I’ve been reading Timothy Carney’s book Alienated America that came out this past year (and already posted about it). Like so many others, it’s about what brought us to a Trump presidency. But this particular piece of journalism stands out from the crowd, albeit not a difficult achievement. I’m giving the author extra credit points because he is somewhat balanced. For a conservative (paleo-libertarian?) henchman of the American Enterprise Institute living in Washington, D.C., he surprisingly brings up a number of points a left-winger could at least partly agree with.
Looking through the book, I kept expecting to be more critical. The political right bias was there, but Carney also drew upon the views of the political left, if not to the degree and depth I’d have preferred. He discusses the history of racism, gender bias, privilege, etc. Then he puts this in context of the problems of conservative nostalgia and revanchism. He takes some pointed jabs at the right, although he plays to the frame of ‘moderation’ in believing the truth is somewhere to be found in a hypothetical ‘centrism’, such as his critique of both individualism and collectivism or his critique of both big gov and big biz.
In giving the political left credit, he admits the importance of economic factors, such as rising inequality and he also brings up the problems of segregation and mistrust. But he is completely unaware that diversity only leads to loss of trust when combined with segregation (Eric Uslaner, Segregation and Mistrust). Nor does he appreciate how far reaching are the effects of inequality (Keith Payne, The Broken Ladder; Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, The Inner Level). His view is not superficial or lacking in nuance, even as he remains trapped in capitalist realism. But he is coming from a more or less conventional worldview, no matter how far he stretches the boundaries a bit, although admittedly he does bring some good points to the table (The Right’s Lena Dunham Fallacy).
Here is the basic limitation. He constantly associates one positive factor with another in the assumption that the link is causal and goes in the direction that fits his beliefs, but he rarely if ever goes beyond correlation and he doesn’t acknowledge all the immense data and examples that contradict his assumptions and conclusions. Consider Scandinavians who show better results on numerous measures: poverty, unemployment, inequality, small business ownership, patents per capita, education, health, etc. They do this with highly conformist and collectivist societies with centralized welfare states and without the kind of civic participation seen in the US; for example, schools are operated professionally by highly trained and heavily unionized teachers, and parents don’t belong to an equivalent of a PTA or typically volunteer at their children’s schools. Yet it can be argued they somehow have a stronger and healthier form of individualism (Anu Partanen, The Nordic Theory of Everything). Such examples show that Edmund Burke’s “small platoons” can be as large and centralized as a highly advanced modern nation-state. It is true they are smaller nation-states, but large enough to have ambassadors, international policy, maintain militaries, and be allies with global superpowers.
Carney barely discusses anything outside of the United States. As I recall, he mentions Scandinavia once or twice and even then only in passing. Scandinavia undermines every aspect of his conclusions. That is the problem. He covers a lot of material and, for a mainstream writer, it is reasonably comprehensive as non-academic popular writing. But he never quite brings it together and he offers no meaningful solutions. What could have been a more worthy book stopped short of challenging the paradigm itself and pushing to an entirely different perspective and level of insight. Instead, he offers an obsession with social conservatism, if slightly more interesting than the standard approach. He makes a decent argument for what it is, maybe one of the better mainstream conservative arguments I’ve come across. He actually engages with diverse info. If nothing else, it will serve the purpose of introducing conservatives and right-wingers to a wealth of info and ideas they otherwise would never see.
I’m not sure I can hold the limitations against the author. Even if it fails in the end, it doesn’t fail to a greater degree than is expected. The analysis is adequate and, within the chosen framework, it was inevitable that it couldn’t really go anywhere beyond known territory. Even so, I really did appreciate how much space he gave to a topic like inequality. An example of where it comes short is not even touching on the saddest of inequalities, that of environment and health. It’s not merely that the poor don’t have access to green spaces and nice schools. The poor are literally being poisoned by lead in old pipes and toxic dumps located in poor communities. The oppressed poor aren’t accidental victims for their communities were intentionally destroyed by design, in the kind of capitalism we have that makes profit by devouring ‘social capital’. Still, it’s amazing how much he is willing to speak of, considering who employs him and who is his likely audience, but it ends up feeling like a wad of loose threads. The edges of his argument are as frayed as the social fabric he details. There is no larger context to hold it together, which is to be expected as the author is part of the very same problematic mainstream social order he is attempting to understand… and doing so on the same level the problem was created.
