Review: Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse by Timothy Carney

selfie

I have read a few books now that touch on the subjects mentioned here. “Consumed” (Ben Barber) is about the corporate and technological contribution to our fraying social fabric. “The Once and Future Liberal” (Mark Lilla) is about (one might say) the Left’s contribution to alienation. “The Second Civil War” (Ronald Brownstein) talks about the “great sorting” taking place in American demographics, a phenomenon that began in the 1970s and has by now almost fully crystallized. In that book (as noted in my review), Brownstein tells us what happened but not why. One might say the point of “Alienated America” is to answer that question.

Alienated could be the centerpiece of this collection. Its author sets out to discover why Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. I can find no fault with his analysis. It is both extensively researched and subtle. Carney carefully identifies and disentangles every factor he can (he discusses many) while sedulously maintaining a neutral stance in two senses. First he does not judge these people other than to note that some (not all) of them are fundamentally racist. Second, he is careful to point out (many times) that even all the factors taken together do not explain everything. They do not, for example, explain individual exceptions (both pro and anti-Trump) found everywhere. 

His conclusions concerning the importance of the church as a third-place institution in those communities where social cohesion is strong, and alienation is low is well argued and perhaps the most insightful aspect of his analysis. Money, which seems always coupled with education, is the only alternative (sometimes both are present) primary driver. Carney enumerates many interlocking formal and informal institutions (a monthly book club or weekly stick-ball game count for example), but all of them end up resting either on money or the church, the individual instution in a physical place, of whatever denomination that happens to be. Carney isn’t being theological here though he notes the teachings of the world’s great religions always point to both community strength and inclusiveness. He also knows the more fundamental reason for this social centrality is history. Churches: individual parishes, congregations, ashrams, mosques, have been performing this role, sometimes with more and sometimes less political authority, for a thousand years! 

From what I can see from my interaction with the academic elite, this recognition, an active church’s positive role on community cohesion, is the book’s fundamental insight. Even so Carney is sedulously fair, recognizing that there are possible negative phases to this cohesion. Some congregations are exclusionary. Carney clearly believes this, where it happens, is not in the proper spirit of Christianity or any other world religion.    

Carney never really addresses alienation on the left.  I understand why his focus was on the primaries. His interest is Trump’s core, the people who voted for Trump when they could have voted for Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich. But surely this applies also to the left’s vote, in the primaries, for Sanders. There must be an alienated left. They are a part of “Alienated America” also.

Carney waves off the non-alienated vote for Trump in the general election with a “who else would republicans vote for? Hilary?” This is a cheap shot for a couple of reasons. It utterly ignores the question of alienated Democrats . Presumably, in the primaries, most of these folks voted for Sanders. Surely alienated Democrats exist, or have they all declared themselves Independent? Are their reason’s for alienation different than those of early Trump supporters? Does their preference for centralization (the left) as Carney puts it stem from differences in the conditions of their alienation? Carney says the alienated right say they are religious, but do not seem, to attend church. I suppose (but do not know) the left would deny being religious altogether. As goes being alienated, this might be the only significant difference between them. Carney doesn’t talk about it.

His wave off here is disappointing for another reason. While I get his focus was the alienated right, this being my blog, I want to note also the hypocrisy of the non-alienated Republicans who did not vote for Trump in the primaries. These people, remember, have functioning churches! 

What would happen if the situation were reversed? What if Donald Trump ran as a Democrat? Would I have voted for him in my State’s primary? No, I would have voted for Clinton or Sanders (as I did). What about the general election? I would have three choices: vote for Trump, don’t vote at all (handing Trump the win: what [alienated] Democrats and Independents who didn’t like Hilary did in those States Trump needed for an Electoral college win), or vote for the Republican nominee. I would have chosen the third option. If my critics say that I have the benefit of hindsight (being 2021, not 2018), I am on record in mid-2016 noting that any of the other Republican nominees would be preferable to Trump! Well-educated (elite) Republicans might have preferred a Romney or Kasich. Still, in the end, knowing (how could an educated person not know by October 2016 that Trump was a habitual liar) what Trump was, they helped to put him in power anyway. Elite Republicans were knowingly complicit in electing a con artist. 

We know that there are both left and right-wing conspiracy theorists. The alienated left’s hatred of Clinton was (and remains) as irrational as the right’s (alienated or otherwise) belief that Trump meant anything he said other than those matters connected to racism and xenophobia. If the alienated right is inherently racist, so, apparently, are the non-alienated elite! Electing a xenophobic mad man, compared to a steady, if ideologically disagreeable (Clinton), hand on the tiller of state was important to both the alienated and the non-alienated right alike! As it turns out Carney fails to draw a lesson (I know, not his purpose): disaffection on the right is the greater political power than that of the left (or Sanders would have won the Democratic nomination). To this is added the hypocrisy of the Republican elite. What gave us Trump the nominee was alienation on the right. What gave us Trump the President was the hypocrisy of the Republican elite! In the national election, the Republican elite could have chosen, as did the alienated left, not to vote at all. Instead, these non-alienated communities, suffused with so much money or religion, chose an irreligious narcissistic xenophobe; an Anti-Christ-type if ever there was one! Carney admits that Christians do not always act Christianly.

