shooting. The guy who, after the Uvalde, Texas, massacre last year, pulled off what might count as a political miracle in this era of profound polarization: the passage of a bipartisan gun safety bill, the most significant such legislation in three decades.

But Murphy, who was turning 50 that day in Boone, has lately become as passionate about the nation’s need for what he calls a “spiritual renaissance” as he is about his signature issue. He hasn’t abandoned that long-standing fight for a new one; he’s significantly expanded the scope of it. “You can’t spend 10 years thinking about violence in America,” he had told me a month earlier, in his hideaway office, where he had hashed out much of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, “without trying to grapple with the underlying emotional state of a country in which people shoot first and think later.”

The country appeared to him to be sickened somehow—in the throes of an amorphous ailment manifesting all across our culture and politics. And while the right was offering snake-oil cures, pushed by the most dangerous political huckster in recent American history, it seemed to Murphy that the left was treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease entirely. Worse yet, the malady was threatening to metastasize: Donald Trump was running to reclaim the White House on an explicitly authoritarian platform with help from the Republican allies whose politics of division had contributed to this national disorder. It had become Murphy’s mission, as he put it, to “diagnose and treat the metaphysical state of America.”

It’s a big task, one not typically in the job description of a senator. It is also, by his own admission, politically fraught, and his efforts have already been met in some corners with resistance: In July, when he introduced the National Strategy for Social Connection Act—a bill that would, among other things, establish an “Office of Social Connection Policy” in the White House—the right cast Murphy as a big-government liberal working to mandate friendship through bureaucracy. There was also some suspicion from progressives, who bristled at the outreach to conservatives he considered necessary to his project.

He is convinced there is a growing “realignment” across the right and left around questions of “first principles, the good life,” hints of which can be seen in the skepticism of Big Tech and neoliberalism that has been brewing on different sides of the political spectrum. He was taking something of a political trust fall—and had come to Boone not only in search of solutions, but to begin building a grassroots consensus around loneliness and disillusionment. “Some of what I’m doing is unfamiliar,” he admitted. “What I’m trying to do is a little bit outside of the traditional sandbox that we tend to play in.”

[…] There have been decisions by governments that have caused our social fabric to disintegrate,” Murphy told me later, describing more systemic issues weighing on the nation’s psyche. “And I think people on the right and the left are really unhappy with that.”

He had come to this conclusion about a year earlier, not long after the biggest legislative victory of his career. The movement he had arguably been the congressional face of since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting—which occurred in the Connecticut district he then represented in Congress—had broken a three-decade logjam. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and several other Democratic accomplishments in the first stretch of Joe Biden’s presidency, should have been a major cause for celebration. “And yet, people weren’t feeling any better,” Murphy recalled. “The national mood seemed very stuck.”

The symptoms of that malaise seemed especially acute to him in the lives of kids, who he had seen “disappearing into their phones…being co-opted by this all-consuming consumer culture.” They seem to “feel the weight of the world on their shoulders and have less sort of optimism and hope than my generation did,” Murphy told me. “It’s not a coincidence that I’m thinking a lot more about the emotional health of the country as my kids get closer to adulthood,” he added. “I’m worried about the world that they are walking into.”

[…] “He was really a backbencher in Congress,” said Gary Rose, a professor of political science at Sacred Heart University who wrote a book on the 2012 Senate race, in which Murphy defeated former WWE CEO Linda McMahon. “He was not considered a major force.”

Sandy Hook changed that. “My life took a hard about-face,” Murphy wrote in his 2020 book, The Violence Inside Us. “I now had my calling…my mission in life.” He would spend the next decade in the Senate fighting the formidable gun lobby and helping build a movement that is starting to prove equally formidable.

“He was an extraordinary quarterback,” Senator Cory Booker, one of his closest friends in the Senate, told me. “He was just a Joe Montana–type tactician working the ball down the field and did something a lot of people can’t speak to as a senator, which is putting points on the board.” Or maybe he was more like a hockey player, with a “real ability to see around corners and see ahead for where the puck is going, not where it is right now,” as Senator Richard Blumenthal, his fellow Nutmegger, described him. Or perhaps more of a point guard? “He’s been amazing to watch,” says Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, an admirer of Murphy’s who told me his own gun safety activism—which included an impassioned pregame speech after Uvalde—has been inspired by the Connecticut senator. “I think the hope is that we are going to tip the scales as a country, where we can actually get a group of like-minded government officials to make some real change.”

Of course, Murphy remains committed to that change. He’s still in regular contact with grassroots leaders, as well as the Sandy Hook families he met in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy—some of whom he counts among his closest friends. “He is just as dedicated, just as smart, just as compassionate, just as genuine as the Chris Murphy you see in the United States Senate,” said Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son, Daniel, was killed at Sandy Hook. “He just seems like one of the most genuine politicians I’ve ever met,” said Sari Kaufman, a Parkland survivor who was an intern in Murphy’s office at the time of the Uvalde shooting and describes the senator as a personal hero. “It’s like knowing that you have a teammate in the most important place you can have one.”

But his political identity is evolving. The success of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act lent him a new degree of political capital, earned him credibility with some Republicans, and has made the senator a key surrogate for Biden’s reelection campaign. The president worked closely with Murphy on the legislation, appearing with him at a June summit the senator hosted in Hartford commemorating the one-year anniversary of its enactment. Murphy is a “national leader,” Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison, who served in Congress with Murphy, told me on the sidelines of the Safer Communities Summit in June. “This guy has it all.”

[…] For the most part, his bill to address social isolation—which, as Jillian Racoosin, executive director of the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness, said was unprecedented in the United States in its scope—was well-received save for some mockery from the online right. “Senator Murphy’s proposal is an important and needed policy step forward,” Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University and host of the popular Happiness Lab podcast, told me. “We need more leaders in government like Senator Murphy, who recognize just how common and consequential loneliness is and recognize that there is a role for government in helping support communities and building stronger connections,” echoed Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, whose May advisory on loneliness helped form the framework for Murphy’s legislation.

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This summer, Murphy introduced the National Strategy for Social Connection Act, legislation to combat America’s epidemic of loneliness and promote social connection in our communities. Earlier this year, Murphy co-wrote an op-ed in the Daily Beast with Ian Marcus Corbin, a philosopher at Harvard Medical School and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita, to call for a spiritual renaissance in American politics. In April, Murphy also authored an op-ed in TIME with Richard Weissbourd, a Senior Lecturer and the faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on how America’s obsession with individual success has come at the expense of our sense of community and the collective good. Murphy first outlined the politics of loneliness in a piece for the Bulwark last year.