JULY 2, 2019
WE WERE PERCHED on parallel ladders, mountain air thick with the smell of paint, adding a second coat of fire-engine red to the side of an old farmhouse in the Catskills. It was a mission trip, and I was 16. Jim, occupying the adjacent ladder, was somewhere in his 50s, a nebbish engineer with the heart of a scholar and a penchant for long-winded digressions. At present, he was riffing about how medieval alchemical practices had paved the way for modern chemistry. Balanced on my rickety ladder, I listened patiently and nodded. Jim always sought me out for these little lectures, knowing he could count on me to feign interest and ask polite questions at the right intervals. This particular day, though, I asked a question unrelated to the current disquisition — a question I had long been harboring and which I blurted out with imperfect delicateness. “How does an educated guy like you buy into all this?” I asked, “The whole religion thing?” I expected to be chastised, or at least given a Pascalian spiel about the centrality of doubt to sincere faith. To my immense surprise, however, Jim responded with perfect casualness, as though I had merely asked him to pass the paint. “The God stuff is a bit bullshit,” he said seriously. “But the people at church are nice.”
Reading Timothy P. Carney’s Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, I thought frequently of Jim and what he said on that ladder. The fact of the matter is, the people at my church were nice, and like Jim, I enjoyed the community they offered without especially buying into the metaphysical drapery that went with it. So when Carney suggests, in his new book, that religious observance and marriage are critical to the health of civil society — and moreover, that their decline might have something to do with the rise of Trumpism — I wasn’t inherently predisposed to dismiss such claims out of hand. Unlike some on the left, I have no particular bone to pick with organized religion.
Although I do not consider myself religious, my own experiences growing up in the Presbyterian church were entirely pleasant, populated in the main by kind, open-minded, and intellectually curious people. Likewise, I’m not particularly skeptical of the institution of marriage, either — I’m tying the knot in the coming months. Possessed of what you might call a stubborn Burkean streak, I’m even inclined to be sympathetic to Carney’s political localism, his general cynicism toward theoretical abstractions, and his high estimation of the kind of civil associations that Burke famously called society’s “little platoons.” I mention all of this by way of demonstrating that, although I’m on the left, I didn’t purchase Alienated America as a hate-read. Carney is a conservative, and there are conservative intellectuals (regrettably, mainly dead) whom I admire. This is a book I wanted to like but that ultimately left me disappointed. It is also a book I think you should read — with measured skepticism.
The question at the center of Carney’s project is the question that has already birthed a library’s worth of material: who is the Trump voter? On this score, Carney — an editor at the Washington Examiner and the author of previous right-wing screeds like Obamanomics and The Big Ripoff — provides a clear and, to my mind, convincing answer: Trump voters are people without community, who believe the American dream is dead because they don’t see it at work around them. Bolstered by interviews, empirical data, and studies culled from sources on both sides of the political spectrum, he builds an exhaustive case that the presence or absence of active community life is the most consistent predictor of Trump support.
To substantiate this claim, Carney begins from the assumption that early support of Donald Trump during the primary is the most useful metric for discerning the candidate’s core supporters — i.e., those Republicans who were truly enthusiastic about Trump from the beginning, and who didn’t simply hold their nose while casting a vote against Hillary Clinton. What he discovers is quite interesting:
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. […] [These included] 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).
The lesson Carney distills is straightforward: the most anti-Trump primary voters were either very rich and well educated, or very religious.
While the idea that elites would dislike a gauche troglodyte like Trump is not remotely surprising, the idea that religious voters gave the president the cold shoulder runs counter to the prevailing narrative. And it is here where matters get genuinely curious in Carney’s account. As it happens, Trump primary voters are the most likely demographic to report religion as being “highly important” to them, but are the least likely to actually attend religious services with regularity. “In Trump country,” Carney declares, “even if expressions of religiosity are high, the churches are empty.” As for those very religious Mormon and Dutch Reformed counties that gave Trump a pittance of their primary support? Church attendance is exceedingly high.
The common thread uniting the well educated and well heeled to the religiously observant, according to Carney, is that both tend to be involved in a community, rife with the kind of institutions that foster networks of mutual aid and support. Surveys of Trump country, on the other hand, tend to find these places inhabited by people who report low trust in their neighbors; low membership to clubs, religious organizations, or civil associations; and who often claim that they have no one to turn to in the event of an emergency. In an especially disheartening example of this trend, one Trump supporter remarks that she can’t think of a single positive thing to say about where she lives.