I’ll end my diatribe here. A good book still! 

Alienated America by Timothy Carney 2019

This book is about what happens when “third places” disappear from geographic communities. Mostly that part of the subject is political, not in the narrow sense of elections and political parties, but in the broadest sense of “the polis” or the people taken not merely as individuals but also in social institutions, formal (unions, rotary clubs, local civic events, the PTA, and especially churches) or informal (the corner diner, bowling leagues, book clubs, school or culturally-related events, even bars). “The family” (as in married, with children – no not the tv comedy) is intrinsically involved here. Where third-place options exist, families tend to be stronger and stronger families lend more support to their local third places. When these things disappear, people become more isolated and more alienated in the way Carney means. 

The book is also about why these places disappear. Carney explores dozens of reasons from the economic (nothing simplistic here, there are many forms of economic impact on third places) and educational to the psychological, from centralization (the tendency of government at all levels to take control and regulate) to hyper-individualism (the notion that I have only to look out for my interests). As it turns out (not surprising), all the factors reinforce one another. Sometimes, there is a domino effect even when money (a factory closing) is not the first support to disappear. Carney points out that American suburbs are designed with cars in mind.  People in the spread-out suburbs make fewer social connections (there is no local pub within walking distance) than those who live in older, more dense, communities.

Interestingly, this book could have been written at any time in the last twenty years. The socially fraying places Carney describes were well in evidence by then. But writing in 2018, Carney had to hand a phenomenon that gave his statistics and arguments a laser focus, Donald Trump’s presidency, and this is politics in the narrow sense. The story here is rightly wrapped around those who voted for Trump, not in the national election, but in the primaries where they might have voted for Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich! By evaluating those who first voted for Trump, often people who never voted before, Carney discovers that this group quintessentially embodies every (or almost every) socially alienating environmental factor (remember these are of many different sorts) enumerated. The big problem here is that modern life, including technology, the dominance of large corporations, changes in the nature of work, regulatory expansion (all discussed by Carney), are, by in large, making the problem worse. The population of the alienated in the United States is expanding!

Carney acknowledges there may be good reasons (particularly as concerns increased centralization of government power at all levels) for some of what has proven corrosive to third places. Unemployment, food stamps, and Social Security were not set up because the States or Federal government wanted to administer entitlements, but because the third places (churches, neighbors, locally organized food banks) were not keeping up with the local need. Counties do not forbid the organized giving-away of cooked food, in the absence of proper health certificates, to the poor because they want the poor to starve. They outlaw it because somewhere, someone got food poisoning and sued the city for not regulating it (interestingly, one symptom of alienation Carney does not investigate is the American reliance on the judiciary to settle every problem)! 

Carney does not get into these countervailing matters in any detail, but that is not his mission. While mentioning these things, he takes care not to justify or condemn any particular policy of centralizing authority, but only to investigate the connection between policy and the weakening or disappearance of the third place. If a church or rotary club cannot give away food, people who volunteer to work those giveaways are shorn of an opportunity to serve their community. Some purpose is subtracted from their life, and that is alienating! To be sure, one rule does not an alienated community make. Receiving State unemployment insurance does not by itself alienate a person. But the combination of many third places gradually disappearing from a community over time erodes the polis of the whole place. It is these places, often fraying socially for decades, where Trump’s core voters reside. 

None of the corrosive factors discussed have been removed from the American scene. All of them are present and growing stronger in the American political environment. These factors also overlay communities where the polis is strong. Carney explores these also. As one might expect, the combination of money, education or religion, and intact families makes all the difference. As corroding factors reinforce one another negatively, the factors that make for a strong social environment are positively reinforcing in those places where they exist. The Republicans in these communities did not vote for Trump in the primaries.

As he winds up his investigation, Carney discovers the two single factors that most underpin, non-alienated communities, are money (lots of it), or vibrant religious communities with houses of worship that do more than hold services. He looks at Christian churches of many denominations, Mormon temples, mosques, and synagogs. More money, or more [attended] churches, correlates to more intact families, better-socialized adults and children, more social involvement, and much less alienation. 

Carney acknowledges he is a conservative and not a Trump fan. But he is eminently fair to all political sides. There is really nothing to disagree with here. His research is impeccable, his writing clear. He maintains his awareness that no socially rich (not necessarily in dollars) community is perfect, and even the most alienated communities have some social interaction. If 60% of Republicans in a community voted for Trump in the primaries, that means 40% didn’t. No one factor explains everything anywhere. Yet his conservatism does cause him to dismiss certain issues (like educated Republicans voting Trump in the general election) that deserve comment. I will address some of these in my blog.