The plight of the rural white working class, especially its males, burst onto the national radar rather suddenly. Opioid overdoses finally caught the attention of the mainstream media a few years back. And of course the GOP primary win, and ultimate election, of Donald Trump brought even more attention to this demographic.
Are they economically battered victims of globalization? Were they left behind in a whirlwind of cultural changes? Or maybe they're just bitter bigots who can't stand to see women and minorities outperforming them.
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In Alienated America, Timothy P. Carney of the Washington Examiner highlights a neglected element of the story: the decline of strong communities with dense social ties, and in particular the decline of organized religion. Carney doesn't prove this factor deserves quite the importance he places on it—indeed, how could one possibly disentangle it from the raft of other social and economic changes this country has seen in the past half-century? But he does an excellent job of weaving his narrative together with on-the-ground reporting and relevant academic research.
In the book's first chapter, Carney profiles the village of Chevy Chase, Md., where social bonds are quite strong, even overbearing. All but 5 percent of families with kids are of the two-parent variety. A volunteer committee throws parties on a regular basis. There's an annual meeting where innumerable committees make presentations about the village's well-being.
Chevy Chase is fantastically wealthy and exclusive (population a few thousand, median income $420,000), but that doesn't appear to be all that's going on here. Carney passes along an observation from his Examiner colleague Michael Barone that heavily Dutch areas voted against Trump in the primaries, and in a visit to one—Oostburg, Wis.—reports on the strong sense of community there, too. It's packed with married-family households, church congregants flood the local diner after Mass, and one man complains that so many people from the community turned out to see the Christmas concert at his daughter's school that he couldn't find a seat. When someone needs a ride or a job or another favor, they can draw on the support of numerous social networks.
These are the places that heard Trump say the American dream was dead and really had no idea what he was talking about. They're places where people still pray and bowl together.
But then there's Trump country—the places that didn't just vote for him in the general election, as most Republican areas (including Oostburg) did, but that flocked to him in the primary because his message resonated. Yes, a lot of these places have lost manufacturing employment, jobs that were particularly good for young men with low skill levels. But just like in Chevy Chase and Oostburg, economics aren't the whole story.
This is evident in the seemingly contradictory results of two pieces of academic research. One, a famous series of papers by the economist David Autor and several colleagues, found that when factories shut down thanks to new competition from China, it wreaks havoc on the community: less marriage, higher rates of child poverty. Another looked for a similar effect in reverse—in the areas suddenly blessed with fracking jobs as the technology took off—and failed to find it. Those places saw no increase in marriage rates, for instance.
But as Carney points out, these two processes are not simple opposites of each other, even though one took good jobs away from low-skilled men and the other provided massive numbers of such jobs. When factories shut down in established communities, they damage an entire social ecosystem—whereas when fracking operations set up shop, they stock "mancamps" with lots of new hires and provide them rec rooms with huge TVs. Seen through the lens of healthy community rather than raw economics, the studies' results are not that hard to reconcile at all.
Carney also powerfully argues that the loss of religion has a role in the plight of the working class. Contrary to popular wisdom, church attendance has fallen much more among the lesser-educated (though those on the other end of the spectrum are catching up). And especially in America, strong communities have more often than not revolved around churches. By one study Carney cites, religious organizations account for a third of volunteering in the United States, and religious Americans are more likely to volunteer for nonreligious causes as well. Another study specifically tied church closings to rising crime.
Carney explores numerous other facets to Trump country's fraying social fabric as well. When educated people high in social capital "sort" themselves into, say, Chevy Chase (home to George Will and Chris Matthews, among others), they leave the places they came from worse off. Technology entertains us so we don't have to leave the house or interact with other human beings directly. And of course there's the havoc wreaked by the sexual revolution.
Borrowing a page from Yuval Levin's Fractured Republic, Carney also notes that a strong central government has taken over many of the functions once performed by local organizations—the "little platoons" that occupy the space between the individual and the state. Carney cites one study, for instance, finding that the New Deal crowded out about 30 percent of church charity spending.
Carney perhaps overstates things when he says we should focus on closed churches rather than closed factories; we can focus on both, as he himself skillfully does throughout the book. Wage growth for men near the bottom of the income spectrum has been disappointing at best—indeed, Carney relies on disputed estimates that these men's wages have actually declined—and globalization really has hit a lot of communities hard. It's difficult to imagine that this isn't a big part of what feeds the frustration that found a voice in Donald Trump. At minimum, however, the loosening of social ties is closely bound up with everything else that's wrong, and it deserves a closer look from those who would like to help these communities.
Like most diagnoses of the maladies plaguing Trump country, however, all this must leave us profoundly pessimistic that there can be any near-term solution. As with globalization and women's empowerment, secularization and atomization are trends that may work to the disadvantage of low-skilled men and the communities they cluster in, but that are not going anywhere. We're not going to make people go to church or join book clubs (though some would like to throw more federal money at local organizations). Carney himself does not pretend otherwise—"the alienation described herein is particularly immune to any big solutions," he writes—though at various points in the book, particularly its conclusion, he provides hints and suggestions that could help on the margins.
Carney exhorts Americans to get more involved in their own communities, for instance, and to the extent readers follow Carney's advice he has done a public service. But beyond that, this suggestion boils down to the observation that if people chose to act differently—despite being the same people they are currently, and facing the same incentives—we'd see better outcomes. Other ideas include maintaining strong protections for religious liberty and reinvigorating unions by switching to a less coercive legal system for managing them.
More fundamentally, if the growth of the federal government is crowding out local institutions, one might think shrinking it will have the opposite effect. But don't get too excited: Remember the study finding that 30 percent of Catholic charity spending was displaced by the New Deal? According to that same study, it took just 3 percent of New Deal spending to make up for it. In other words, while local activity might increase without government, it's unlikely to come anywhere near replacing the safety net we have in place. Some conservatives might be okay with that, but severe cuts are unlikely to be politically palatable in a country where the center and left get any say at all. For his part, Carney merely suggests "reconsider[ing]" safety-net programs with local control in mind.
Enormous changes to American society over the past 50 years have been mostly beneficial but have worked to the disadvantage of some areas and some people. It's an interesting empirical question exactly which changes had the most impact, where, and on whom, and Alienated America makes a fantastic contribution to this discussion. Yet it's hard to be anything but depressed by a book that highlights serious problems and then reports that those problems are "particularly immune to any big solutions."
That attitude from elites, like empty churches and closing factories, is part of what got us Trump. But it's almost certainly the truth.