Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrives While Others Collapse is the latest in a series of recent books examining America’s ever-widening social fissures. It follows on from Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012), Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (2015), Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (both released in 2016), among other similar works.
While the author Timothy Carney draws upon much of this recent work, he is by no means jumping on a bandwagon. The Washington Examiner journalist began thinking about these issues long ago while working the politics beat for his newspaper. The shock election of Donald Trump to the presidency encapsulated the frustration which millions felt with their political leaders and governing elite. But Carney and other observers had detected the tensions bubbling below the surface long before they erupted, and the reporting which informs this book stretches back over many years.
Moreover – and to a greater extent than in the aforementioned works – the author of Alienated America focuses strongly on the issue of social capital: the communities that have it, and the communities that suffer due to its absence. Crucially, this Catholic father-of-six dedicates a large portion of the book to the role that religion plays in sustaining a spirit of community in those places where it still exists: “This study turns out to be a study of place, of social capital, of civil society, of community, and of church,” Carney writes at the outset. Throughout the book, Carney shows argues that the decline of religious practice across broad swathes of American society have been devastating.
Carney begins his account of social alienation in an unusual location: Chevy Chase, Maryland. Far from being a depressed post-industrial town in the Midwest, Chevy Chase is one of the most affluent communities in the United States. And that wealth can be measured in more than just financial terms. Chevy Chase is a reservoir filled with social capital. As in other parts of affluent America, there is a wide range of community activities constantly afoot. Churches are well-attended, political participation is high, and married two-parent families are the norm.Parents in such an environment can be confident that their children will grow up to have lives as happy and comfortable as theirs are, if not even more so. That sense of optimism and comfort within a community has important political implications, especially when voters are being encouraged to vote for a candidate who represents the antithesis of the status quo.
Candidate Trump campaigned across the United States by repeatedly delivering a fairly bleak message: “The American Dream is dead” (this was usually followed by a modest affirmation that he alone could fix this). Unsurprisingly, in the presidential election in 2016, Trump bombed in Chevy Chase. He performed abysmally in a huge number of other affluent communities across the nation, where people opted for Hillary Clinton by landslide margins.
This is not too surprising: the Democratic Party has long ruled the roost in America’s wealthiest metropolitan areas, which tend to be strongly socially liberal (in theory, if not in practice). What is noteworthy though is the extent to which Trump’s message was rejected in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries earlier in 2016. Even within the narrow Republican base in Chevy Chase, Trump was considered extremely unpalatable, gaining about 15% support
It wasn’t just in richer communities where most Republican voters rejected him, either. Carney describes visiting the small town
Oostburg in rural Wisconsin. Most of Oostburg’s residents are ethnically Dutch, and affiliated to one of the town’s well-attended Dutch Reformed churches. While Oostburg’s denizens lack the financial status of their counterparts in Chevy Chase, the sense of togetherness is even stronger
Locals look after each other, as Carney describes, and virtually everyone in the town is involved in its social and civic life.
This is where it gets interesting.
In spite (or perhaps because) of the little Dutch town’s conservatism, Oostburg was the site of one of Trump’s worst performances in the Republican primary in Wisconsin. As in Chevy Chase, grassroots Republicans preferred more traditional conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz or more moderate alternatives such as Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Wherever church and community were strong, Trump underperformed. Wherever they were weak, he swept all before him.
Mormons were particularly unreceptive to the MAGA message. In Utah – the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – Trump garnered around the same percentage of the vote in the Republican caucus (14%) as he got in Chevy Chase and Oostburg
Religious observance in Mormon-dominated Utah is higher than in any other state in the union. Family stability is unmatched elsewhere. The economy performs well. A strong social safety net is in place, organised around the Mormon church wards (a rough equivalent of Catholic parishes). Most relevant of all is the fact that the state has more upward social mobility than any other. In an environment like this, Trump’s insistence that the American Dream was dead made no sense and won him few supporters.Thus Carney identifies a clear pattern across religious communities and across more affluent or educated communities (in which religious practice is actually relatively strong) when it came to the 2016 election:
“In the 2016 Republican primaries and caucuses, across more than three thousand counties in the United States, only about 1 percent of counties gave Donald Trump less than 20 percent of the vote. We listed three of them above – Arlington, Alexandria, and Montgomery Counties – the most educated counties in the country. The rest, among counties with at least twenty thousand in population, are all, with one exception, exceptionally Mormon (at least 47 percent Mormon) or exceptionally Dutch (at least 25 percent Dutch),” Carney writes.
