The most insightful observers of our American national character have attended to how America’s several regions shaped that character. In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the distinctive characters of New England and the South; in the twentieth century, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset credited America’s frontier regions as decisively shaping our national character.
Since the turn of the century, many observers have focused on inland regions such as Appalachia and the Rustbelt, afflicted by economic downturns, the erosion of marriage and civil society, and the opioid crisis.
Some view the denizens of these regions with sympathetic concern, such as J.D. Vance in his Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Rod Dreher in his Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, and Deborah and James Fallows in their Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, while others view these regions with something verging on scorn, such as Thomas Frank in his What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Yet others have looked at the differences between these distressed regions and the “Super Zips” with great wealth and high education, including Bill Bass’ The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart, Ben Sasse's Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
Timothy P. Carney’s just-released book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, is a valuable contribution to this tradition of inquiry into the American character and its distinctive regional variants. Carney, commentary editor at the Washington Examiner, traveled across the country to learn why some areas of our country are flourishing and others are floundering. He brings his journalist’s flare for retelling stories and interviews with the Americans he met on his travels.
Carney found that the key difference between regions is the strength of civil society. Where civil society is strong, communities are doing well, where civil society is weak—even if there are an abundance of high-paying jobs—communities are struggling.
He found that the decline in church attendance, while noted by some of authors mentioned above, is much more salient than others have realized. He suggests that the chattering class may have overlooked the importance of churches because they either do not attend church themselves or church is but one of the many communities to which they belong.
Carney and I belong to that chattering class. We both live in Montgomery County, Maryland—a region with one of the nation’s highest concentrations of Super Zips. Folks in communities like ours have deep wells of support when we need a job lead or an internship for a high schooler, when a family member falls ill, or simply want company for a neighborhood walk.
But we are no longer in Tocqueville’s America, where civil society seemed strong across the new nation.
Carney asserts bluntly that in rural and in less-wealthy areas, “civil society mostly means ‘church.’” But in many of these areas, church attendance has plummeted. Without church as a community nexus, all the other institutions erode too: without a church community to support the values of marriage there are fewer and weaker marriages; there is no gathering point for the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts; there is no informal swapping of news the church basement after services; fewer ways to identify and support community members who need a hand; fewer reasons for men to gather outside a bar. Without churches and other religious communities as anchors, citizens are much more likely alienated from their larger community.
Carney argues strongly that there is a “a sort of geographic determinism.” In communities where there is a robust civil society, children are more likely to be raised by two parents and find mentors, and adults find supports when they confront lives’ many challenges. In communities without a robust civil society, people are on their own—alienated from those around them. As J.D. Vance observes in Hillbilly Elegy, “Social capital is all around us. Those who tap into it and use it prosper. Those who don’t are running life’s race with a major handicap.”
Carney adds that uneven distribution of social capital and civil society and the alienation of so many Americans from their communities goes a long way to explain the election of Donald Trump.
He develops a striking comparison between the Iowa counties of Winnebago and Fremont, both rural farm communities with similar education levels. But Fremont seems a little better off, with higher median income and lower unemployment that Winnebago.
So where did Trump do better?
In the Iowa primaries, Fremont gave Trump his strongest performance of all the Iowa counties, while Winnebago was only one of three dozen counties in the entire U.S. primary season where Trump garnered less than 20% of the primary vote.
Why the difference? In Winnebago County, the predominantly Lutheran community still enjoys strong church attendance and supports a robust community of other local institutions. In Fremont County, churches are closing their doors. Even though Fremont seems to be doing better, civil society is weak, and so its voters were drawn to Trump, while Winnebago voters, buoyed by a strong civil society, did not find Trump so appealing.
The fact that Carney’s hypothesis illuminates electoral variations between places that are geographically close together but miles apart in terms of political and civic culture suggests that he is truly onto something.
Alienation this deep is very hard to overcome. As Carney notes, “When the solution is twenty thousand towns each taking steps to revitalize their community and one million little platoons forming and deploying on their little patch, it’s not possible or productive to write the typical ‘solutions’ [book] section.” Nevertheless, Carney offers strategies at the policymaker, community, and individual level to overcome alienation, beginning with the active revival of the institutions of civil society, especially churches. He writes:
The “solution” is mostly:
You should go to church.
Also, you should start a T-ball team.
The “you” here is not people who live in the parts of Montgomery County where Carney and I do, but those who are alienated. And while it is true that one can begin attending a church as easily as by showing up on Sundays, Carney’s observations of profoundly isolated people makes this seem implausible. After all, if you don’t speak to people in your own neighborhood when all you need to do is chat about the weather, how likely are you to show up at a church where you need to stay for an hour-long service, risk faking your way through unfamiliar rituals, and all the while surrounded by strangers?
Carney anticipates this concern:
Here some reader might object: Why tie this to religious institutions at all? So much of these goods are perfectly secular.
My first answer is, What else do you got?
Carney draws on his interviews with religious leaders, but I wish he had included their comments about whether they could do much more to reach alienated citizens in their communities or to establish churches, synagogues, and mosques in towns that lacked them.
Many religious communities are doing all they can—the nearby Methodist Church where our son participated in Cub Scout Troop 209 (Martin Morse Wooster described his experience with Boy Scout Troop 209 at the same church in these pages recently), provides a home not only to the Scouts but many other groups, and it ministers to many with a food pantry and other programs. Could religious institutions do much more, or are they already stretched to their limits?
Carney offers other suggestions for policymakers: Asking public schools to be more engaged with their local communities; encouraging labor unions to take more active roles in offering insurance, training, and services to local members; decentralizing safety-net programs; fostering walking and neighborliness though smarter urban design; and cutting the mortgage deduction in hope that house prices will gradually fall so that young couples can settle down as homeowners.
To my mind, the most interesting of his suggestions may be those directed at those of us who are already deeply engaged in our local communities. Carney chastises those who live in communities where social capital is in strong supply as being unwilling to promote these norms:
The elites … generally pass down (imperfectly, of course) the notions of monogamy, marriage, and family. ... Those values, norms, and teachings that they pass down to their children but wouldn’t want to preach … Those rules are less observed among the working class than they were two generations ago, while they are nearly as sacrosanct among the elites as they have ever been.
It is hard for scholars and leaders, even when they are willing, to get a hearing for norms of completing high school and entering the workforce, avoiding out-of-wedlock births, and postponing first children. Such recommendation are criticized exactly for being preachy.
Carney’s book left me discouraged about the state of the nation and the prospects for overcoming alienation. But this compelling recounting of the stories of people across the country who want better for themselves, their children, and their communities, made the case that we must do more, individually and directly, to extend our civil society and spread around our wealth of social capital.
It is tempting to deepen one’s engagement with the communities we already call home; that is the core of philanthrolocalism. And yet, if we want to alleviate alienation, we do need to think about the role we can play in extending social capital to communities that need it. That is the important challenge Carney leaves for us.
For those in the Washington, D.C. area, Carney will discuss his book at the National Press Club, at an event cohosted by the Trinity Forum and Pepperdine University Public Policy on the evening of February 20th. More information here. He will also deliver a lecture sponsored by the Action Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on April 19th. More information here.
Timothy P. Carney, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. New York: HarperCollins, 2019. $27.99.