On Tim Carney’s Alienated America

Last week, Senator Mike Lee gave a memorable speech on the Senate floor. He transitioned seamlessly from discussing a picture of Ronald Reagan riding a velociraptor while shooting machine guns to the potential for a seahorse-based arms race with China and the devastation that Sharknado wrought on Utah.  

It was a performance that did, as the senator promised, “consider the Green New Deal with the level of seriousness it deserve[d].” As fitting and humorous as the speech may have been, the criticism is perhaps more striking.  

Lee stated in closing that one solution to the ills which do and will plague us––in this case, climate change––was to “fall in love, get married, and have some kids.” He has been derided and insulted for this suggestion. What a dumb, out-of-touch, moralistic conservative. Or so goes the line.

In reality, the senator was neither dismissing the dangers of a changing climate nor denying the potential for reasonable compromises on climate legislation (of which there should be many).

Lee was affirming the fundamental reality that family is the building block of society and a good life, no matter what’s going on with the air about which Rep. Cortes professes to be so concerned.

Indeed, the family is the essence of the American Dream. That’s why Tim Carney’s new book, Alienated America, is so important.

In some ways, it restates the themes of recent works like Coming Apart and Bowling Alone.  It’s also an excellent book in its own right, and the themes always need to be applied to new situations.  At the risk of not doing justice to the impressive scope of Carney’s research, I want to focus on the thing that stuck with me the most: his book explains that the truth about family, as the building block of society and a good life, is in peril and desperate need of saving.

Carney advances an ‘erosion of civil society’ thesis for Trump’s rise. Not economics. Not racial attitudes. Not an unwillingness to “keep up.” Not the typical policy, conspiratorial, or elitist explanations for the rise of Trump.

People are lost––they feel unloved and purposeless and, in a word, alienated. They’re having trouble finding places or projects that need them. They find no meaning in their communities and have even stopped looking for meaning in community, period. For them, it’s very difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to see the Dream.

Trump declared the Dream dead and then promised to help revive it. He was a candidate most attractive to those who have not only been cruelly insulted and dismissed for years, but also those whose communities are shattered, and whose Dreams are dead.

But while the erosion of civil society might help explain Trump’s rise, Carney helps readers to see how it’s not Trump who can address this problem. I think it’s right to say that ultimately this isn’t a problem with a political solution.

Though Trump can be part of the solution insofar as he can stop the government’s campaign against religion and civil society from extending––perhaps a persuasive reason to support him in 2020 for those on the fence––the project is to change minds and hearts. To recapture the imagination so that people want to associate and serve others in community so that the Dream is rekindled.  

The American Dream is not about the house with the white picket fence or the golden retriever (some people are allergic). Material things come and go, and houses aren’t particularly unique.

It’s about the family. Families are unique. They are unique for the challenges that come with them and the virtues developed and practiced within them. They are unique for the kind of free and sacrificial love needed to hold them together through good times and bad.  This institution teaches us that while we are individually dignified, we find our fullest dignity and truest purpose in relation to others.

“I’m hoping for a future for my kids. I think the key––the secret––to life is for your kids to do better than you.”

Carney heard this beautiful restatement of the truth about family from Jeff Mason, a “bald, avuncular, and foulmouthed” Trump supporter. Mason is one of those people who, in the imagination of American elites, is either a racist or simply mad about economic globalization and doesn’t want to “keep up.”

Indeed, people often assume that the way to help is through policy, mainly economic policy. But while efforts to provide for material needs through government support can be good, they also risk ignoring a basic anthropological truth which Carney applies well. “A local community, and a human scale institution like a parish, a swim club…will always be the most responsive safety net a person can have,” he says. It’s about the nongovernmental institutions to which people attach themselves and grow and serve within. That’s the key to human development.

Carney’s proposals are not for a radical restructuring of political and economic life. They are modest. Start with yourself and your own life; your own place and your own community. Look to understand, develop and share your gifts in a way the helps them.

As Carney puts it, “every good story should come home in the end.”

This is, after all, our purpose. We should serve this purpose––not just think about how, but actually do.  Those for whom the Dream is very much a reality can have a role to play in rekindling the Dream.

Elites and those formed in elite circles are so accustomed to the ‘rules’ of getting ahead––of polishing the resume, cleaning the suit and networking,––that we (yes, we) barely notice how central these relationships are to our development and our lives. How these are the central thing. The air we breathe, so to speak, is precisely the story of how we came to acquire those skills and that kind of knowledge and all the people and communities that helped to form us.

All this social capital––all these people, places, and institutions which help us get to where we are, starting with our families––kindles the Dream and helps it to become reality.

But the people who benefit from all this oxygen are more concerned with themselves than with others. They either preach the paramount importance of individual autonomy and unlimited self-expression––when they in fact find and practice their highest value in relation and service to others––or they deceive themselves into believing that their station was achieved solely through merit.

These conceptualizations allow us, the elite, to escape what would otherwise be obligations to use our time more wisely, cultivate better habits, and direct our lives in service to those around us immediately and the common good generally.  

We can easily avoid considering how we might help to rekindle the Dream for our fellow citizens. We can easily avoid developing policies that will help incentivize and care for families, but that run against what corporate economists “advise” is best for market efficiency. It’s fashionable, even, to avoid the most important task of defending good norms––the unpopular but enduring wisdom of love, marriage, children, and community––and setting good examples.

This kind of consideration might start in college. There’s a lot of social capital at colleges of all shapes and sizes. On the one hand, there are some colleges that wonderfully form students. On the other hand, many more colleges, mostly elite universities, teach students how to breathe the air, so to speak, but don’t offer particularly good environments.  

The self-regarding “mancamp” phenomenon that Carney describes is relevant here. What have the social environments of elite universities––Notre Dame included––become, if not comparable to these fracker-town “mancamps” where money, idleness, and instantaneous pleasure govern attitudes and form habits?  

They––we––have all the social capital in the world, but we’re squandering it. Perhaps we should stop and consider how our actions now shape our habits and lives later.

To add personal insight to the importance of family and community, Carney begins his book with the story of when his eleven-month-old’s lungs were infected with a respiratory virus. He describes how the “unerringly excellent nursing staff” and an incredible oxygen machine that could pump up to five times as much oxygen into the lungs as an ordinary one saved his daughter’s life. The support from his community was overwhelming and quite literally irreplaceable. This is a powerful story. I sat in an aisle seat on the way to O’Hare with tears in my eyes.

He employs the imagery again about halfway through the book, and here, I will quote at length:

“Deaths of despair, such as suicide, overdose, and alcohol poisoning. Men dropping out of work, out of the entire labor force, and out of society altogether. A retreat from marriage, and births out of wedlock becoming the norm. Life spans shortening. Inequality skyrocketing. Economic mobility fading. These are the symptoms of an American Dream that is dead in much of the country. The oxygen the Dream needs––social capital––is scarce in those places.”

This quote captures the seriousness of our situation and invites people into the story of the air we breathe. Of the supercharged pumps of oxygen that saved the life of Carney’s daughter and the community that supported him, of Senator Lee’s reminder that it starts with family, and of the social capital––based in and meant to support family––that this republic badly needs to make more accessible to more citizens.

Carney puts his finger right on the pulse of the American heart and of the Dream that animates that heart. Some think it’s a heart long past dead, or a dream impossible to save. Carney isn’t so sure. Alienated America is a must read.

Nick Marr is a junior from San Diego, CA. He studies history and political theory. As a 10 year old, he argued with a Supreme Court justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan.  It was neither his first nor his last argument. You can reach him at nmarr@nd.edu.