In fact, in 2016, church attendance was a very good predictor of how likely a Republican voter was to opt for Trump against his main opponent, the Texan Senator Ted Cruz. Among Republican voters who attended church weekly, Cruz was 15 points ahead of Trump. But among voters who did not attend, Trump led Cruz by a stunning 27 points.
Why have these voting trends not been the subject of more public discussion?
To be clear, religious voters did not let their initial reticence prevent them from voting for the winning candidate. In the general election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump swept the boards among religious voters, including in little Oostburg where he beat Clinton in a landslide.
This is not surprising. As the Democratic Party becomes ever-more fanatical about supporting late-term abortion and restricting the rights of religious believers, they are driving Christian voters away in droves. As a result, whatever happens in President Trump’s re-election campaign between now and November 2020, the conservative Christian vote is almost certainly in the bag.
Whatever their difficulties, conservative Christians are not the group which is most alienated from mainstream American society, and the disconnect between Trump’s core support base in America’s white working class and the world around them is not going away anytime soon. Its emergence is the product of a wide range of social changes, any one of which could be the focus of multiple other books.
While the manufacturing sector has not died off, much offshoring to cheaper locations has occurred. Moreover, American factories require far fewer workers than they used to in order to produce the same output. The problem of joblessness is not going away. As technological innovation continues apace, many more workers are going to find it hard to secure steady employment. At the very same time, changes in industry are making long-term employment in companies rarer and replacing the former norm with a more precarious economic model
People aren’t working together and many people aren’t working at all: preferring to get by on whatever unemployment assistance or disability benefits they can draw down. In the midst of such despair, addiction to illegal drugs or opioids has become common. And it is not just in the world of work where atomisation is more prevalent. Almost a generation after Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, levels of civic engagement have continued to plummet in those communities which can least afford to suffer further alienation.
The percentage of people who are married, and the percentage of children who are being raised by married parents, has also fallen dramatically. Most importantly of all, the decline of religion among America’s working class has resulted in many churches shutting their doors for the last time.
In large portions of America, these trends have created deserts where social capital is all but absent.It was in these communities where Donald Trump gained the extra votes he needed to win both the primaries and the presidency in 2016.
A large amount of social science data exists which shows just how close the correlation was between growing anxiety and disillusionment and the desire of the American working-class for a change in direction. Carney cites one study of the difference between Trump’s performance in 2016 and the Republican standard bearer Mitt Romney in 2012, carried out by the statistician Ben Casselman, which is particularly clear.
“Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.” Casselman wrote, “The list goes on: More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support.”
Trump’s success in 2016 led to much analysis of these problems, and the publication of Hillbilly Elegy in that same year helped many to put a face – even an imaginary one – to what one kind of Trump voter looks like.
What sets Alienated America apart though is Carney’s strong focus on the role of religion in sustaining communities, and the role which the decline of religion has played in hollowing out the social support network which used to hold communities together. For Carney, this has been even more consequential than the economic upheavals.“The unchurching of America is at the root of America’s economic and social problems,” he argues. “The woes of the white working class are best understood not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches.”
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray had already shone a light on the massive disparity between religious participation among America’s middle and upper-classes (which is holding up quite well, in spite of secularism’s gains) and religious participation rates in working-class communities which have collapsed over the last half century.
This massive disparity is new, and was not the case throughout much of America’s history. Its significance cannot be overstated. While the charitable works which the churches engage in are widely known about, it is not generally understood just how much religion impacts the social practices of ordinary people in the pews.
A church is not just a house of prayer. It is a focal point for community events; a repository for the shared memories of a community. Close that down, and you shut off a source of social capital which cannot be readily replaced. Yet churches and church-run social services are now closing all across the parts of America which need them most.
This book provides an excellent summation of an overall problem, and the author argues his point about social capital and religiosity convincingly. As with Coming Apart and Hillbilly Elegy however, a reader seeking for broad solutions will not be satisfied.
While Carney devotes much time to explaining the role that his own vibrant and multi-ethnic parish plays in suburban Washington DC (and suggests that Catholics could learn from Mormons by expanding the Church’s social supports further) he does not attempt to propose a step-by-step guide for how the enormous damage which has been done might be repaired.
A conservative libertarian, Carney does not look to the federal government to solve the problem. The dearth of community life, by definition, needs to be solved at community level, and this will not be an easy task to accomplish. A greater examination of potential strategies for achieving this at a grassroots level would have strengthened this book considerably. In spite of that, by writing Alienated America, Carney has provided a timely reminder of how important the issue of religion is in determining whether a community will be blessed with hope, or plagued by hopelessness. For without the revival of those empty churches, a resurrection of community in those places that most need it will remain an unfulfilled American dream.
Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse
by Timothy P. Carney
Published by Harper Collins
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