Alienated America

Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, by Timothy P. Carney

After the 2016 election, we all saw a lot of people trying to figure out just how and why Trump won.  There's been a lot of blame going around, but I've never really seen an explanation that I thought really hit the nail on the head, until I ran into this book.  Carney focused in on the original, core Trump fan base -- not the people who eventually voted for him because he was the Republican nominee, but the people who really cottoned on to his campaign from the beginning -- and looked for the common denominator.

Carney's thesis was that certain segments of the population really resonated with Trump's declaration that the American dream is dead.  A lot of people didn't agree with that at all, but that's because this is all geographically based.  There are plenty of places in the US where the American dream is dead, and those are the places that produced Trump's core.

Carney describes a cycle that includes three major ingredients: jobs, families, and community support.  If you have all three, the result is a thriving community.  Start losing them, and you get a downward spiral in which unsupported families fall apart or cannot form, which produces people who aren't well-suited for working, and community breaks.

A major thing I took from this is that you can't have just a person/household and a state.  People need middle-size institutions -- local organizations that they contribute to and that provide support and meaning.  These things can, and should, come in a wide variety of flavors: neighborhood sporting groups, the PTA, the bird-watching association, the Lions or Rotary, the quilt guild and the library and the local churches.  But churches turn out to be the really big one.  They've always been important in American civil life, and when churches close, there is not a lot to replace them and it is a real loss, especially to the lower-income people who need community most.

I suppose that this is because churches are some of the very few institutions that bring a very wide variety of people together and then explicitly expect them to support and help each other and the wider community.  My church congregation is mostly made up of people who are not particularly like me.  There are all ages and income levels and backgrounds, and we are organized to produce community almost automatically, by teaching each other's kids, by paying attention to needs, by being expected to show up and do certain things on a regular basis.

Church makes it easy to do service work on both a large scale and one-on-one.  This has always been true -- for example, in my congregation, nobody had to think up the idea of getting the teens to feed the homeless, it just happens that our turn comes around, and the kids are expected to show up and do it.  After the Camp Fire, though, I saw it work on an enormous scale.  Everybody in town wanted to do something, and they did -- but it was easy to find things to do through the churches.  There was a website at mine that let people sign up to host families and say whether they could deal with pets/wheelchairs/babies/etc. so people were matched up easily.  Trucks of toys arrived and the kids were told to organize them into a giant Christmas store (the usual police-sponsored Toys for Tots, only huge).  Most teens would have liked to do something like that, but a lot might not have the opportunity as easily.  Trucks of furniture showed up and the call would go out to come unload.  At the same time, if one elderly lady with asthma was suffering from the smoke, a call would go out and somebody would come up with an air filtering machine, take it over there, and get her taken care of. 

A bunch of teens organizing a zillion toys for kids who lost their homes
I don't know of a secular equivalent of this, but we need to figure one out.  Church is becoming less common, but those community needs are still there.  The dissolution of community life appears to be driving a lot of our problems.  I talked about this with my oldest, who is totally uninterested in church but retains a lot of that community training, and who was very interested in the question because it's very visible.

Anyway, there was a lot more to this book -- it's quite long and contains a lot of fascinating analysis, both of communities that are disintegrating, and of ones that are thriving, plus a lot more. 

The same three things we saw with the erosion of the family we see with the erosion of community: it 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. 

Half the problems we think of as problems of poverty are problems of eroded civil society.  half the problems we think of as problems of modernity are really problems of eroded civil society. (147)  [I recently saw another book making this point: Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg.  The first chapter is about libraries!]

When central government grows past a certain point, civil society retreats. (157)

This is the tendency of a large central state: when you strengthen the vertical bonds between the state and the individual, you tend to weaken the horizontal bonds between individuals.  What's left is a whole that by some measures is more cohesive, but individuals who are individually all less connected to one another. (197)

...we couldn't tell the story of Trump without discussing community.  They story of how we got Trump is the story of the collapse of community, which is also the story behind out opioid plague, our labor-force dropouts, our retreat from marriage, and our growing inequality. (205)

Just as Occupy Wall Street turned to the central state for relief from alienation and disenfranchisement, Trumpism offered a strongman to restore things to their proper order.  The contradiction should be obvious, though.
The disenfranchisement Americans have felt is not really a matter of the federal government being taken away from the people -- Washington was always too distant, always too large for any individual or family to have meaningful sway.  Modern disenfranchisement was really the disappearance and erosion of the layers of society where an individual and a family can make a difference. 
But once that middle layer of society is gone for long enough, many people -- especially those most effected by its absence -- can no longer imagine it or see its value.  Instead, knowing in their hears that they are political animals made to shape the world around them, they look to the most visible level of politics (because it's the one that is still there and not fading) and imagine that it's at that level that they're supposed to live their potential as political animals. (214)

Local institutions of civil society allow for more pluralism, more voice, and more human-level politics.  Centralized politics raise the stakes and make the ordinary man feel powerless. (216)
I'm officially declaring this one to be a Book Everyone Should Read.  Whether you do or not, though, think about what you are doing in your community, and whether there is more you could do in some way that fits you.

The whole time I was reading Carney commenting on the community benefits churches bring, the same line kept repeating in my head, so here it is:


  1. Community is the future. Building new communities not handed down to us by tradition and wiser forebears is hard. Human relationships hold so many pitfalls.

    Having lived in such a "new community" for six years, and having experienced both its hellish and heavenly aspects, I'm very preoccupied with the question of how to make this work...with less arrogance than I had in the beginning. I need to learn more, and this sounds like an interesting book on the topic, thanks.


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