Friday, March 8, 2019

Alienated America (The Book)

The cover of Timothy P Carney’s Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse (Harper Collins, 2019) features a church building. The church is closed, however, and therein lies the story he seeks to tell. Somewhat in the spirit of Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone, the conservative author argues that, underlying the perceived decline of the “American Dream,” has been the collapse of the communal institutions (e.g., churches) that make for a successful society's civic life. Hence the picture of the closed church - rather than, as one might perhaps expect, a closed factory plant, that other ubiquitous symbol of economic and social decline.

It's all about people being linked by institutions. In the book's Preface, for example, the author revealingly reflects on how he and his family could count on their fellow parishioners in a time of crisis. It is the by now fairly familiar theme of better-off people (even if not themselves church-goers) benefiting from dense social networks and civil society's institutions, while less well off, left behind, people increasingly lack such dense social networks. Hence the complaint that "the elites today often lack the courage to preach what they practice.

The election of Donald Trump has heightened interest in the left behind parts of America that so many educated people  are disconnected from, alienated places without those dense social networks. The word places in the book's subtitle is critical. "To understand the phenomenon of alienation and coming apart, we need to co more than consider who these people are. We must consider where they are."

True to that preoccupation, Carney takes the reader to all sorts of surprising places that  illustrate his theories.

Of course, a key component of the contemporary malaise has been the transformation of the global economy (much of it beneficial in many ways), and the consequent economic problems of the once well-off working class. Carney recognizes the economic components of working-class alienation, and in particular its most important negative economic indicator - men dropping out of the labor force. But more fundamental, he believes, has been a cultural collapse: "The most profound social change in America over the past two generations has been the retreat from marriage," And "the working-class retreat from marriage is the fallout of the working-class loss of community."

As the book's cover is intended to illustrate, the preeminent American social institution has been religion. "The unchurching of America is at the root of America's economic and social problems."  Of course, not all social networks and American social structures are church-based, but the author reminds the reader how high a proportion of them actually are - especially those to which non-elites have access..

He notes, for example, that poorer Hispanic Catholic attend Mass as much as wealthier ones, while poorer white Catholics attend less often than wealthier white Catholics. The relevant difference is not income but rather social ties vs. social isolation. (Do I need to mention in this connection how those different Catholic constituencies voted in 2016?)

The "American Dream," the perceived death of which has helped to propel Donald Trump to the White House, was about more than money. All too often, we tend to reduce that image to its material and consumerist components. In its fullest sense, however, as conceived by James Truslow Adams, who coined the term in The Epic of America (1931), it was "a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” 

The problematic deterioration of our contemporary politics has illustrated how deeply damaged our society has become, and how far so much of our American landscape has drifted from universal access to that "American Dream."

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