Though going far beyond where most on the political right dare to tread, he never fully takes seriously the ideals of basic human rights and moral righteousness nor the democratic values of fairness and justice as being of penultimate importance. The entire history of corporatocratic and plutocratic capitalism is that of violence, oppression, and theft. The kind of analysis in Alienated America, no matter how fair-minded and reasonable in intention (if we give the author the benefit of the doubt), doesn’t confront the bloody corpse of the elephant in the room, the reality that capitalism only applies to the poor while the rich get socialism (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars). Neither church attendance nor marriage rates could come close to undoing the moral harm. Forget the social fabric. We need to worry about the moral foundation of modern civilization.
As someone harshly put it, “Just a rehash of the same old “Trickle Down Economics” and “Thousand Points of Light” BS. Shrink government down till you can drown it in the bathtub destroying the social safety net while cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations and miraculously private local organizations will jump in to take care of everything. At least try and come up with a more plausible explanation for the disaster to divert us from the truth that the gangster capitalism the Republican Party has been pushing on America since Reagan” (comment to Andy Smarick’s Where civic life crumbled, Donald Trump arose). I might be slightly more forgiving as I came to it with low expectations, but basically this comment is correct.
Carney’s argument is intellectually reasonable as far as mainstream arguments go, but it lacks a gut-level punch. He remains within the range of respectability, not getting too close to anything that might be mistaken as radical. Envisioning a slightly more friendly capitalism is not exactly a new proposition or overly inspiring. Nonetheless, his refusal to scapegoat individuals and his refusal to think of communities in isolation is refreshing. His focus on alienation is key, even as I personally find Joahann Hari (Chasing the Scream & Lost Connections) to be much more probing in getting to the heart of the matter, but that ultimately is just to complain that Carney isn’t a left-winger, not that Hari is extremely radical either.
Where his take offered clarity of light to see by was his dissection of Trump supporters and voters. He does a wonderful takedown of the mainstream narrative that it was the highly religious who were behind Trump’s election. Opposite of this narrative, the facts show that, as church attendance went up in a community, Trump’s voter count went down in that location. His ‘religious’ followers were mostly the unchurched and, interestingly, those lacking in an ethnic identity, as contrasted with traditioanlly religious and community-minded populations such as Dutch-American Calvinists (Terry Mattingly, Journalists don’t understand religious fault lines in ‘alienated’ America). Yet those unchurched Trump supporters claimed that religion was important to them, apparently as a symbolic issue among those who have otherwise lost meaning in their lives, which seems to be Carney’s takeaway. It reminds me of how school shooters are also concentrated in similar communities and, even when non-religious, the assailants often express religious-like concern for meaning (12 Rules for Potential School Shooters).
He busted another myth in pointing out that core support for Trump, although coming from economically struggling populations, did not specifically come from the poor but rather the wealthier in those communities (yet strangely he kept reinvoking the very myth he disproved and dismantled, in returning his focus to poor whites). This economic class of the relatively comfortable apparently have a troubled relationship with their impoverished ‘neighbors’, either in a fear of them or in a fear of becoming like them, which is to say class anxiety in one way or another. It’s understandable as the middle class has been shrinking and surely the middle class is shrinking the most in those economically distressed communities. And that would be hitting white males most of all in how, as many other demographics (women, minorities, and immigrants) have had improving economic outcomes over the past half century, white males are now making less than in the past.
