In this episode of High Noon with Inez Stepman, Inez interviews Timothy Carney, author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, a book about the sociological contours of the crisis of meaning and loneliness that drives our politics. Carney is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the senior columnist at The Washington Examiner, as well as being published and interviewed everywhere from The Atlantic, New York Times, and MSNBC to The Wall Street Journal and Fox News.
Stepman and Carney discuss how class segregation factors into our political division, the declining role of religion, and how to create opportunities for 3D meetups in a digital world. Tim pushes back against a point of agreement between libertarians and Marxists about the primacy of economics in explaining the failures and successes of different regions of the country.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. My guest this week is Timothy Carney, author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, in which he gives sociological contours to what seems to be a crisis of meaning and loneliness. And that that crisis seems increasingly to be driving not just the politics of our era but our underlying divisions in society more broadly. He is a perfect, perfect guest to try to delve into some of these questions and what our divisions mean and what our erosion of community has really done not only to our politics but to ourselves. Tim is also a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior columnist at the Washington Examiner. He has been published and interviewed everywhere from The Atlantic, New York Times, MSNBC, to Wall Street Journal and Fox News. Welcome, Tim, to High Noon. It’s great to have you here.
Great. Thanks. Thanks for having me.
You point out in this book and, pretty openly, you say that this is a book about Trump voters but not about Trump. And that your exploration of this topic, you were trying to figure out what was going on with this chunk of the American electorate that was enthusiastic about Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries, and what made them different from a traditional Republican or maybe some of their fellow Republicans. But now that Trump is off the political scene, at least for now temporarily, we’ll see. How do you think your thesis about alienation—about community and about where we are, not only within our towns and our cities and our suburbs but as we relate to each other as Americans —how does that fit into our current political moment, where it seems like across the board even in some of the holdout communities that were strong in your book? It almost seems to me like the Trump voters were right. The institutions that tied us together were weaker than I thought they were.
First, when I was looking at it, I was looking at the—not the 47% of the country that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 or again in 2020—but the folks who would show up at a rally three months ahead of the primary and people who said they’d never voted were now waiting five hours to go hear a politician speak. Then if you looked at Trump’s, the most conservative counties in Iowa, for instance, or some of the most conservative states, Utah, where I happen to be right now, those were the places where, in the primaries, guys like Ted Cruz were winning. In general, Trump would win these places. It was, who were the people who were pulled out of the woodwork who were motivated like they had never been motivated before by Trump, which was, as you said, a very different demographic than your standard. Either Cruz or Rubio, or more established, maybe John Kasich or Jeb Bush-type voter. Very different than the people I run within Washington who have been at National Review or the Heritage Foundation or my colleagues at AEI.
My analysis then was that there were people who said, everything’s fallen apart. America is not great. Our institutions have crumbled. But then here in Salt Lake where you’ve got an incredibly strong church, Church of Latter-day Saints, there are people who are saying, no, I don’t think things have fallen apart. I don’t want to burn down the whole system. My kids have a good public school. We have a tight-knit community. We leave our bikes on the front lawn. We know our neighbors. We trust our neighbors. That was sort of the divide and it showed up on a map in those early primaries, right, where Trump’s support was the strongest, that’s where community was weakest. General election, totally different story. Obviously, millions of people were voting for the Republican or against Hillary, or come around to love Trump.
What does it look like now? That’s a lot tougher question, in part because so many of the lines get blurred. A lot of what it means to be an evangelical Christian, for instance, has actually changed in the last four years, which is shocking. That a huge chunk definition of American Christianity would change because of who the president was, or at least seemingly because of who the president was. Our institutions have not held up well, as you’re saying. The media was about as untrustworthy as Trump said it was, and we are all more at one another’s throats. What was the cause? What was an effect? I always said Trump was an effect more than a cause. I think you’re trying to say when he said in 2015, the American dream is dead, that the last five years have proved him right. Is that your suggestion?
