Why is life so tough in some parts of America? Is the American dream still possible everywhere in the nation? What’s behind the appeal of President Donald Trump–and socialism? Tim Carney, author of “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse,“ joins us to discuss. Read the transcript posted below or listen to the podcast to catch the interview.
We also cover these stories:
- Not all House Democrats are on board with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “no impeachment” directive.
- Should state employees get gender transition treatments covered? That’s what’s at stake in a new lawsuit alleging discrimination in North Carolina.
- Indiana now lets people identify as male, female, or neither on driver’s licenses.
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This transcript has been lightly edited.
Daniel Davis: I’m joined now in studio by Tim Carney. He is the commentary editor of the Washington Examiner and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s also author of the new book “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” Tim, thanks for being on.
Tim Carney: Thanks for having me.
Davis: Tim, your book follows a theme that has become prominent after Trump’s election in 2016. It paints a picture of two Americas. It’s a picture that we’ve seen more and more.
Get into some of what causes the division between the America that you describe in Chevy Chase, Maryland—a kind of upper-class, upper-middle-class America—and some of the other, western Pennsylvania types of America. What is at the root of the division?
Carney: At the root of the division is the institutions of civil society, which is to say the strength of community as determined by how many little platoons are there, to use Evan Berk’s term. This can be churches. It can be Little League, bowling leagues was the image that Robert Putnam used when he wrote about this problem in “Bowling Alone”. The strong public schools also count.
In addition to the elites having it together, which is something Charles Murray touches on in “Coming Apart” and others, I also talk about the strong religious communities that are a lot more middle class that have the same sort of good outcomes as far as fewer out of wedlock births, less drug addiction, less high school dropouts.
All of those things happen not only in the elite communities, but also in western Michigan where there’s a strong Dutch Reformed Church, Salt Lake City with the Mormon church. These two very different types of places, liberal, elite, and socially conservative built around a strong church. Both have those intensely strong community institutions that produce good outcomes and are the stepping stones to the good life.
Davis: You acknowledge up front the book is largely about President Trump’s core supporters. You say that the 2016 election was really a referendum on whether the American dream is still alive.
Carney: Yes. So to be very precise talking about the early primaries. Not Hillary vs. Trump where it’s a referendum on a million things. I have people who voted on both sides for countless reasons.
Early on when there were 17 Republicans on that stage, you had people choosing Trump over the other 16. You had people who had never been active in politics going to a caucus in Iowa, which takes all night. Going to a rally outside of Milwaukee, which takes all day to stand in line there. Or people who had been Democrats then becoming active in Republican primaries. This was a sign of this extraordinary motivation early on to Trump in a way that wasn’t just a conservatism or a Republican Party loyalty.
Yes, that alienation was a big part of what motivated them. You saw the least of these extraordinary early Trump supporters in places like Utah, like western Michigan. You saw most of them in places that had crumbling civil society. It was people who looked around and said, “I have neighbors getting on drugs. I have neighbors not getting married while the same people like them a generation ago would’ve gotten married. My community is crumbling. Washington doesn’t have any solutions and so I need somebody totally different.” A lot of them turned to Trump.
Davis: It was interesting during that primary season. A lot of the critiques of the establishment, or in terms of policy coming out of Washington, trade policy, the solution is tariffs. All sorts of economic policies. The account that you give in the book is a bit different. You can see it in retrospect looking back on the campaign. Why has it not received as much attention as some of these other policy items?
Carney: Again, it certainly isn’t the way Donald Trump talks. He didn’t walk around saying you guys had lost your Boy Scout troops and your Little Leagues and that’s why your lives are crumbling. Even though a much more complex version of that phenomenon is at the root of it. It’s a very standard thing.
Alienation, one definition of it that I use throughout the book is from Robert Nisbet. It’s not only a disconnection from society, but a failure to see a point in that society.
