Andy Smarick is director of civil society, education, and work at the R Street Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank.
It’s no secret that civil society — the local, voluntary associations that knit together America’s communities — has been in retreat for decades. Numerous authors, including Robert Nisbet, Peter Berger, Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Putnam, have charted this decline. Now Timothy P. Carney’s excellent new book, “Alienated America,” shows what the disintegration of social connectedness has done to today’s most vulnerable individuals and communities. Carney also sheds light on contemporary politics by detailing how social isolation helped give rise to Donald Trump.
Carney, a conservative journalist and commentator, argues that Trump’s core supporters, especially those who backed him in the early primaries, have much to teach us about the role of community in politics. His analysis shows that Trump’s backing came disproportionately from places where the institutions of civic life had eroded badly. The disappearance of constructive, stabilizing connections in these locales has untethered individuals, making them susceptible to Trump’s apocalyptic “the American Dream is dead” refrain and demagogic “I alone can fix it” promise. By contrast, Carney observes, other reliably conservative areas — rich with civic life — were immune to Trump’s message.
While American conservatism generally favors free-market economics and limited government, it is also animated by its devotion to a constellation of local organizations such as community-based charities, parent-teacher groups and fraternal organizations that sit between individuals and the giant entities of public life. Conservatives believe that these diverse associations help protect our many faiths and cultures, possess the wisdom of prior generations, and protect us from the overbearing influence of the federal government. When these groups thrive, Carney argues, they contribute mightily to our nation’s character and success. “America is the land of opportunity,” he writes, “because America is the land of civil society.”
“Alienated America” relies on election results, demographic data and social-science findings to buttress its arguments about the deterioration of civil society. Carney deepens the perspective through interviews in diners and bars and at rallies and job sites from Pennsylvania and Michigan to Utah and North Dakota. The tales about shuttered steel mills, “heroin and pills” deaths and community centers with broken windows prepare the reader to understand the book’s most telling anecdote: Trump supporters arrive at an Iowa caucus not knowing one another and without a precinct captain or agreed-upon speaker; they win the vote, then leave separately. “There were no signs of cohesion,” Carney writes. “It was just that the unattached, unconnected, dispossessed . . . outnumbered the involved, optimistic, idealistic Cruz and Rubio supporters.”
Carney, the commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (where I was previously employed), maintains an even tone as he sorts through the forces at work within America’s communities. He is charitable with both those out of work and those undermining, intentionally or not, the civil-society institutions he prizes. He recognizes the faults of capitalism, big business and the gig economy as well as those of big government. He also concedes the potential risks of local, voluntary organizations, including their insularity. “The factors that create cohesiveness can sometimes lead to a hostility and prejudice toward the others, especially if the others are sufficiently different,” he writes.
Carney focuses on the role of faith-based organizations in helping to stengthen neighborhoods. But he discusses hot-button issues such as birth control, marriage and the “success sequence” (finish high school, get married, stay employed, then have kids) primarily as secular influences on the bonds between individuals in a community. In some ways the book, though written by an employee of a conservative publication and a conservative think tank, seems almost crafted to convince a left-of-center audience. Carney admits the “vice of hyper-individualism” and defends the idea at the heart of President Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line. That is, though some on the right took umbrage at Obama’s apparent demeaning of individual initiative and accomplishment, Carney understands that each person’s success, though earned, is also attributable to a web of supportive institutions. “Almost every business will need investors or partners or employees,” he writes. “Almost every successful businessman or businesswoman learned from a mentor, a teacher, or an old boss.”
But Carney also dedicates a chapter to the dangers of over-centralization, noting that economic and governmental consolidation “dovetail efficiently to bring about a less human place.” He describes how Walmart, Home Depot and Amazon (whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post) can threaten the small businesses that help tie communities together. But he also highlights the progressive political philosophy behind state efforts to centralize power. With a strong government and smart central planning, the thinking goes, we could get rid of the redundancies and inconsistencies caused by so many mediating bodies.
Carney might have done more, though, to discuss international, historical examples of how those who aspired to centralize power, whether monarchs, authoritarians, revolutionaries or even social reformers, often purposely undermined institutions of civil society. That is, the weakening of voluntary associations isn’t always accidental or in pursuit of efficiency. Those civil insitutions preserve customs, foster local loyalties and disperse power, inhibiting greater state control. A robust civil society thwarts the consolidation of power that would-be reformers need to carry out their plans.
At minimum, then, we should be attuned to our public leaders’ explicit or implicit efforts to strengthen the state by weakening voluntary bodies. Carney appropriately cites then-Burlington, Vt., Mayor Bernie Sanders’s public statement that he didn’t believe in private charities; the Obama administration’s battle against the Little Sisters of the Poor over the Affordable Care Act ; and former congressman Barney Frank’s line that “government is simply the name we give to the things we chose to do together.”
“Alienated America” offers too few solutions, a common problem among conservative writing about civil society. Carney accurately notes that government often disrupts civic organizations by its meddling and that citizen action is needed at such times. He and other conservatives generally avoid policy responses; instead, he prefers modest private efforts such as communities teaming up to develop walkable neighborhoods, build support for churches and organize sports teams. But if we are to revitalize civil society, the right should stop cataloguing this growing darkness and take seriously the need to ambitiously light candles. I’m partial to legal strategies that aim to protect civil organizations, foster government programs to spur civil-society activity and encourage major philanthropic groups to assert their influence.
At the book’s close, Carney humbly notes that his findings are not particularly new. But he has effectively modeled conservative reform by applying time-tested principles to modern circumstances. Moreover, his gumshoe reporting, working-class sympathies and ability to engage with complex social challenges are tailor-made for the populist zeitgeist. “Alienated America” is a valuable complement to recent contributions by Yuval Levin, Oren Cass, Jonah Goldberg and other right-of-center intellectuals trying to guide conservatism out of its wilderness years of the Obama-Trump era.
By Timothy P. Carney
Harper. 348 pp. $27.99