Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: People across the country believe the American dream is no longer attainable. Growing inequality, economic immobility, political strife and the national crisis of addiction undermine the confidence of ordinary Americans every day. Could it be that the deterioration of the American dream is not the result of economics but the collapse of civic institutions such as marriage, community groups and religious organizations? Tim Carney joins us to discuss causes and solutions from his book "Alienated America" on this episode of "Therefore, What?"
"Therefore, What?" is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News and this is "Therefore, What?"
We're very pleased today to be joined by Tim Carney, who is the commentary editor of the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and as I said in our open, he is the author of a new book, "Alienated America." Tim, great to have you with us on the show today. All right so I love the title, "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse." Tell us, I know this was a journey kind of book for you, tell us a little bit about that.
Tim Carney: So it started for me, as I'm a political journalist. So it's a story that starts in Iowa in a pub in Iowa City, where I met a couple that worked at the university there. They worked at the university there and the woman told me she was from Orange City, and I tried to figure out what the orange in Orange City stood for, and it stood for the Dutch heritage and sure enough, I looked up the numbers, and half of this town claims Dutch ancestry. And she explained how as a kid she wore clogs, marching down the street past Windmill Square — and this is in Iowa, not in the Netherlands — for the tulip festival. And so this was like a "Simpsons" episode making fun of a bunch of Dutch people living out in Middle America. And when I went out there there's a couple things that come out. That one, yes this was a very Dutch place, but two, while Trump was in the top two in polls in the Iowa caucuses, he did not have a lot of support there.
But then I started trying to figure out what made this place tick and I found all sorts of people talking about how tightly-knit the community was there, and sure enough, politically Trump ended up bombing in Orange City and in that county. But then I became obsessed with looking at these Dutch places. I visited western Michigan and I went to a town in Wisconsin called Oostburg and there I finally realized what should have been very obvious when I was sitting at the counter at a diner. And the people came pouring in from the 9 a.m. service at First Christian Reformed Church. And then the 9:30 at First Presbyterian, and then the 9:45 from Christian Reformed Church of America. And, I mean, so they just, it was this immense, tightly knit community of churches that were so much more robust than the average church out there in America.
And I started to realize that the only real middle class places I could find in America that still had really strong tight-knit communities were ones that had incredibly strong churches. And of course, I visited you a few months later out there in Salt Lake City, where you see this written very clearly across the whole state and across many parts of the country where the strong churches are the core of strong communities, which otherwise in middle class and working class America are very rare.
BM: Yeah, I think that's so fascinating. And all the different places that you went and the different groups that you took a real look at. And even recently, you you talked about a comparison I think, between Chevy Chase, Maryland, and maybe the one in Wisconsin in terms of the connection, and currently it's a connection to Trump. But I think there's also sort of a broader thing in these tight communities or these communities that have robust civil society. Elections are less consequential to their lives because government is less consequential in their lives. Is that where this all comes?
TC: That's definitely right. So you mentioned Chevy Chase, and you might have heard about that when Brett Kavanaugh was in the news. It's a very wealthy and left-leaning, very heavily Democratic village right outside of D.C. It's here in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live. But one mistake some of my conservative Christian friends make is assuming that the wealthy elite liberals all are these decadent, living as swingers and doing pot or something like that. But no, they’re all living the conservative life of finishing school, getting a job, getting married, having kids and staying involved in their kids' lives and building the strong institutions of civil society. So the village of Oostburg and the village of Chevy Chase are very different in some ways but they're the same sort of institution. That's one reason they have, while very different politics and some very similar politics because — so I studied classics at St. John's College in Maryland. And so I'm into the Greek roots of words and politics, the old Greek word politiki, might be best translated as sort of the public things, shared things, things that are out there in the public square.
For someone like me, our politics is our involvement in a youth sports league. It's what we're doing with our swim club, what we're doing in our neighborhood association. We're involved in these public things that have nothing to do with national elections, that aren't showing up on CNN and Fox News. But if you don't have those sort of middle levels of society, those little platoons that you're part of, then the only politics you're going to have are going to be these national scale ones. And so the stakes are going to be so much higher.