When people end up in these stages where they’re not connected to their neighbors, to other people very well, they don’t necessarily long for more of that connection as much as they think there’s got to be some bigger solution.
Trump was a guy who in the early primaries really was promising that. That trade policy was going to put us back in 1962. He was skipping over the step of the thing in 1962 that these middle-class places that have lots of employment, what they did with that money and with that employment was build really strong communities where raising a family or living your life was much easier.
Davis: Speaking of family in those communities, I want to read just a paragraph from the preface actually, which really sets the tone for the book. It’s a very personal angle.
You write about when one of your children had a health issue. You write Katie, I believe your wife Katie. You say:
Katie had gone to a late morning mass at our parish with our oldest daughter. When she finally looked at her phone and ran out of mass to meet me at the urgent care center, she turned to Lucy and said, ‘Go sit with Dory,’ pointing to the mother of an old school friend, ‘She’ll give you a ride home after mass, if not, somebody else will.’ Katie simply knew that we could count on our parish, on the people in that community to help. That knowledge, the certainty that someone can help you when you need it, was always there. We hadn’t noticed it until we needed it. This is the key part. Like the heath insurance that paid most of the bill, the insurance of the social networks had provided great peace of mind without ever rising to the front of our consciousness.
I want to ask you about that parallel here between insurance and this social capital that you talk about throughout the rest of the book. How big of a factor really are networks, social capital, compared to all the other considerations?
Carney: It’s everything. It is your safety net. It is what makes life convenient. … When you have little kids, you can’t just leave your 2-year-old and your 4-year-old running around the house. If you have to do something simple, say pick up your 6-year-old or run to the store, or make a meeting, having to go through the process of either bringing the kids or finding a babysitter or something like that is actually a lot of work, even in our information technology day.
If you can just say to your neighbors, “Hey, I’m stepping out. Can I drop the kids off at your house? Or can you just come over and watch them for a minute?” That little thing is incredibly valuable. The things we get from being immeshed in these tight networks are things that we would pay tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for.
Then on top of those things that we know we need, there is this sense of purpose. The fact that we are needed. So much of the problem of the working class today is not just necessarily unemployment. A lot of them have jobs, but they can seem like a cog in a machine. Then men are increasingly not getting married, including not getting married to the mothers of their children. They’re feeling almost unnecessary in all these aspects of our life.
One thing that makes us feel very needed is belonging to something where somebody is going to walk up to and they’re going to ask you to man the cotton candy table at the fair, or whatever it is. You’re needed the more that you’re in a community. It sounds cheesy, but I think that’s indispensable to people living good lives.
Davis: That sense of belonging, that explains lots of people joining gangs and that sort of thing.
Carney: Yeah, drugs, gangs, white nationalism, all that stuff. ISIS even. There was an interview with an ISIS bride and she said, “When we first showed up we were like, ‘Wow, we’re important here.'”
It sounds almost perverse, but that’s certainly—when you look at the man who killed the woman in Charlottesville, a white nationalist, his life story was a bunch of nothing and nowhere. He grew up without a father. He was kind of from Kentucky, kind of from Ohio. From these faceless, nameless suburbs. No religion, didn’t belong to anything, but he knew he was white. He knew he was an American and somebody came by with an ideology that could explain why things weren’t going better and boom, he joins it.
People are going to join something. I hate it when people use the word “tribalism” as a bad word because we all need to belong to tribes. Some of these tribes are bad tribes and some of these tribes are rooting for Ohio State or belonging to your local synagogue or just belonging to your local swim club.
Davis: A lot of these problems that you talk about run so deep to the fabric of our social life. It’s hard to imagine how Washington could even bear upon that. How does this change the policy conversation? When we look to politicians and people running for office, how does this change what we should ask for?
Carney: The first thing is to realize exactly what you said at first. It’s not big federal solutions because centralized government often crowds out these local institutions where people get meaning, where they get real human-level support. That should be Rule No. 1.
