Book Review: Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse


Monday, April 8, 2019

“Seek the well-being of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for in its well-being will be your well-being.” -Jeremiah 29:7

That is the biblical verse that author Timothy Carney uses to begin his new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. It may seem a bit vague at first glance, but these words encapsulate so much of what Carney’s book is about, and what America has lost.

The ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House has left some dismayed and others cheerful, with commentators on all sides rushing to explain how the business mogul could have possibly become president. Those on the right often pointed to disgruntled Americans in flyover states, who have been largely forgotten by the media and politicians alike. The economic struggles of the white working class is what many believe allowed Trump to take Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania— all states that Obama won in both 2008 and 2012.

Many on the left pointed to white racial resentment and discomfort with the growing population of racial minorities. The alleged “dog whistles” to white supremacists offered by Trump on the campaign trail, compounded by his core campaign promise to build a wall on the southern border, his comments on Mexican immigrants bringing drugs and crime, and his previous devotion to the “birther conspiracy” surrounding Barack Obama all contributed to the perceived racial trepidation of Trump voters in the midst of an increasingly diverse nation.

While there is some evidence for both propositions, there is actually a deeper and more concerning answer that has been largely ignored. In a campaign rally in June of 2015, Donald Trump explained that, “[S]adly, the American Dream is dead.” These somber words resonated with many Americans who have seen factories and churches close down in their cities. While Trump performed better among poor voters than Romney or McCain, he still lost this demographic handily. However, he did extremely well—in the primary and general elections—in areas that had declining or dead economies.

“In other words, it wasn’t that economically struggling individuals tacked to Trump; it was that voters in struggling or vulnerable places shifted toward Trump,” Carney explains.

Many people who were doing well financially saw their neighbors struggling to make ends meet, and their communities continuing to drift apart.

The growing portion of Americans who feel isolated from their neighbors and communities has been well documented for decades by social scientists such as Robert Putnam and Charles Murray. Brigham Young University psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s analysis found that over a quarter of the U.S. population lives alone and more than half are unmarried, with marriage and childbirth rates declining over the last decade.

Church attendance has also declined. We belong to fewer social organizations, we know our neighbors less, labor force participation has stagnated, and “deaths of despair” including suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose have risen dramatically. Cities that were prosperous just decades ago have now been abandoned, relegated to those who simply have nowhere else to go. We are less attached to our communities and millions of Americans feel like strangers in their hometowns.

In one word, we are alienated.

When we take this information into account, it becomes easy to see why people would agree that the American Dream is unreachable. For many Americans, it is dead.

So, what has been the cause of the alienation and struggle felt by many Americans?

Carney suggests that the collapse of civil society is the answer. The divide between rural and urban neighborhoods is largely explained by the institutions of civil society that are present. These middle institutions are not between the left and right or the poor and the rich, but between the individual and the community. Whether it’s churches, book clubs, little leagues, swim clubs, or bowling leagues, these “little platoons,” are where we derive life meaning and foster interpersonal relationships.

In some sense, these institutions create the bonds that make us human.

When Aristotle described man as a “political animal,” he wasn’t referring to politics in the conventional manner. He was referencing the “polis” as the city or community that we live within, meaning that we are naturally inclined to live socially among one another. When we do not have these institutions of civil society, we feel anxious and alienated. Robert Nisbet explained alienation as not simply individuals finding themselves detached from civil society, but also not seeing the point of it.

Referring back to the quote from Jeremiah, we find our personal well-being within the well-being of our community. When the institutions of civil society that bind us together erode, our personal lives often collapse as well.

Governmental centralization has done an inordinate amount of damage to civil society. Government centralization has impeded charities and churches through various interventions. The creative destruction of capitalism has also left some in a place of economic distress and recent cultural changes— some of which have been good and necessary— have placed hyper-individualism over social cohesion.

Carney points to a few policies that may assist in revamping civil society, including localized education curriculum, private sector unions, reforming regulation of small businesses, and restructuring social safety nets. However, he recognizes that government is incapable of solving what are largely cultural issues, with culture being upstream from politics. The real solutions start with us.

“These nudges of course can’t make communities come back. Only individuals and families, coming together, can do that,” Carney explains.

The challenges we face in revitalizing civil society and the institutions that unite us is daunting, but we must face it. It starts by getting married and having children, going to church, volunteering to help others, starting a local sports team, having dinner with our neighbors, and engaging with our communities in a variety of other ways. These steps may seem small and inconsequential, but, if we individually take responsibility for ourselves and our communities, we will collectively flourish.

“Seek the well-being of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for in its well-being will be your well-being.” -Jeremiah 29:7

Michael Huling is a senior studying political science and philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He is an editor for Lone Conservative and the communications director for the Republican Party of San Diego County.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Michael Huling

University of California, San Diego

Michael Huling is a senior studying political science and philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He is an editor for Lone Conservative and the communications director for the Republican Party of San Diego County.

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