Magazine | March 25, 2019, Issue

The American Dream Is Crumbling

The inside of the abandoned City Methodist Church in Gary, Ind., October 23, 2013 (Jim Young/Reuters)
Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, by Timothy P. Carney (Harper, 368 pp., $27.99)

Donald Trump is president because he won the votes of people who agreed with his stark, and startling, declaration: The American dream is dead. So argues Timothy P. Carney, a longtime editor at the Washington Examiner, in his new book.

The political class, the pundits, and most party apparatchiks discounted Trump’s chances in the Republican primaries and the general election because they come from the places where the American dream is still alive. Carney does some reporting in and analysis of these thriving places, such as Chevy Chase, Md., one of the richest neighborhoods, in both money and community life, in the country. He also looks at highly religious places in Mormon Utah and the historically Dutch Calvinist sections of Western Michigan. What is the difference between the places where the dream is dead and where it still lives? Civil society — schools, networks, associations, intact families, and, perhaps most important, churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

Carney’s thesis is borne out by the data. He writes, “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. We listed three of them above — 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).”

Carney shows that the conservative communities that voted for Ted Cruz over Donald Trump, filled with church-goers, are in many ways similar to the rich communities around the D.C. Beltway or in New York suburbs that went for the more moderate John Kasich. Both types of communities have lots of intact two-parent families and heavy involvement of parents in the local schools and civic institutions. Church attendance is higher in the most conservative healthy communities than in the rich communities. In the latter, networks built around college and the workplace serve a similar function.

In Carney’s telling, the destruction of community is not merely the product of individual vice but comes about through the deterioration of the institutions in which people exercise and learn virtue. That includes the factory and the church, which disappear in tandem. A dense network of civic life makes forming and keeping families together easier. It makes finding new jobs easier, and it sustains people during the loss of work, the common stresses of life, and even tragedy.

He writes:

The disappearance of reliable jobs and the erosion of local community may look like two different things that happen in the same places. In a crucial way, though, they are the same thing. Cohesive communities and a regular workplace are both institutions of civil society. Institutions of civil society provide material resources, such as pay and a support structure, but they also provide more abstract resources such as a sense of security and a sense of purpose. If pay and family stability go together, it’s because both depend on the same thing: social capital.

Fewer reliable jobs, less marriage, and less civil society are all manifestations of the same phenomenon: Life for the working class is becoming deinstitutionalized. 

While Trump supporters overall look like good earners on paper, they are heavily concentrated in places that are distressed. Drawing on the work of the journalist Ben Casselman, Carney shows that areas that have lots of subprime mortgages, people receiving disability benefits, or low earnings among full-time workers usually demonstrate higher levels of support for Trump.

Carney relies heavily on social-science research from the economist David Autor about the shock of deindustrialization on the social health of communities and even on the physical health of men without work. He draws on the work of the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt on prime-age men who drop out of the work force: They don’t just leave the work force, they vacate almost all social life entirely. Men who don’t have work tend not to be married and tend to contribute almost nothing to community life. They gaze at screens all day, get fat and sick, and die younger than working men.

Carney writes sensitively about how the loss of jobs is not merely a matter of lost wages. And he understands that the “marriageability” of men cannot be reduced to the question of income. “China’s rise did hurt many parts of the country by lowering wages and killing jobs,” he writes.

Higher unemployment rates, though, didn’t reflect all the harm, and this is the key. People in these areas were more likely to simply drop out of the workforce. They also were more likely to draw disability benefits from Social Security. That is, low-skilled manufacturing workers didn’t just see their wages fall; many of them became men who counted themselves as unfit to work.

However, looking at studies and doing some gumshoe reporting about men who suddenly saw their incomes surge in the fracking boom showed Carney that a sudden gusher of money alone didn’t dramatically improve marriage or legitimacy rates. High but unstable incomes in fracking boom towns, or in a gig economy, seemed to teach men the opposite qualities of those needed in marriage. Their personal lives mirrored their professional lives in volatility; these men learned not to get too attached, to look out for better opportunities, and that you should cut your losses once things look like they’re going south.

But Carney cautions against judgmentalism. “If we see the problem as primarily a dissolution of civil society, a collapse of community, then it becomes clear that ‘idleness,’ if you want to call it that, can be understood not as a sin but as an affliction,” he writes. “These people have been deprived of meaningful things to do.”

In places such as Oostburg, Wis., and Salt Lake City, Carney looks at the effect a dense network of religious institutions can have in buoying the lives of individuals and giving them a sense that their talents are worth developing, because they themselves are needed in the community. People who pray and volunteer at church are happier. He also found that the way Mormons institutionalize giving facilitates not just the virtue of charity but also accountability among members of a community. The same patterns of high sociability, high levels of satisfaction, and high achievement could be observed among American Muslims who practice their religion in an institutional way.