A little bit, I guess, as somebody who very much identified as a constitutional conservative tea party, I was a Cruz supporter in that primary. Initially, very opposed to Trump. I think for a lot of the reasons that you lay out, although I don’t fit your profile and some others, but because I fundamentally still did trust a lot of the institutions in the United States. Even if I saw a kind of progressive takeover of those institutions happening, I realized that was happening in the academy or in the schools, perhaps. But I didn’t realize that the rot had proceeded as far, for example, into the FBI or some of these law and order institutions in the United States. I just found myself more and more agreeing as I was sort of rereading. Because I read your book when you released it. I was going back and reminding myself and rereading, I found myself agreeing much more with the Trump voters that you talk to or profile than I would have in 2016.
The idea that you simply can’t get a fair shake in this world was really one of the best ways of predicting who would vote for Trump. Another way of looking at is there was a Twitter hashtag, I don’t know if people still use it, but it was #newrules. In other words, it was people in 2015 and 2016 saying like, oh, well, nobody on the left actually plays by rules so we conservatives are going to do that too. We’re going to be the Saul Alinsky. We’re going to do this. The conservative response has always been to channel Edmund Burke, to channel Russell Kirk and saying, you can’t, we have to play by rules. That’s part of what defines us as conservatives. We can’t try to use the federal government to accomplish what culture should accomplish or local government should accomplish.
We can’t try to use the courts to advance politics. We can’t try to use the FBI. Nobody would ever use the FBI to try to tilt the outcome of an election, right? Then the last five years have made us say, wait a second. Nobody is playing by the rules. The way I put this, especially the speech police like Twitter, Facebook, there are rules. The speech police are dirty cops and they have rules, but it’s like a dirty cop who just wants to say, I know that guy, I want to lock him up. Could even be a good cop who points at the bad guy and says, I want to lock him up. The rules are just excuses. The “good guys” break the rules and there’s no punishment. There’s a propagandist from North Korea, it’s currently on Twitter. Donald Trump got kicked off nine months ago. There are none of these rules. The most racist thing in the world can fly out of the mouth of a Democrat. Either somebody attacking Larry Elder or Maxine Waters. Or the most violent thing can fly out of the mouth, and there’s no repercussions for them.
That has caused a lot of conservatives to say, we are idiots by trying to be polite. We are idiots by thinking that we can play by rules and still win. I’m not ready. Maybe I’m just too deep-seated, a rule-following conservative. I’m not ready to say that’s true, but I am ready to say, we have to assume the worst of so much of our institutions yet still rely on them. That’s really tough, right? I earlier tweeted out, here are numbers about how likely you were to get hospitalized if you were vaccinated versus if you weren’t. For these numbers, I have to rely on health authorities like the CDC in my county government. I know that people atop these health authorities have lied to us for political purposes and abuse their power, yet I’ve got nothing else to turn to if I’m just going to say, well, their numbers are all totally made up. I’m not saying it’s an easy position, but I’m just not ready to say it’s all a big pile of lies, and let’s burn it down.
I mean, I think that’s really the crux of the paralyzation that a lot of people on the right feel, right, is that we’ve realized that our current institutions are rotten. But the challenge of building good institutions seems so daunting. On the flip side, the idea, maybe there are folks on the right that don’t feel as much this way as I do, but the idea of living in a country without any institutional gatekeepers and without any kind of institutional trust seems to me to be really scary and something that will reverse a lot of the stability that Americans unconsciously rely on about their country. Before we get into that heavy question of where we go from here, I want to draw out from you a little bit more about the thesis of your book for folks who might not have read it.