On the other hand, the wealthier in wealthier communities are more protected from these problems and so felt no attraction to Trump’s demagoguery; their local economies are less stressed and divided. It indicates that, though Carney didn’t explain it this way, the real problem is inequality, where it was immediately felt and not. The more well off communities could either ignore inequality altogether as if it didn’t exist or else treat it as a problem of other people elsewhere. To the economically-segregated elites, inequality is an abstraction that isn’t viscerally real in their immediate experience and so, in the mind of the privileged, it is not personally relevant or morally compelling. But such dissociation can only last for so long as society crumbles all around their walled enclaves — as Keith Payne makes clear, even the rich are stressed, suffer, and become sick under conditions of high inequality. Ultimately, there is no escape from a society gone mad, especially when that society is the leading global superpower.
Where Carney really gets things right is about isolation and alienation. And it doesn’t happen in the way most would expect. Why is this particular middle class white demographic so anxiety-ridden and not other populations? In dealing with everyday needs and problems, Carney writes that, “Trump voters—as compared with Ted Cruz voters, or Bernie or Hillary supporters—answered, “I just rely on myself” the most.” That is quite telling. Sanders won the largest proportion of the poor and working class, far more than Trump. So, similar to how the wealthy in wealthy communities feel greater trust and connection toward their neighbors, so do many of the poor.
Stephen Steinberg writes that, “In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”” (Poor Reason; see Black Families: “Broken” and “Weak”).
So that is what Carney gets wrong. He goes from Trump’s core supporters from the middle class being isolated and alienated to shifting the frame back to the mainstream narrative of it somehow being about the declining white working class, in stating that, “In general, poorer people “tend to be socially isolated,” Putnam found, “even from their neighbors.” That probably is true to some extent, but the point is that it isn’t nearly true to the degree as found among the anxious middle class. The poorest of the poor, unlike the upwardly aspiring middle class, are those the least likely to move to seek a job and so are the most likely to remain living near lifelong connections of family, friends, and neighbors.
Yes, poverty has a way of isolating people such as being constantly busy with working multiple jobs while unable to afford childcare. Nonetheless, even when they don’t have the time to spend with those important social ties, they know that their social network is always there to fall back on in times of dire need. Sure, the rural poor are increasingly isolated quite literally in a geographic sense, as the rural areas empty out with the young moving to the cities. But in spite of the media loving to obsess over these loneliest of the desperate and aging poor, the reality is the vast majority of the poor, specifically poor whites, have lived in urban areas for over a century now. That isn’t to say it isn’t also shitty to be among the urban poor. But the basic point comes down to something odd going on here. The poorest Americans, contrary to expectation, are not the most anxious and are not those turning most to reactionary politics of nostalgia and strong man leadership. Instead, those on the bottom of society tend to be apolitial and disenfranchised, that is to say they usually don’t vote.
How different that is from Trump’s America. Trump was not speaking to those facing the worst economic hardship but those a few rungs above them. Something happened to the middle class to cause them to feel precarious, as if they had been cheated out of a more comfortable and secure lifestyle that they deserved. Maybe they had sacrificed extended family and community in climbing the economic ladder and pursuing their careers, and it turned out the rewards did not match the costs. So, they were left hanging somewhere in between. “Trump voters were significantly less socially connected,” Carney writes. “There’s plenty more data like this, charting the loneliness and social disconnection in Trump’s early core support.” For certain, something is making middle class whites go crazy and not merely those gripping the lowest edge of it (Fractures of a Society Coming Apart). Look at the breakdown of Trump voters, from my post Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class, and notice it doesn’t fit the narrative spun in the corporate media:
“Trump voters seemed to include many average Americans, although Trump voters were slightly above the national average on wealth. With incomes below $50,000, 52% for Clinton and 41% for Trump. With incomes more than $50,000, 49% for Trump and 47% for Clinton. A large part of Trump’s votes came from the income range of +50 to -100 thousand range, i.e., the middle class. The only income level bracket that Trump lost to Clinton was those who make $49,999 and under. Trump’s victory came from the combined force of the middle-to-upper classes. Trump did get strong support from those without a college degree (i.e., some college or less), but then again the vast majority of Americans lack a college degree. It’s easy to forget that even many in the middle class lack college degrees. Factory jobs and construction jobs often pay more than certain professional careers such as teachers and tax accountants. I’m sure a fair number low level managers and office workers lack college degrees.