By contrast, the well off and the church-goers report living in the kinds of places where doors are unlocked and children play unsupervised; where membership in organizations like the PTA, a Bible study, or a book club are ubiquitous; and where people report having multiple sources of support should a crisis arise. Carney freely concedes that, in the former case, the catalyst is largely financial: the well off are likely to have the steady paychecks and stable schedules that facilitate enmeshment in a community’s institutional life, as well as the education required to comfortably occupy the positions of leadership that go with them.
Yet, his analysis also points out that these two anti-Trump groups have more in common than just disliking the president. Contrary to the view promulgated by right-wing media — that the coastal elites are philandering, atheistic hedonists who scorn traditional values like marriage and having children — Carney cites studies that show that both the religious and the highly educated are more likely to get married and stay married, more likely to attend religious services regularly, and more likely to have children. All of these are positively correlated, he claims, with increased markers of well-being and decreased support for Trumpism.
It is here that Alienated America is very insightful: Carney has a genuine knack for parsing the data, drawing out counterintuitive but rigorously defended observations, and resisting simple narratives about complex states of affairs. His central claim that the 2016 election was a referendum on whether the American dream is alive or dead is not novel, but it is both convincing and better supported than similar efforts. Additionally, although his defense of the salutary nature of cultural practices like religious observance, child-rearing, and marriage are unapologetically conservative in nature, his message remains comparatively broad in scope: unlike other conservative Catholic critics of Trump (most notably, Patrick Deneen), Carney predicates his argument on the form, rather than the content, of these practices. In the pages of Alienated America, you will find no diatribe on the superiority of heterosexual marriage or the Catholic faith — he notes repeatedly, for example, that observant Muslim Americans are among the groups most likely to report optimism about America and faith in the American dream, even after Donald Trump’s election and attempted Muslim ban. Rather, Carney’s message is practical and universalist in nature: people are better off among other people, when they have something, anything whatsoever, that they belong to and that unites them in a network of mutual responsibility.
It is this aspect of Carney’s argument that I find most appealing, and most useful for progressives like myself. Namely, the author eschews the common tendency — on the right and the left — to posit a linear relationship between wealth and well-being. More specifically, his work persuasively suggests that financial security and emotional security go hand in hand not because some kind of mechanical relationship exists between the two, but because, in contrast to the working class, the wealthy tend to have the resources to live in and contribute to places that provide opportunities for meaningful lives lived in common. As he succinctly puts it: “The erosion of community […] is unequally distributed, it is concentrated in the working class, and it is geographically discrete to the point that we can see it on a map.”
While those of us on the left are generally quick (and correct!) to highlight the importance of addressing widening income inequality and an increasingly precarious labor market, for example, it often seems that we are comparatively less likely to talk about questions of community, as though we assume that fixing the former will necessarily achieve the latter. Furthermore, when we do talk about community, we often use the term to refer to people who share common interests and experiences (for example, “communities of color”) but not necessarily geographical proximity or concrete spaces of interaction. If we are willing to take Carney’s assessment seriously, then, two questions seem obvious: What are the barriers to community, understood in the sense of mutual, meaningful networks of local support? And how might these barriers be removed?
Not surprisingly, it is here that Carney’s analysis breaks down, where his professed desire for strong communities is predictably thwarted by his inability to recognize unfettered capitalism, rather than government centralization and regulation, as the primary threat to the robust civic life he vaunts. Although Carney approvingly cites Orwell’s maxim “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs constant struggle,” he consistently fails to see that at the heart of every flyover town, closed plant, and shuttered church whose death he laments, there is a place where unregulated capital — not some big government boogeyman — has reared its ugly head.
Unlike his meticulously researched and tightly argued defense of the prosocial virtues of marriage and religious observance, for example, Carney’s tepid but persistent support of free-market capitalism and his assaults on liberal governance are fast and loose, often relying on anecdotal evidence, sparse data, and obscure cases of bureaucratic malfeasance to make his points. Oftentimes, his arguments are absurd — such as his claim that massive companies like Walmart, Amazon, or Starbucks crowd out small businesses because of too much, rather than too little, regulation. Other times, they’re comical — once in the 1980s, Mayor Bernie Sanders apparently professed not to believe in charities. This decades-old remark is spun by Carney into a sweeping indictment of the contemporary left’s widespread desire to have neighborly goodwill replaced by the Nanny State.
