Journalist Timothy P. Carney’s perceptive book "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse" is actually more about places than alienation.
He repeats the usual economic reasons for today’s alienation — economic inequality, technological obsolescence, and drug dependency. But Carney’s meticulous poll research and relentless interviewing reveal something most others dismiss. This alienation was not primarily about economics but about a loss of community belonging.
Alienated from social connectivity, the American white, rural, non-college, blue-collar class avenged itself by electing Donald Trump to make things right once again.
The most characteristic indicator for early support of Trump was feeling like “a stranger in their own land,” with these folks 3.5 times more likely to support him in primaries — a stronger bond to him than opposition to immigration. These were highly individualistic peoples, relying on themselves rather than neighbors, believing “most people just look out for themselves” and had no power to change things. Legendary political scientist Aaron Wildavsky labeled them fatalists.
The book properly connects to the classic Robert Putnam "Bowling Alone" thesis that what distresses modern America is its declining social participation, tracing high associational participation back to the 19th Century investigations of French analyst Alexis de Tocqueville as the engine that built America, which in turn prepared the way for its economic success.
Those who have succeeded in America have had stronger families emphasizing at least a high-school education, having children after marriage, developing local community ties and volunteering, and belonging to community associations including, for most, churches. The problem is that many in the rural working classes have lost these connections, which explain their lower levels of employment, higher welfare and drug dependency, and political alienation.
Carney is careful to limit the alienated group he is discussing to those who supported Trump early in the party nomination process, his base, rather than the more traditional Republicans who supported him in the general election. The disproportionally white, rural, less-educated, and working class base was not especially poor but importantly they lived in poor communities where many of their neighbors were poor and the places themselves were dysfunctional.
Trump’s appeal was to tell them they were correct, they had no say in politics and he would make the places great again. Carney found similar beliefs among left-oriented Occupy Wall Street activists, both opposed to big money in politics and wanting a strong leader to thwart the dominant elite which led to Occupy’s support of Bernie Sanders. Trump was more successful with a larger field of opponents allowing him to play opponents against each other and win.
Carney blames much of this bi-partisan alienation on a common left and right hyper-individualism alienated from community. While the right was correct that a capitalist economy was more productive and prosperous for the working classes this economic success resulted from its “creative destruction” of old inefficient business forms. Yet, good practices and institutions were destroyed too. Gig employers emphasizing contractors may be more efficient but they also produce less stable employment and weaker relationships with employers. This instability can weaken family, marriage, childrearing and the other social ties of neighborliness.
It is not factory closings that are most disruptive, Carney finds. Confirming Putnam’s thesis again, he discovered that local church attendance, assisted by strong families, is the incubator of membership in other local charitable, fraternal, welfare, health, and educational associations that build community and prepare for jobs. As governments spent trillions to replace association and church welfare, states have coopted the functions of towns and counties and “the federal government has taken over what everyone else used to do,” community has lost functionality. In 1926 church social-work spending alone was two and a half times that of state and local governments combined while after the New Deal government social spending has increasingly displaced private charity and socialization.
As the elites who run both political parties have thrown money at the problems, Carney follows Charles Murray in noting that they live their own lives in sound communities not needing government support. Safe in their gated ghettos supporting numerous functioning community organizations, even strong, neighborly families and churches, pretty much free from the bureaucratic rules they impose on others.
Consequently, church-attendance was highly correlated against support for Trump in the early Republican primaries and new support for him was strongest among those with strong pro-religious beliefs but who did not belonging to any church.
While Republicans have benefited from this alienation to this day, surely a few more manufacturing jobs and tax cuts will not be enough for the longer run.
Carney demonstrates that social order and political comity now require radical decentralization of power and decision-making to very-close-to-home small local governments and associations where individuals can participate in developing themselves and their communities to directly affect how they live their daily lives.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution" and "Reagan’s Terrible Swift Sword: Reforming and Controlling the Federal Bureaucracy." He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He can also be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.