“Among white voters alone, though, Trump won more college-educated than did Clinton. The white middle class went to Trump, including white women with college degrees. Only 1 in 6 Trump voters were non-college-educated whites earning less than $50,000. Ignoring the racial breakdown, Trump overall won 52% of those with some college/associate degree, 45% of college graduates, and 37% with postgraduate study. That is a fairly broad swath. A basic point I’d make is that the majority of Trump voters without a college education work in white collar or middle skill jobs, representing the anxious and precarious lower middle class, but it has been argued that the sense of financial insecurity is more perceived than real. The working class, especially the poor, were far from being Trump’s strongest and most important support, despite their greater financial insecurity. Rather, the Trump voters who played the biggest role were those who fear downward economic mobility, whether or not one deems this fear rational (I tend to see it as being rational, considering a single accident or health condition could easily send into debt many in the lower middle class).”
Of course, Carney is making a more targeted point. He is speaking about Trump’s core support in specifying those who were supporting him from the very beginning of his campaign, prior to the GOP nomination. That core support wasn’t the comfortable upper middle class, but still they were solidly middle class above the common rabble. As he further emphasizes, “recall that Trump’s core supporters weren’t necessarily poorer than other voters. But they lived in places that were worse off, culturally and economically, than other places.” That cuts straight to one of Keith Payne’s main points, the way high inequality can feel like poverty even to those who aren’t poor. Economic stress comes in many forms, not limited to outright economic desperation. Inequality, when pushed to extremes, makes everyone feel shitty. And if the sense of conflict lasts long enough, people begin acting crazy, even crazy enough to vote for demagogues, social dominators, and authoritarians.
If we are to seek the cause of this problem, we should look elsewhere to those concentrations of segregated wealth. “Inequality in the United States is growing,” says Carney in pointing out the obvious. “Economic mobility is low. These facts alone suggest that our elites aren’t sharing the wealth.” That is an interesting conclusion coming from the political right, even to suggest they should share the wealth. Now if the right could only admit that most of that wealth was stolen and so needs to be returned, not merely shared, but such breathtaking honesty is far too much to ask for. We have to take what meager honesty we can get, even if it only gives us a glimpse: “This social inequality, as earlier chapters laid out, was far less in the 1960s (racial and gender inequality were far worse, of course). Between the upper class and the working class, there was a far smaller gap in marriage, in divorce, and in out-of-wedlock births. At the root of it all: In 1960, there was a narrower gap in social connectedness, including church attendance. Today, family life and strong community are increasingly a luxury good. And here we can blame the elites.”
If only social conservatives would take seriously what it means to have made the public good a luxury unaffordable to most of the public. But all we are left with is a diatribe of paternalistic moralizing. We don’t need to get rid of this modern aristocracy, so goes the lament, for the moral failure is that they’ve forgotten their noblesse oblige. They need to return to the founding ideal, as embodied by George Washington, of an enlightened aristocracy. Carney preaches that the economic elite need to once again embrace their role as ruling elite, to return plutocracy back to its aristocratic roots of theocratic patriarchy. The “more pernicious problem” is an “ideoogical commitment to egalitarianism among elites that prevents them from seeing themselves as elites.” Yeah, that is where we went wrong. The elites aren’t elitist enough and so they aren’t taking seriously their moral responsibility to compassionately rule over their local populations of neo-feudal serfs, instead locking themselves away in the modern equivalent of a castle keep. I’m glad we got that cleared up. That should set the world right again.
* * *
by Timothy P. Carney
A quick reminder, though, as we discuss election results and “Trump Country”: By the general election in 2016, a vast majority of Republicans had come around to Donald Trump. Many would choose anyone but Hillary. Others had grown fond of the man. By the end of Trump’s first couple of years in office, after two Supreme Court picks and a tax cut, many other right-leaning Americans embraced him.