I highly recommend reading it. Famously, there’s the Belmont and Fishtown example that Charles Murray drew out, but you have a different parallel here. You talk about a small Dutch town or Dutch heavy town, I should say, where community ties are strong. You also point to some communities in Utah where you’re at right now among Mormon communities, basically places where the income level might be a little bit higher than average because there are so many married families there, but definitely is not what we might call an elite enclave, a Belmont, right? Then you point to the more Belmont-style enclave where the same thick community actually still exists. You point to Chevy Chase, which is a community that has an average income. I think you say of over $400,000 a year, right? One of those super zips, super, super elite community. You basically say we can duplicate or we can try to duplicate perhaps one of these things, but we can’t have an endless series of super zips. Could you explain a little bit more about that?
I do think a lot of liberal policy is an attempt to make more elites, right? They look around and they say, hey. One of the points of my discussion of Chevy Chase, the real-life version of Belmont was to say, okay, conservatives, if you believe that the left is a bunch of swinger, drug addicts, whatever, polyamorous feminists, you’re misinterpreting them. They’re T-ball coaches and married parents of two who get involved in their kids’ school and get involved in their community. Charles Murray says this in Coming Apart, that the left, the secular elite left, is practicing what the religious right is preaching. I introduced the third thing besides the working-class town: the small, basically middle-class, conservative places that are built around a specific church. The Dutch Reformed Church, Christian Reformed Church, and Reformed Church of America that are always side by side in these towns like Oostburg, Wisconsin, Orange City, Iowa, where everybody is named Vander something.
Those build the same sort of civic infrastructure that really helps people thrive in their lives and their families in their careers. That is the fundamental difference. That some portion of America lives in either Chevy Chase or Oostburg where things are hanging together. A lot of America, working-class America, lives in Charles Murray would use, what he calls Fishtown, an old neighborhood in Philadelphia. I use Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where it’s not just that the factory disappeared, it’s that when the factory disappeared, a lot of the civic bonds were eroded too. People stopped going to church, stopped getting involved in their public schools, the local roller rink shut down. That is the cause of so much social woe in the U.S.
You really highlight the role of church and of religion over and over in this book as not just, and not in an—evangelical, small E, evangelical; I know you’re a Catholic—but evangelical way in the sense that you actually talk remarkably little about doctrine and what people actually hear in church. You’re looking at this more from the sociological perspective and saying what is it about church attendance, and not just identification on a survey as a Christian, not just belief, but what is it about this attendance that creates and spins off all these little tiny platoons in community. I guess as part of the rising nones, right, how do you see that role of the church either coming back in some way into what seems like increasingly secularized life? Or alternatively, do you see anything that might be able to fill some of those roles even if it can’t fill the theological role of salvation, fill some of those community holes that you point out spring up when essentially the church retreats from public life?
I mean, it’s a great question because sort of filling the vacuum is both what we can describe the things that we need and some of the things that are really negative in our culture. Because people don’t ever really end up being irreligious, it’s one of the things I’m increasingly becoming convinced of. You look at the public schools now in most of the country. When we were young, the left was like relativists, right? Now it’s a very, very strong religion of wokeness regarding sexuality and race and all that stuff. It’s got to be seen as something like a religion. Something will fill the void. The kind of elite version of church. First of all, if you go to Chevy Chase, there’s more people in the pews at blessed sacrament in Chevy Chase, which is Justice Kavanaugh’s parish than there are down in rural Southern Maryland. They go to church more than either they might like to admit or conservative blue-collar Christian might like to admit about the elite Left.
But they have all sorts of other institutions that fill in a very imperfect way the role that church played. That is a more active little league. That is alumni association. In Chevy Chase, there are 10 committees all run by volunteers of the county government in a village of 2,000 people. It’s incredibly robust with the way people are volunteering, giving their activity. They find a sense of meaning in that volunteering. They find a human-level mentoring, a safety net, which you might not need as much when your income is 400,000. But still, when something bad happens, there’s neighbors there to help take care of you. I guess the biggest lesson there again is it’s about the institutions. You can’t just have a kind of neighborliness, right.