Alienated America moves the debate beyond the “cultural reaction” and “economic anxiety” explanations for Trump’s rise by finding a cause that explains both at once: the decline and dissolution of institutions in civil society. In some ways, Carney’s thesis about the American dream is a very convenient one for conservatives. Because the institutions of community life can’t be reconstituted by fiat, there is not much the federal government can do to intervene productively. Because the de-institutionalization of community life has a number of overlapping causes, the populist tendency to blame heartless elites seems almost beside the point.

Well, almost. Federal economic and trade policy do in fact help determine the composition and character of the American work force. And, presumably, trade policy is partly shaped by the just-so stories policymakers tell themselves about how good the transition to a gig-and-service economy will be. And perhaps there are other policies, such as mass immigration, or the federal subsidization of student-loan debt, that are very good for people in wealthy and thriving places but destructive of community life elsewhere. Carney can’t be expected to conduct his own enormous longitudinal studies to determine the effects of these things. But, reading through his well-organized rafts of social-science data and sociological analysis, I kept having intuitions about what other questions we might ask, what other culprits we might find.

First there is the issue of increased mobility. I’d be curious to see whether the falling financial and social price of emigration within countries and internationally is precisely what has reinforced the strong civic character and booming economies in places like Chevy Chase, even as it creates a brain drain from smaller or less lucky locations. At the same time, although Carney makes use of Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone about the discomfiting relationship between rising diversity and declining social trust, there is some evidence that the neighborhood churn caused by mass immigration and corresponding white flight may be leading to a decline of institutions in those communities.

Secondly, I wonder whether falling fertility rates play a larger role than is acknowledged in civil dissolution. Populist nationalism took hold in Russia after its fertility rates plunged in the 1990s to levels portending national suicide. During that period, Russia also experienced the kind of lifespan declines and substance abuse we see in some populations in America. There may be a similar dynamic in Central Europe now.

Carney is very eloquent on how unions and unskilled factory work help men at the lower end of the working class acquire and strengthen moral habits that are useful for keeping a marriage together. Work becomes another school of sociability and virtue. A stable marriage not only makes men more social, it allows women to contribute more to the community. But what if there is a preschool of virtue before work? Namely, sharing the home with siblings. Falling fertility rates and rising divorce rates mean that most children raised today share their home’s resources with fewer people from the time they are born. It seems intuitive that children who get less practice at home interacting with various personalities — learning to assert themselves and humble themselves — may be less equipped to keep civic institutions running when they become adults.

Carney shows how elites make great use of educational and professional networks. I’d like to see researchers do more work exploring how shrinking kin networks — falling fertility rates mean fewer cousins, aunts, and uncles too — result in smaller professional networks for the working class.

And finally, Carney’s book had me wondering about theological and social developments in the churches that have largely disappeared from working-class communities. In 2003, Father Paul Mankowski, S.J., explored the failure of Catholic clergy to confront the problem of sexual abuse and arrest the decline of the Church. He lingered over the class element at work:

The beneficial symbiosis between the clerical culture and the working class has disappeared as well. In most parishes of which I’m aware the priests know how to talk to the professionals and the professionals know how to talk to the priests, but the welders and roofers and sheet-metal workers, if they come to church at all, seem more and more out of the picture. I think this affects the Church in two ways: on the one hand, the Catholic seminary and university culture has been freed of any responsibility to explain itself to the working class, and notions of scriptural inspiration and sexual propriety have become progressively detached from the terms in which they would be comprehensible by ordinary people; on the other hand, few priests if any really depend on working people for their support. In a mixed parish, they are supported by the professionals; in a totally working class parish, they’re supported by the diocese — i.e., by professionals who live elsewhere. That means not only does father not have to account for his bizarre view of the Johannine community, but he doesn’t have to account for the three evenings a week he spends in lay clothes away from the parish. 

Did an overemphasis in the Anglophone Catholic world on the priest as a “gentleman” contribute to the mutual withdrawal of working classes and the Church? Did seminaries, like colleges generally, become institutions that facilitated a social secession of the overclass from the working class? Or did the theological revolutions of the mid 20th century put an emphasis on abstract theological debates at the expense of the workaday practice of piety? Unfortunately, most of these are questions unlikely to occur to social scientists and social historians.

But until they do, in this volume we have Carney’s sensitive reporting and analysis combined with the best existing social science on declining working-class fortunes, splintering working-class families, and the dissolution of community life in America. Alienated America is the best place for conservatives — or anyone of goodwill — to start when thinking about the future of American politics and society. Readers of this book cannot fail to become more familiar with their country, and more alarmed by its condition. One hopes they are inspired to give more of their resources — not just money, but their time and their judgment — to their churches, their Little Leagues, and their local governments.

This article appears as “The American Nightmare” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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