This book isn’t about those later adopters, though. This book has mostly studied the results of the early primaries to sort out who was Trump’s early core support . When we have looked at general election results, we have been most interested in the voters or places that shifted from Democrat to Republican—the voters who would have stayed home or voted Democrat had Trump not been the nominee.
So on this question—who was Trump’s early core support ?—different studies found wildly differing results. You may recall those who said “economic anxiety” was the cause, and those who said they could prove that there was no economic anxiety, just racism at the heart of Trump’s earliest support.
What distinguished these two classes of studies? The studies that found no or little connection between economic woe and Trump support were polls of individuals. Those finding that economic woe predicted Trump support were studies of places.
As a Washington Post headline aptly put it: PLACES THAT BACKED TRUMP SKEWED POOR; VOTERS WHO BACKED TRUMP SKEWED WEALTHIER. 3
This is one reason we couldn’t tell the story of Trump without discussing community. The story of how we got Trump is the story of the collapse of community, which is also the story behind our opioid plague, our labor-force dropouts, our retreat from marriage, and our growing inequality.
The core Trump voters weren’t the people dying, obviously. They weren’t even necessarily the unhealthy ones. They weren’t necessarily the people drawing disability payments or dropping out of the workforce. Trump’s core voters were these people’s neighbors.
Trump’s win—specifically his wins in the early primaries and his outperformance of Mitt Romney—is best explained by his support in places where communities are in disarray. Many traits characterized Trump’s early core supporters. This chapter will explore them, and we will see how closely they are all tied to alienation.
How Trump Voters Are Giving the Right Qualms About Capitalism
by Park MacDougald
Yet if Carney offers a convincingly bleak view of social collapse in working-class America, his explanation for this collapse — and his suggestions for what to do about it — are somewhat less satisfying. Carney channels, to a limited degree, some of the new right-wing market skepticism: He offers a soft criticism of big business for stamping out local variation in the name of standardization and efficiency; he laments the rise of “Taylorism” and its dehumanization of work; he attacks the “gig economy” for not providing workers with stability; he disapproves of suburbanization and the isolation that stems from it; he even quotes Deneen to the effect that capitalism breeds an individualistic mind-set that makes relationships contingent and easily broken. But in explaining the troubles of working-class America, Carney tends to fall back on the collapse of church and community, which he largely attributes to traditional Republican bogeymen such as the welfare state, the sexual revolution, the rise of expressive individualism, and secularization. These explanations are not wrong per se, but they are so large and fuzzily cultural that they resist solutions beyond the local and individual. Carney offers a few policy fixes he thinks might help — reforming the mortgage interest deduction, decentralizing control over public schools — but he admits in his closing chapter that the “solution is mostly: You should go to church. Also, You should start a T-ball team.”
Generally speaking, it probably is a good idea to start a T-ball team. And Carney’s willingness to critique aspects of American capitalism, mild as they may be, represents a marked shift from where the mainstream right was during the Obama years and where some of its leading lights still are. But at the same time, by delivering an account of a country facing full-blown social collapse and then retreating into calls for local, voluntary solutions, Carney ends up restating the basic premises of an old conservative consensus — it’s not the government’s job to fix your problems — that, as a political philosophy, has contributed to the alienation Carney so convincingly describes. It may be true, for instance, that the state is ill equipped to re-create devastated communities, but it is also true that state policy has enabled or even accelerated their devastation, and not merely in the sense that overregulation has hurt small businesses or that the welfare state has crowded out private charity.
Rising international economic competition, for instance, was always going to hurt the American working class. But as critics on both the left and the right have pointed out, globalization has been systematically tilted in favor of the mobile and highly educated. The critic Michael Lind, for instance, notes that the international harmonization of economic rules has focused on tariffs, financial liberalization, and intellectual property while avoiding areas that would benefit the Western working classes, such as wages, labor standards, and tax laws. Even some of the more diffuse cultural shifts lamented by conservatives have been midwifed by the state. As Harvard Law professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk Gersen have argued in their study of the evolution of Title IX, civil-rights laws designed to protect women’s equal access to education have created, through bureaucratic drift and activist institutional capture, a vast federal regulatory apparatus that treats socialization into “traditional” gender roles as a public-health risk and attempts, under the guise of fighting sexual assault, to inculcate among college students a progressive view of gender and sexuality.