If something’s going to take the place of an institution that disappeared, it’s got to itself be an institution. My AEI colleague, we’ve all have been rights about this too. Maybe a strong public library or a strong public school with actual local control, not just top-down from a state government, maybe those can fill the role. I’m skeptical. The middle class in America has never had anything besides church that acted as that central institution. But also, we should talk about what else sort of fills that, that vacuum created in a deinstitutionalized, secularized country. Because I think I know that a lot of liberals have admitted in the last couple years that they were rooting for secularization. They thought a secularized right, the end of the religious right was going to be good and they could pick these people off. Then they see the secularized right, in my mind manifested itself on January 6th with people believing in various conspiracy theories, risking and sacrificing their lives and their livelihoods in pursuit of something that they thought was greater than themselves.
Yeah. The post-religious right, I think, is not going to look anything like the liberal left thought it was going to look. A lot of the things you point to that do provide those opportunities, for example, to sit on those committees in Chevy Chase, or in your example, to coach girls basketball for kindergartners, right? A lot of those things seem to rely very heavily on physical presence and actually even accidental just like the bumping into somebody on the way to run an errand, but actual physical connection with people talking to each other face-to-face in the 3D meet space, right. The elephant in the room here is that it seems that we are likely to continue to live more of our lives digitally and online. Of course, the pandemic has accelerated that than we have in the past. How do we couple together? How do we use these digital technologies in a way that’s actually helpful instead of increasing atomization? Then two, how do we revive real-life human connection and reasons to reach out to each other and meet up and become that web of connection for each other in a digital age?
I mean, my theory is that the answer to both of those is the same, that technology, social media has to be put in service of getting people together physically. So that is, use Facebook to plan your high school reunion, use Facebook to organize a T-ball team. I mean, the girls’ basketball team that you referred to, that happened because again, a guy I go to church with saw me after mass and thought, “Oh, we need a coach. I bet Carney can do it.” The way we work, and if you remember, if you miss the office place like I did for so many years, we’re just not smart enough to plan everything. We need our life to have unplanned, unexpected things. It’s what I do with my job. The encounters I described in the book, the people I’ve talked to out here in Salt Lake City, the most interesting conversations were literally people I found by walking around and bumping into them on a street corner.
That serendipitous encounter needs to be part of our life, but also the ideological sorting that can happen when we build our sort of posse online is destructive. Not just because we don’t hear competing points of view, but just because if that becomes what we’re rallied around, then that ideology or something becomes our lodestar. Well, if you rallied around all your kids go to the same local school, well, then you’re organized around a principle outside of yourself and greater than yourself but very concrete. We are going to raise these children, not just my own children but all the children of the community. That’s a concrete thing that’s outside of yourself and greater. That’s the organizing principle of great institutions of civil society. Very few things on the internet even try to do that. I don’t think they can pull it off.
Yeah. That’s also an organizing principle that leaves room for a lot of diversity in a genuine sense. I mean of ethnic background and of class and different ideological perspectives, whereas you’re right. I mean, sort of chosen communities on the internet do the opposite. They isolate us into echo chambers, whether that’s of ideology or fandom, or people come together on the internet because they’re interested in one specific thing that they have in common as opposed to being a larger cross section. But one of the real ways where we’ve gone the opposite direction in terms of, that we used to be more diverse than we are today, obviously we’re more ethnically diverse than we used to be. There are fewer racial barriers, at least formal racial barriers. We’re more integrated in the racial sense. But you point out in this book, we are actually becoming more segregated by class than we used to be.
It didn’t use to be the case that the only kids that your kids would play with or go to school with would be from people around your same income, probably having the same kind of managerial-class jobs as mom and dad do. What’s the role here of class in the deeper sense, not just in the income dollars and cents but of the class polarization here? How do we build or create institutions that put people next to each other from different class backgrounds?
I mean, it’s absolutely true that right now, and this is central in Charles Murray’s work, and I point to other sociologists who look at that. If you and your spouse have a college education, your kids are probably playing on the block with other children of elites. I say elites because that’s what, one-third of Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree. That surprises people. Every time I tell that to young people who are in college, they are shocked because all of them have one or two parents who have a college degree, and most of their friends were the same way. There was a great bubble moment just happened to me. I found out that a vast majority of people are currently working in the office basically every day. That only about half of the country sort of ever telecommuted during this pandemic.