In fairness, Carney isn’t entirely oblivious to the problems caused by our neoliberal economic order — he frequently cites cases of Chinese manufacturing undermining manufacturing-centric US communities, for example. However, like many modern conservatives, he assuages his doubts by acknowledging that free-market capitalism has a few minor kinks, before swiftly pivoting to the supposedly graver dangers posed by governmental overreach, centralization, and regulation. As a direct consequence of this reaffirmation of the legitimacy of unfettered capital, Carney is thus forced to retreat into the untenable position that religion is the best and most readily available means to redress our present crisis of community. We can’t all be affluent, his argument goes, and thus we can’t all have access to the kind of secular communal life enjoyed by the wealthy. Yet, even the dirt poor can enjoy the social bonds provided by religious life.
To reiterate, I have no problem with Carney’s high estimation of organized religion. As with marriage, I know plenty of people for whom religion has been nightmarish, a source of trauma, insecurity, and even violence. I also know plenty of people, like Jim the bookish engineer, for whom religious affiliation has been a bulwark against the loneliness endemic to modern life. The problem is not religion itself, as one means among many for achieving the communal ties that foster well-being. The problem is Carney’s reliance on God to bail out capitalism. Unlike Robert Nisbet, the conservative sociologist whose classic work — The Quest for Community (1953) — he returns to frequently, Carney’s own work persistently downplays the connection between social alienation and the flow of unregulated capital that is the principal engine of that same alienation.
Although he signals kinship with an earlier tradition of postwar conservatives who were also preoccupied with the question of community — people like Nisbet, Russell Kirk, and Peter Viereck, who highlighted the corrosive and antisocial effects of the cult of free enterprise — Carney cannot ultimately bring himself to shed the laissez-faire, libertarian economics that dominate the Republican Party. The result is a book that puts its finger on the right problem, but whose author is too besotted by economic fatalism to imagine a variety of contentment that would be otherwise than religious, positioning secular forms of community as the unique provenance of the elite. While Carney’s insistence that we must reintegrate the classes, combating the geographical isolation of wealth and its resources, is laudable, his calls to privatize the safety net are as predictable as they are puerile.
Rather than buy into a zero-sum game that forces a choice between government as a tentacular monster and government as a minimalist “reinsurance” program (“a safety net for safety nets,” to use Carney’s term) is it not possible to imagine a government that supports community institutions by — and hear me out on this — actually funding and defending them? If you want a thriving book club scene, for example, why not fix the public schools? Try pumping money into education and paying teachers a salary that will make such work a feasible option for the best and the brightest. After all, lifelong learners, the kind who read for pleasure, do not grow on trees. Likewise, if you want heightened church attendance, mightn’t an increased minimum wage — allowing prospective attendees to forsake that second job, spending Sundays in the pews rather than driving for Uber — be a good start? If college graduates are far more likely to build robust communities, as Carney repeatedly claims, shouldn’t we work toward making a college education more affordable for the alienated, working poor whose cause he champions? These are the kind of questions that Carney dismisses out of hand as “centralizing” and “utopian,” preferring instead his own brand of theocratic utopianism in which a minimalist state would be kept afloat by little platoons of the charitable religious.
If you are a member of the never-Trump right, presumably you will find much in Alienated America to agree with. If you are on the left, you will probably find Carney’s book frustrating and occasionally offensive (his description of an attempt to bond with an Indian neighbor is particularly cringe-worthy). For all that, I would suggest that Alienated America is still worth reading. As a fine-grained, detailed analysis of the primary factors driving Donald Trump’s support, you could do far worse than consulting the account presented here. Additionally, although the institutions whose merits Carney lauds — primarily organized religion and marriage — have proliferated too many abuses to name, the book provides a useful reminder that both commonly transform lives for the better, and that access to them is unevenly distributed along lines of geography and class. Furthermore, for those on the liberal-left who frequently lament the decline of “civility” in Trump’s America, Carney’s analysis actually focuses on those places where civility is cultivated and refined, rather than merely lamenting its disappearance. What you will not get, though, is a sober, clear-eyed assessment of the economic forces driving our present morass, the market-worship that created an America where loneliness is endemic and connection to one’s fellows is often a function of financial security. An otherwise sophisticated book is made the worse for it.