The point here is not to chastise Carney for not adopting a more dirigiste political philosophy than the one he presumably holds. It is to say that, even on the right, intellectuals are concluding that the problems Carney identifies are so alarming that localist, laissez-faire solutions simply aren’t going to cut it. In a recent essay in American Affairs, Gladden Pappin issued a broadside against fusionist conservatives who, in his view, waste their energies calling for the resurrection of vanished civil-society traditions “that worked only as culturally embedded practices dependent on the traditions of aristocratic centuries.” Instead, Pappin demands conservatives ask themselves, “What can we do with the reins of power, that is, the state, to ensure the common good of our citizens?”
It remains to be seen whether anyone will take up Pappin’s call and, if they do, whether such a conservatism of the state would be effective or popular. But if Middle America’s condition really is as dire as people like Carney make it out to be, it’s hard to imagine that “go to church” will turn out to be a political winner. Carney ably describes the sort of malaise that led Republicans to flock to Trump, but if there’s one thing we learned from the 2016 election, it’s that desperate people want a leader who promises to try something different, however flawed his solutions might be.
God’s Bailout: A Review of Timothy P. Carney’s “Alienated America”
by Tyler Austin Harper
It is here that Alienated America is very insightful: Carney has a genuine knack for parsing the data, drawing out counterintuitive but rigorously defended observations, and resisting simple narratives about complex states of affairs. His central claim that the 2016 election was a referendum on whether the American dream is alive or dead is not novel, but it is both convincing and better supported than similar efforts. Additionally, although his defense of the salutary nature of cultural practices like religious observance, child-rearing, and marriage are unapologetically conservative in nature, his message remains comparatively broad in scope: unlike other conservative Catholic critics of Trump (most notably, Patrick Deneen), Carney predicates his argument on the form, rather than the content, of these practices. In the pages of Alienated America, you will find no diatribe on the superiority of heterosexual marriage or the Catholic faith — he notes repeatedly, for example, that observant Muslim Americans are among the groups most likely to report optimism about America and faith in the American dream, even after Donald Trump’s election and attempted Muslim ban. Rather, Carney’s message is practical and universalist in nature: people are better off among other people, when they have something, anything whatsoever, that they belong to and that unites them in a network of mutual responsibility.
It is this aspect of Carney’s argument that I find most appealing, and most useful for progressives like myself. Namely, the author eschews the common tendency — on the right and the left — to posit a linear relationship between wealth and well-being. More specifically, his work persuasively suggests that financial security and emotional security go hand in hand not because some kind of mechanical relationship exists between the two, but because, in contrast to the working class, the wealthy tend to have the resources to live in and contribute to places that provide opportunities for meaningful lives lived in common. As he succinctly puts it: “The erosion of community […] is unequally distributed, it is concentrated in the working class, and it is geographically discrete to the point that we can see it on a map.”
While those of us on the left are generally quick (and correct!) to highlight the importance of addressing widening income inequality and an increasingly precarious labor market, for example, it often seems that we are comparatively less likely to talk about questions of community, as though we assume that fixing the former will necessarily achieve the latter. Furthermore, when we do talk about community, we often use the term to refer to people who share common interests and experiences (for example, “communities of color”) but not necessarily geographical proximity or concrete spaces of interaction. If we are willing to take Carney’s assessment seriously, then, two questions seem obvious: What are the barriers to community, understood in the sense of mutual, meaningful networks of local support? And how might these barriers be removed?
Not surprisingly, it is here that Carney’s analysis breaks down, where his professed desire for strong communities is predictably thwarted by his inability to recognize unfettered capitalism, rather than government centralization and regulation, as the primary threat to the robust civic life he vaunts. Although Carney approvingly cites Orwell’s maxim “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs constant struggle,” he consistently fails to see that at the heart of every flyover town, closed plant, and shuttered church whose death he laments, there is a place where unregulated capital — not some big government boogeyman — has reared its ugly head.