Meanwhile, I was like the guy who was going to the office, in my neighborhood, in my circle of friends, just because my wife wanted me out of the house, and I wanted the quietude of the office as opposed to my six kids running around. There’s a good chance if you work from home, all your friends work from home. But then the middle class and the working class were out of work for a while. They weren’t teleworking. They were out of work. Then they were going to work. And so the bubbleness is huge. Again, that’s Murray in Coming Apart. Then you see it reflect itself as different things become, not just political markers but class markers. During the pandemic, we see that very clearly. A mask, bragging about which vaccine you got. These are ways of you saying, I’m one of you.
I’m one of you not just I’m in your tribe, but I’m in the better tribe. Meanwhile, in the working class, there’s just as large of a chauvinism. It’s, you snobs aren’t going to tell us what to do. When that gets into decisions about your healthcare, I think that gets pretty destructive one way or another, whether it’s forcing your kids, your two-year-old, to wear a mask on the playground or refusing to get vaccinated and all of these things. These outward markers essentially are more class markers than they are ideological markers. There’s obviously bleed-over in either way. Again, I think the solution is church. You come to my Parish St. Andrew Apostle. We have lobbyists who will try to pitch me stories in the parking lot. We have kids who are getting dropped off from taxi cabs because their dad is a taxi cab driver. I’m not saying a lot of church in America—local congregations are very segregated—but a lot of times that’s where the integration happens.
I would be surprised if you couldn’t convince some liberal neighbors to say, I want you to really build new housing in such a way that the CEO is likely to live next door to the janitor who cleans the building. That seems like that’s something that sort of urban planners who are on the left should be willing to try when in fact they tend to be doing the opposite, right? They’re drawing school districts for themselves and their kids that they don’t have to worry about the poorer people, the immigrants being in their kid’s school.
You know, it’s interesting because you point so much to the role of class as you just did and you do in your book as well, but you reject what I think is increasingly a position that is ironically held by libertarians and Marxists, right? Which is sort of economic maximalist position, right? That your economic trajectory, future opportunity, is the sum of your either connectedness or alienation. That the problems, the cultural problems is increasingly a lot of folks on the right, for example, who say, well, the cultural problems are actually connected to the economic problems and the economic problems proceed. We don’t have strong families because we don’t have the proper amount of support for the single head of household working family. Right?
To have the economic situation where a father can support an entire family, where mom can stay home. Then on the sort of dissident right? I mean, dissident left. That is the folks who reject a lot about the wokes and think that that is a cover that somehow obscures the real analysis, that talking about race and sex and gender actually are just covers for the underlying economic inequality and class inequality that is truly driving a lot of the problems that the left is “trying to address.” Right. But you’re kind of saying something different than both that part of the right and the left. You’re saying actually the heart of what’s causing us ailment as a country is cultural, and it’s only connected or secondarily economic.
Yes. Sometimes I use the analogy that the first domino is the factory falling. If you could go back in time and protect that factory, if your tariffs could actually keep that steel mill in Uniontown operating—what writing and reporting Alienated America that convinced me all this—I would be willing to pay high economic costs to keep that steel mill operating. That the negative downstream effects of that factory closing weren’t just lower wages for these people as they moved to the service sector, it was deaths of despair. People falling away from the Catholic church, which I think is a bad thing. But to the degree, I’m still a libertarian and so I don’t trust that you could actually keep that factory open. But also I think we can’t ignore that the culture often causes the economics. That’s so easy to see when you visit some of these places. I talk about Uniontown, Pennsylvania. It’s just so an hour south of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is doing very well economically. They both were dependent on coal and steel, but Pittsburgh had been planted with all sorts of institutions by the billionaires who live there basically. These institutions, libraries, colleges, hospitals. Yes, they kept the money flowing, but more important, they kept the human capital intact. And you didn’t have it, that the institutions were a lot thinner in rural Pennsylvania just because it was… Being sparsely populated, the weakness of the Catholic church compared to other churches in the U.S. meant that when the economy collapse, life collapse. 20 years later, an employer comes by and says, hey, Western PA has a lot of unemployed men. They find them in Pittsburgh and they’re still married to their wives. They’re trying to raise a kid and their lives are together.
