There were many times during the run-up to the 2016 election that I heard myself saying I didn’t know anyone who was supporting President Trump in the primaries. As a college-educated, church-going, middle class woman living in the suburbs, I can see now that it was an indication of how disconnected I was from those voters who propelled Trump toward the GOP nomination.
Tim Carney’s “Alienated America” explores that specific demographic of voters — the ones who deeply understood what Trump meant when he said “the American dream is dead.”
The truth is that for many of us, the American dream is alive and well — and always has been. But for certain segments of the population — those surviving and failing to thrive in rural counties affected by factory job loss, family breakdown and extreme isolation — it really did feel like the America they once knew no longer existed.
I’ve often heard of people longing for the “good old days,” when a city rallied around the high school football team, kids said the Pledge of Allegiance and families gathered for picnics after church. In “Alienated America,” Carney explores the data that shows civil society and social capital was most alive and well back in the 50s and 60s, which explains this yearning recalled by Baby Boomers.
This idea of “civil society” is one that conjures up a vision of small town America, where you run into you neighbor at the corner grocery store, where VFW lounges are full of veterans and church bake sales are the Saturday morning event everyone knows about from the ad in the local paper. It’s place where people know the Mayor, and the name of the star basketball player and where you an rely on your next door neighbor to watch your toddler for a few minutes when you run to pick up a spare part for your car.
It’s a place where personal trust is high and unemployment is low. It’s a place that no longer exists in the minds of people living in places like Fayette County, Pennsylvania where support for President Trump was among the highest in the entire country.
Contrast that with traditional Republican districts like Oostberg, Wisconsin which had very low support for Trump and you’ll see why. Ooostberg and many counties in Utah, for example, are some of the most tight-knit, religious communities in the entire country. Carney’s research explores how and why counties with the most frequent church attendance were actually the least likely to support Trump in the Republican primary.
The reason is simply this: Places where church and other civil institutions are the center of community life feel happily and healthily socially connected to God and other people. The idea that the American dream is dead is a silly notion to people living in this world.
“Alienated America” explores how the places where Trump received the most initial support were the most isolated, least educated and had the weakest community ties around the entire country. These are also, not surprisingly, the places where suicides and drug addiction rates have skyrocketed in recent years.
The book pins the blame for these broken down places on things like centralization, where government has attempted to take over everything that communities used to take care of.
But Carney doesn’t let conservatives get off scot-free either. He writes about the over-idealization of hyper-individualism and how conservatives have too often written off the importance of “cooperative, organized, political or community activities,” which have tapered off significantly in recent years. Recall how often conservatives wrote off former President Barack Obama’s job as a “community organizer” or scoff at the title of Hillary Clinton’s book, “It Takes a Village.” It turns out, those organizers and villages are actually a pretty important part of keeping the American Dream alive.
“As with anything taken to an extreme, individualism can be a vice. Specifically the vice of hyper-individualism results in people’s splitting away from institutions of civil society, which in turn, causes those institutions sclerosis. The end of the tale is alienation.”
Many things have contributed to the cracks in community and civil society across the country, but overwhelming, Carney says, it’s the “unchurching” of America that has done the most damage. As churches close at record rates and statistics showing weekly attendance at church or profession of any sort of faith remain lower than ever before, we see how that foundational part of society has caused an earthquake of consequences in the form of despair and disconnection.
Carney admits that churches don’t have to be the glue that holds it all back together. Other secular institutions, like community centers and YMCAs, can be of great help as well, But historically speaking and even in modern-day terms, it is the faith communities of America that keep optimism, social capital and families strong. These are the things that hold a community together and leave people feeling supported, loved and anything but alienated.
“Alienated America” is a call for every American who reads it to take a good, hard look at their own lives, which might not look the same as someone’s two counties over. The American Dream these days correlates very highly with where exactly you land on the map — and the journalism in this book proves it.