Unlike his meticulously researched and tightly argued defense of the prosocial virtues of marriage and religious observance, for example, Carney’s tepid but persistent support of free-market capitalism and his assaults on liberal governance are fast and loose, often relying on anecdotal evidence, sparse data, and obscure cases of bureaucratic malfeasance to make his points. Oftentimes, his arguments are absurd — such as his claim that massive companies like Walmart, Amazon, or Starbucks crowd out small businesses because of too much, rather than too little, regulation. Other times, they’re comical — once in the 1980s, Mayor Bernie Sanders apparently professed not to believe in charities. This decades-old remark is spun by Carney into a sweeping indictment of the contemporary left’s widespread desire to have neighborly goodwill replaced by the Nanny State.
In fairness, Carney isn’t entirely oblivious to the problems caused by our neoliberal economic order — he frequently cites cases of Chinese manufacturing undermining manufacturing-centric US communities, for example. However, like many modern conservatives, he assuages his doubts by acknowledging that free-market capitalism has a few minor kinks, before swiftly pivoting to the supposedly graver dangers posed by governmental overreach, centralization, and regulation. As a direct consequence of this reaffirmation of the legitimacy of unfettered capital, Carney is thus forced to retreat into the untenable position that religion is the best and most readily available means to redress our present crisis of community. We can’t all be affluent, his argument goes, and thus we can’t all have access to the kind of secular communal life enjoyed by the wealthy. Yet, even the dirt poor can enjoy the social bonds provided by religious life.
To reiterate, I have no problem with Carney’s high estimation of organized religion. As with marriage, I know plenty of people for whom religion has been nightmarish, a source of trauma, insecurity, and even violence. I also know plenty of people, like Jim the bookish engineer, for whom religious affiliation has been a bulwark against the loneliness endemic to modern life. The problem is not religion itself, as one means among many for achieving the communal ties that foster well-being. The problem is Carney’s reliance on God to bail out capitalism. Unlike Robert Nisbet, the conservative sociologist whose classic work — The Quest for Community (1953) — he returns to frequently, Carney’s own work persistently downplays the connection between social alienation and the flow of unregulated capital that is the principal engine of that same alienation.
Although he signals kinship with an earlier tradition of postwar conservatives who were also preoccupied with the question of community — people like Nisbet, Russell Kirk, and Peter Viereck, who highlighted the corrosive and antisocial effects of the cult of free enterprise — Carney cannot ultimately bring himself to shed the laissez-faire, libertarian economics that dominate the Republican Party. The result is a book that puts its finger on the right problem, but whose author is too besotted by economic fatalism to imagine a variety of contentment that would be otherwise than religious, positioning secular forms of community as the unique provenance of the elite. While Carney’s insistence that we must reintegrate the classes, combating the geographical isolation of wealth and its resources, is laudable, his calls to privatize the safety net are as predictable as they are puerile.
Rather than buy into a zero-sum game that forces a choice between government as a tentacular monster and government as a minimalist “reinsurance” program (“a safety net for safety nets,” to use Carney’s term) is it not possible to imagine a government that supports community institutions by — and hear me out on this — actually funding and defending them? If you want a thriving book club scene, for example, why not fix the public schools? Try pumping money into education and paying teachers a salary that will make such work a feasible option for the best and the brightest. After all, lifelong learners, the kind who read for pleasure, do not grow on trees. Likewise, if you want heightened church attendance, mightn’t an increased minimum wage — allowing prospective attendees to forsake that second job, spending Sundays in the pews rather than driving for Uber — be a good start? If college graduates are far more likely to build robust communities, as Carney repeatedly claims, shouldn’t we work toward making a college education more affordable for the alienated, working poor whose cause he champions? These are the kind of questions that Carney dismisses out of hand as “centralizing” and “utopian,” preferring instead his own brand of theocratic utopianism in which a minimalist state would be kept afloat by little platoons of the charitable religious.