Then they go to Uniontown and the women are raising their kids without a husband around. The husband or the dad, the dad might be addicted to drugs. The cultural collapse makes it impossible to rebuild the economy. That’s one of the things I would say to my economically populous conservative friends is don’t underestimate the degree to which the culture impacts the economics and not just the other way around. I’m glad you brought up a lot of the anti-woke left because I think their problem is hyper-individualism. A lot of these people are people who grew up in a community and just like, I’m nothing like any of my friends. I’m nothing like any of my neighbors, my classmates. I’m my own individual. Then they come and they land in New York or Washington or L.A. and they think everybody else is like them, but they’re really the outliers. Human beings need to be in tribes.
The idea that tribalism is a bad thing is kind of ridiculous. I know what you mean by it. You don’t want to be like murdering people from the other tribe, but human beings need to have an identity, which is formed by the things we belong to. Now, ideally, it’s not White people versus Black people, the American South through much of our history. Ideally, it’s not violent, but really, you have to have some forms of identity. I’m Catholic. I’m Irish. I’m an American. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a Mets fan. All of these things form who I am. So I’m letting other people, the other Mets fans, the other Irish, the other Catholic, the other New Yorkers, sort of determine who I am. That’s not really a super individualistic thing to say. I don’t think my friend, Thomas Chatterton Williams who’s at AEI, I don’t think he would say that. He likes to think that TCW made TCW. I would say, no, you’re member of a tribe, and things you belong to form your identity and that matters.
What is the role of ethnic identity as opposed to racial identity? You said you’re an Irish person. You’re a Catholic. We talked a little bit about the role of religion already, but having just moved to New York City fairly recently, one of the things that I think would surprise a lot of folks on the right is how well these ethnic neighborhoods live side by side in New York City. It really is a ethnic polyglot and not really a melting pot. But somehow people from all over the world, even though they “balkanize,” it’s not a harsh balkanization. They do interact with each other, but this simultaneous ethnic identities, plural, many, many plural, seem to rub alongside each other without, I think, a lot of the friction that people who say they’re really worried about tribalism are worried about.
Again, a mosaic or quilt work instead of a melting pot is my kind of dream of America. I don’t want us all to blend into one. That puts me at odds with some conservatives. I mean, remember, I think it was Pete Hegseth on Fox News said, “Well, I’m Norwegian but I kind of wish that nobody identified as any hyphenated American. We should all just be Americans.” I know exactly where they’re coming from because we often see diversity as a way to try to tear people apart. But again, I just think it’s unrealistic. It’s fundamentally true that we need to belong to something. If you go into one of these Polish neighborhoods in Chicago or Pittsburgh or Serbian neighborhood, or these Dutch towns in the Midwest, you will see, yeah, you might be something of an outsider.
You’ll see people welcome you to some extent, and then not welcome you to a 100% extent. That’s really offensive to some people or, sort of, Tocqueville talked about our egalitarianess, how we want everybody to fit in everywhere. But ethnic identity really is an important thing. It’s where you get music. It’s where you get food. It’s where you get faith. It’s where you get family. The way I put it in Alienated America is that it’s a little platoon that transcends time and defies death. It’s your children and your grandchildren and your ancestors. That if you look at the places where you get a lot of the worst outcomes in the U.S., you’ve got inner cities and you’ve got, say Appalachia. Poor Black broken communities, poor White broken communities.