Rule No. 2 is the government now is actually actively pushing a lot of these institutions out of the public square, particularly religion. It was part of the Obama administration’s legal arguments in Hobby Lobby that you lose your free exercise rights when you enter into commerce at least. Then the next step would be a nonprofit as well.
They would use the term “freedom of worship” as if our free exercise of religion was confined to observing the Sabbath and our private prayers behind closed doors. Not acknowledging that our free exercise of our religion is involvement in the public square.
We need to start by the government not crowding out and not chasing out the core institutions of civil society. Then I think on the state and local level there’s got to be a lot of creative policies that do make sure that local institutions are protected—at times promoted and certainly not chased away. That’s just what I would look for.
If you care about the struggling working class, you have to care about how do we get them to be surrounded more by these strong institutions?
Very few policies, subsidies, anything like that is going to help. But there will be some policy changes that will do that. Once you start surrounding them in building this ecosystem around them, good outcomes will follow.
Davis: We’ve heard a lot, even in recent days, about increasing approval of socialism, at least the idea of it. Do you think that may stem from a misplaced desire for this kind of social solidarity?
Carney: I think it does. I think a lot of people think of socialism as us all being in something together. That’s not the way it manifests itself in the real world. It’s elites telling the rest of us how to live and taking all our money to do it.
Also, there’s real material needs and services and goods that a lot of us can count on our neighbors for. A lot of young people don’t have that connection. They think only in terms of the individual and the state. If they say, “I as the individual can’t take care of that,” or even, “Us as a family unit can’t handle this,” then their next step is to say, “The state should be providing this.” Rather than the way of the American tradition of saying, “Well, this is where we’re part of a community. We put into the community and we pull out what we need.”
Davis: A lot of people in America, many who might consider themselves conservatives, would say, “Look at the arc of history. Things have gotten so much better, even for those who might now be considered on the lower end economically. Things aren’t so bad if you look at numbers and economics.” What would you have to say to that argument?
Carney: Life expectancy among Americans has been going down for the last few years. That’s while it’s still going up among the elites. That means that among the working class in America, there is a dramatic turn toward bad outcomes, even death.
White men in their 50s are dying at a higher rate now than any time in recent decades. That, on the most material level—without me getting into questions about spirituality, I think people should go to church, I think it’s really bad that they don’t, you might say that’s a valued judgment on my part—without getting into anything that could be called a value judgment, there are pockets of America where life is getting nastier, more brutish, and shorter.
That means that there’s something that’s off and that to just point at some aggregate good trend is inhuman. It’s ignoring the suffering that exists in real parts of America.
Davis: Your book gets into a discussion of something that I think is often missing from the political conversation, which is this question of the good life. It’s often assumed that we know what good is. It’s prosperity. It’s all of these things that we’ve come to appreciate because of modernity. It seems like you’re pushing back on that a little bit.
Carney: I argue that maybe the American dream and the good life is actually a parish potluck, it is actually a community Memorial Day parade, that it is actually a family supported by its neighbors. These are the things that make us happy and help us fulfill our destiny as well as her destiny helping to shape the world around us. We can’t just look at [gross domestic product]. We can’t just look at the provision of material needs.
I look at a lot of those in the book because the fact is that the more that we move away from human nature, the more we are actually going to see bad outcomes. A lot of the way that we get to that problem where we’re setting up communities, setting up an economy in the wrong way is because we’re just focused on things that are measurable at the top line like a GDP and that sort of thing.
In the long run, even those measures will start to see the decay. I’m saying we should go before those measures. Go to things that are more closely related to happiness. I think this is not something new. This is something old and it’s going to be community, faith, family, and work that feel satisfying. Those things are the fundamental parts of the good life. You can’t pull them away and replace them either with just a booming economy or a robust social safety net.
Davis: The book is called “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” Tim Carney, thanks for being in studio.
Carney: Thank you.