“Alienated America”, Timothy Carney, reviewed by James Bradshaw, Position Papers

Found this review extremely interesting. Some highlights:

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 of 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.

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.”

One thought

  1. I’m here. It’s true. I was shocked then angry, then a little worried, then yikes! on the edge of hopelessness. I’ve committed to changing a smaller world now, a circle I’m in and touched by other concentric and overlapping circles. I’m smiling again but it may be a grimace in disguise. Thank you for sharing.


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