African Americans in the inner cities, they were sort of almost, they were forced to come up here from the South after they were forcibly removed from where their roots are. Deracination means pulling something up by their roots. That’s the history of African Americans in inner cities, was they were forcibly pulled up by their roots. The funny thing about middle America, I mean about Appalachia, is we kind of know a lot of them are Scots-Irish, right? But on the census, the number one answer in most of these West Virginia counties: what is your ancestry? Well, I would say Irish. Somebody else might say Dutch. They all just say American. It’s an open-ended question. What are you? I’m just American. Is that an expression of patriotism? Sure. Is it also an expression of rootlessness? I think so. I think it’s not coincidental that that correlates with a lot of bad life outcomes.
That’s so interesting to me personally, not that my own background is so fascinating on this regard, but you know, my parents are immigrants. Growing up, I really wanted to identify with the person who wrote the American on the census, on my tests, because I saw this hyphenated identity as a threat to an American identity. I think the older I get, the more I think the hyphenated part can and should coexist alongside. Although I still would say, I mean, you cannot put those various identities ahead of your first, your national identity as an American or a polyglot society doesn’t work. And if you look at the microcosm of New York, the one thing all of these people strongly identify as is New Yorkers. That’s a very strong identity as well. But I have to say, perhaps moving more towards the position you’ve articulated here in the fact that ethnic identity or culture, food, tradition, and culture.
I mean, folkways, essentially. That can be a really powerful force in your life without it being tribalistic or completely exclusionary. But I mean, other folks, so the left has the critique of what you’re saying here. The right, the economic populist right has a critique of what you’re saying here. Then you come to the critique that is not really critique but a… I’m not going to pronounce the French phrase for cry of the heart because I’m going to make a fool of myself, but the despairing cry, right? Because it seems that the atomization that you’re writing about in this book is touched on very eloquently in Michel Houellebecq’s novels as well. But he doesn’t seem to think that there is anything left of the West, of the Western sort of soul and folkways and connection to actually spin any of these institutions out of anymore.
He seems to think that modernity once instituted in our hearts cannot be undone. There’s a certain part of me that’s sympathetic to that, especially when you talk about the role of the church, for example, which seems totally out of reach for me as a whatever, childless millennial living in New York City with no strong faith ties or whatever. How do we will ourselves or can we will ourselves out of a state of atomization? Or do we get trapped in that kind of atomization in a way that is impossible to move backwards?
Atomization is certainly self-reinforcing, in part because it drives you more to the internet. Unless you have friends and neighbors, the more time you spend on the internet, the angrier you become at the world and the less you see it. It also drives centralization of government because the less you see that you could… I always say man is a political animal, as Aristotle said. Conservative, libertarian-ish people sometimes be like, it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to meddle in other people’s business. I say, it kind of does. You’re supposed to shape the world around you. I shape the world around me by running a T-ball team or by lobbying my local government or by volunteering. If you don’t get involved to those, you try to shape the world around you by accomplishing your goals on national political scale. The more that that happens, the more power centralizes and thus more alienation and atomization.
It is a self-reinforcing thing. The further away people get from religion, the more alien it seems to them. The fewer people you see walking around with kids or going to church, the more it seems like a bizarre thing to do. I would just say, I mean, America is incredibly diverse. In Salt Lake City, which is only something like 45% Mormon now, but right outside of here in Utah County, it’s 80% Mormon. A big family is normal. People leave their bikes on the front porch, on the front yard, precisely because there is high social trust. We said early on, we can’t make everybody an elite. You also can’t make everybody a Mormon, and I wouldn’t want that. But to some extent we can, I think on local levels, rally people around institutions dedicated to serving others. That’s a key. If you’re getting together because we need to build social capital, we need to have more friends. That doesn’t work.
