BOOK REVIEW: ‘Alienated America‘ by Timothy P. Carney

By John R. Coyne Jr. – – Tuesday, March 5, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ALIENATED AMERICA: WHY SOME PLACES THRIVE WHILE OTHERS COLLAPSE

By Timothy P. Carney

Harper, $27.99, 348 pages

is the commentary editor of the Washington Examiner, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of two well-received books, the most recent titled “Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses.”

lives and works in the heart of the Washington idea industry, where one of the current efforts is to make political sense of the Donald Trump phenomenon and attempt to explain his extraordinary victory. He assures us that this book is not another attempt at Trumpian analysis. But it is about what made a Trump presidency possible, more specifically, “about Trump’s core supporters, who voted for him in the Republican primaries in 2016,” and why they did.

He takes as his jumping off-point the Trump assertion, in what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the strangest presidential candidate’s announcement speech in memory,” that “the American Dream is dead.”

Overall, his approach to testing the truth of that assertion is sociological, his method in part Tocquevillian, consisting of visits to various communities sprinkled across the country that did and didn’t support the Trump thesis. The results, as reads them, indicate that people in strong communities, where the American Dream is apparently alive and well, didn’t vote for Mr. Trump; while people in failing communities, where hope is dying, did.

How does he identify strong communities? Many of them, but by no means all, are wealthy, with strong civic involvement, good schools and well-established churches. The failing communities have suffered job losses as established industries give way to the new digital imperative, the old civic institutions no longer serve as centers of community involvement, and the churches are failing.

According to ’s analysis, the American Dream is by no means dead, but in some communities definitely on life support. The task ahead, according to , is for our institutions — especially our churches — to take a hand in restoring our civic pride, our belief in the sanctity of marriage and family life, and the centrality of faith.

In the end, he points out, his extensive research revealed nothing that hasn’t already been the subject of groundbreaking studies by thinkers like Robert Putnam, William Julius Wilson and Charles Murray. “Because I believe the localized erosion of civil society is the fundamental problem in our country today, I believe the work of these men to be the most important social science of contemporary America.”

However, perhaps what differentiates ’s analysis of that erosion from those in wide circulation is his emphasis on the central role of religion rather than purely economic factors. True, the current focus, quite understandably, is on the displacement caused by our transition from an industrial to a digital society, just as there was massive displacement when we moved from an agricultural to an industrial society.

understands this, of course, but believes there’s something more, which he effectively personalizes. He reviews his travels, from coal country to Salt Lake City and points between, and concludes: “[W]e bring this story home to my own small patch off Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland [where] nestled between the two Orthodox synagogues is St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church, my home parish.”

“I want to end our journey here. and if you are serious about addressing America’s social problems you have to begin where you are. While it’s not perfect, around the reality of my parish we can build, with a bit of imagination, the model of a revitalized civil society.”

believes that model already exists, in no small part because of the way his own community rallied around his family when their 11-month-old daughter lay gravely ill in a Washington hospital ICU. That total support convinced him that the basic principles underlying the American Dream were alive and well in his own community. And if there, why not in others cross the country?

In the end, the task is to build or rebuild those alienated communities, something no politician or agency of government can do. ’s last chapter is titled “Overcoming Alienation,” with the concluding segment within that chapter titled “Build a City of God.”

A daunting challenge, to be sure, but one that believers in the reality of the American Dream — and his neighbors, for instance — have no doubt we’re capable of meeting.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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