Timothy Carney’s book “Alienated America” tackles a crucial question that too few policymakers and news commentators even bother asking anymore: What is at the root of America’s contemporary cultural and social malaise? The short answer, according to Mr. Carney, is the deterioration of civil society.
Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Other Places Collapse, by Timothy P. Carney (368 pages, Harper, 2019)
“Seek the well-being of the city… for in its well-being will be your well-being.” Jeremiah 29:7
The prophet Jeremiah’s recounting of the Babylonian Exile may have particular import for modern America, if Timothy Carney is correct. In his recently-released Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Other Places Collapse, Mr. Carney describes a contemporary American society that is lost in its own cultural and social wilderness. Mr. Carney’s masterful analysis makes Alienated America an immediate part of the conservative canon—joining a growing body of work that attempts to make sense of our descent into an “Us versus Them” dichotomy.
In order to diagnose the origins of Americans’ increasingly polarized views, Mr. Carney poses two central questions: Why is the American Dream alive for some Americans, but not for others? And how did that dynamic affect the 2016 presidential election?
Readers wary of our seemingly endless post-election analyses need not fret: Alienated America is neither a political science tome nor an ideological screed. In fact, Mr. Carney’s not interested so much in assessing President Trump’s administration as much as he is in deciphering what Mr. Trump’s election tells us about American society; that long-term view necessarily de-emphasizes a single election, however significant, and instead underscores the importance of the long-running demographic trends on which Mr. Carney does focus. That approach allows him to use the data surrounding the 2016 election to form a social and cultural snapshot of America.
In so doing, the book tackles a crucial question that too few policymakers and news commentators even bother asking anymore: What is at the root of America’s contemporary cultural and social malaise?
The short answer, according to Mr. Carney, is the deterioration of civil society. The polarization we sense and experience, particularly in reference to Left-Right politics, is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem: Too many American communities lack the social cohesion that makes them real communities. What Robert Putnam, in his masterful Bowling Alone (2000), first chronicled as a decline in “social capital” has now mushroomed, twenty years later, into a full-blown social crisis. If, as Timothy Carney says, social capital is “the oxygen the [American] Dream needs,” then American society needs a ventilator.
But even that lack of community is merely a symptom, too—and Mr. Carney deserves credit for not shying away from its root cause, which he dubs the “unchurching of America.” Doing some excellent data-mining from rich, underutilized demographic sources, such as the American Community Survey, Mr. Carney shows how “unchurching” is particularly prevalent among the working class. Political diagnosticians have concluded, correctly but incompletely, that the fuel for the working class ire that elected Mr. Trump was the disappearance of factories and the jobs that came with them. Mr. Carney shows that social factors, such as marriage rates, church attendance, and civic engagement, are the real root of the frustration. As he says, “The woes of the white working class are best understood not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches.” Put simply, the American Dream is dead, not because of lost employment, but because of the social disintegration that happens as a result.
This is one of three major contributions Alienated America makes to the growing literature on the state of American civil society. In fact, Mr. Carney even doubles-down on this claim, showing that in counties with the highest church attendance, civic institutions are vibrant and jobs are plentiful—in other words, social capital is, in fact, providing the necessary oxygen for the American Dream. And it was in those counties where Trump fared the worst during the Republican primaries, for his rhetoric and platform appealed not to people who are living the dream, but to those who find it hopelessly lost.
Analyzing that latter group is Alienated America’s second major contribution—what Mr. Carney calls the “where” and the “why” of “Trump Country.” Though plenty of observers have painted a simplistic picture of the “who”—the disaffected steel-mill worker in Pennsylvania, or displaced auto-machinist in Michigan—Mr. Carney employs copious data sources to demonstrate where those pockets of “disaffecteds” are. Almost without exception, President Trump excelled in those places where economic opportunity has dissipated, and civic institutions withered as a result.
It’s the connection between those two types of counties and civil society that is fascinating: it is not merely that factory jobs have been lost, but that with those jobs have gone the middle institutions—churches, school groups, coffee clubs, and yes, bowling leagues—that cohere Americans into “little platoons,” as Edmund Burke described them.
That spiral of intertwined economic, social, religious, and civic factors has, in sum, undermined community in a growing number of American cities—and in every region. The impact would not be lost on Robert Nisbet, whose Quest for Community clearly influences Mr. Carney:
Other and more powerful forms of association have existed, but the major moral and psychological influences on the individual’s life have emanated from the family and local community and the church. Within such groups have been engendered the primary types of identification: affection, friendship, prestige, recognition. And within them also have been engendered or intensified the principal incentives of work, love, prayer, and devotion to freedom and order.
Timothy Carney’s third contribution is succinctly but powerfully identifying the tie between centralization and atomization. This is instinctual for conservatives, for whom Russell Kirk put it well: “in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.” Considering that hyper-individualism merely feeds more centralization—and vice-versa—one of the book’s latter chapters on the topic is dismaying: It is hard not to conclude that the American experiment, as we know it, may be too far gone.
Nonetheless, Mr. Carney’s supernatural optimism, which he discusses briefly but poignantly, leads him to posit some solutions in the final chapter. Policy-oriented readers like me may find the solutions wanting, but I am afraid Mr. Carney’s conclusion is correct: Yes, the American Dream can be saved, but no, it cannot be done simply or quickly. It will take each of us, one conversation and one relationship at a time, rebuilding the real building blocks of society—those very institutions that government centralization has served to wipe away.
As we do so, may we take our charge from Russell Kirk:
For a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed. A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities. That experiment has been made before; and it has been disastrous. It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity.
And in so doing, if American society, in all of its imprudence, inefficiency, and uncharity, is enduring its own Babylonian Exile, we can take heart that even that misfortune came to an end—the fruit of faithfulness and civic engagement fueling each other.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Betsy Ross, 1777” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.