You have to get together to serve other people. So little glimmers of hope. I do think the pandemic made us realize when we were lock down for those few months, that we really need other people. Every church of every stripe around me has free food handouts. I would like to see that become a meal, right? Instead of that, let’s all get together for lunch or something like that. I would think that if you somehow want to create a secular thing to replace the lost church, you’ll only succeed imperfectly. But to the degree you will, it’s people coming together to serve others in a concrete need and to have it be something bigger than themselves. There’s no national program that’s going to do that. But I do think on a local level that could happen. I’m seeing signs of it happening with some of the groups I meet with. Will it generally happen or will we go more in the direction of alienation? I don’t know. We had so many swings. It’s so easy as a conservative to think everything just goes downhill, but the pendulum swings on lots of issues.
Yeah. You know, during the pandemic, one of the things initially in the initial months of the pandemic that I saw coming back in Washington, D.C. was stoop culture. Right? People sitting on their stoops and talking to each other at a distance outside. I guess I’d like to wrap up here by asking you—because, again, you’re bucking the right on this. You seem, in this book, although it’s not the primary topic, to kind of make an argument for, at least small cities, for urban density, for accidental encounters with a lot of different people that are really difficult. You have to be intentional or arrange them more when you’re in the suburbs because it’s so car-dependent because you have to drive everywhere. You end up not having a lot of those atoms bouncing against each other, sort of accidental encounters as you would in a more dense environment.
I mean, do you think that the drive out of some of the really big cities, especially when coupled now with crime rates and so on, will result in a reinstitution of the 1950s suburbia era? Or do you think it’s going to reinvigorate some of these towns and small cities here? I’m thinking about cities like Charlotte or Phoenix, or even smaller towns than that, because those are obviously pretty big cities. Do you think that Charlottesville is going to get reinvigorated or do you think that it’s going to be more of a move to re-suburbanize and intensify the suburban move in America?
I mean, I think one of the beautiful things about America is diversity. I like to talk about how we are too car-dependent, but I also know there are a lot of people whose identity is wrapped up in their truck, right? That’s where they get their happiness from. I’m not one to tell them that that’s a bad thing. Just, you know, there’s some things lost when you live in a car-dependent world. I have brothers who moved out of New York, and one moved to a big semi-rural suburb. Another moved out to the woods. I know lots of people who moved to small cities, to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Or even a smaller city, Holland, Michigan, because they said, well, if I could live wherever I want, I’m going to pick walkability and academics or whatever it is that they want to be surrounded by in their day-to-day life. I think we’re going to see all of that. Will that be a negative sorting just like Murray was talking about?
I don’t know, but I would like to think that, when people move, they’re not just thinking… The best feedback I got in my book the whole time was this woman who said, “We were going to move, and our question implicitly was, what place gives us what we want? After reading Alienated America, I realized that we needed to plant roots, which meant we had to give. So what place can we most productively and thoroughly give to of our time, our wisdom, our volunteering, et cetera? That really has got to be the question you ask when you get up and move is, where am I going to plant roots? Where am I going to contribute? Where am I going to find my meaning by serving other people? Some people, that’s going to be more rural. Some people, that’s going to be suburban. Some people, that’s going to be a very nice little neighborhood with a bunch of houses close together in Grand Rapids or even in Queens.
Tim, thank you so much for coming on High Noon. It was a pleasure to have you on to talk about some of these themes I think are really subterranean to our politics, right? They’re coming out more and more, but oftentimes it’s easy to gloss over this kind of analysis in favor of a more explicitly ideological or tribalistic analysis, tribalistic not in the sense that we were talking about, but in the partisanship analysis. Thank you so much for coming on. Folks can buy the book, Alienated America, as well as find more of your work. Tim at AEI, at the Washington Examiner. You also write about corruption in our institutions. You do a lot of really great first-person reporting in that regard as well as… As you can see, if my listeners can hear, Tim has been to many, many towns and cities and suburbs all over America. This is kind of his brand of reporting is going to go have a beer at the local pub and see how people feel about things. Highly recommend following his work in that regard. Thanks, Tim, once again for coming on.
Thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected]. Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave. We’ll see you next time on High Noon.