BM: Yeah. And is it true then, that everyone always likes to quote Tip O'Neill and you know, all politics is local, but it seems like we've sort of flipped that in the, you know, with all the national media and the instant access to information through the internet. It almost seems like this deterioration of that connected tissue — the thick institutions, as you describe them, because that is waning, then all you do have is the all politics is national instead of local.
TC: That's right. And I think that this manifests itself on the left and on the right. Bernie Sanders and Occupy Wall Street are the examples I give in "Alienated America" about the left. At first it seemed that these people didn't have any substance. What are the issues you care about? And they kept saying, oh well it's about the big guys are controlling Washington and I say OK, great, but what are they doing with their control that you don't like? And they were telling me at Occupy Wall Street, oh they're keeping out the voices of the regular guy. And I tried to get to the bottom, OK your voices are kept out, they have all the power there in the smoke-filled room, you're locked out, what do they do in that room that you dislike? Hoping they’d say bailouts or tax cuts or something and but they didn't. They just said, oh, well, they refuse to reform campaign finance.
So what seemed like meta politics, to me, I realized was fundamental politics. There were a lot of young people at Occupy Wall Street, at Bernie Sanders rallies, who the main thing they wanted was the ability to flex their political muscle. And this is a good thing, this is what we're supposed to do, shape the world around us. And I get to do it through my parish, my workplace, my kids' swim club, my boys schools, my girls schools, I get to flex my political muscle in all sorts of ways without before I even step foot into anything doing with national politics. But if you don't even know about these, if you don't even think about these more human level institutions, you look to the national level and that's why I think you could predict both Sanders support and Trump support by looking for signs of alienation in various places around the country.
BM: Is it that in our very hyper-connected world, it’s sort of the lonely crowd complex, right? It's that we've become increasingly disconnected. Is that really the kind of the genesis of it?
TC: I think there's lots of factors. And again, Robert Putnam wrote about this in 2000, and a lot of the data still stands, that everybody is a little less connected than we used to be. And certainly technology is a huge part of it. The things that connect us to hundreds and thousands of friends make our real life friendships a little bit shallower, would be one explanation. But then I do think that there are particular afflictions for the working class and the middle class that make them even more disconnected, more deinstitutionalized and more alienated and a lot of it is that a lot of places, If they didn't already have an incredibly thick network of civil society, mostly meaning church, but if they didn't have it, then when things took an economic downturn, there was nothing to catch them. And this community sort of fell apart. This is what I saw in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, but it's different than in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, also suffered from the steel mills. But the rural places outside of Pittsburgh collapsed while the city of Pittsburgh is doing fine. And I think it's because they had the industrialists who set up these institutions, these cultural, artistic, local institutions, parks, they had these neighborhoods, you know, the Italian-Catholic neighborhood, the Jewish neighborhood, all these very close, local, human level things. They help places come through downturns, while places that don't have a strong set of institutions there, there's nothing to catch people when they fall.
BM: Let’s talk about that in terms of social capital. I know that's an area that you dive into regularly, and clearly as part of your work on the book. For the average person, what does that really mean? What's the real definition of social capital? Where is it working? And how do we really apply it on a bigger scale?
TC: Yeah, that's a great question. Because sometimes sociologists, my friends at AEI and on Capitol Hill use these terms which are good terms, but they can sound too abstract. And so the example I use in the book is when my daughter was in the hospital, our 1-year-old. And so my wife and I are rushing back and forth to the hospital that’s 40 minutes away. We didn't want to leave her unattended. So we're having to sort of tag-team at the hospital. We've got six kids, so there's five other kids sitting at home. So in some ways you could almost think of this as an enormous expense. What if we had to hire a babysitter? What if we had to order takeout every night because we couldn't cook dinner. But instead of spending our actual money on it, we drew on our reserves of social capital and friends just volunteered to come and watch our kids. Friends in the carpool where we have real connections. And people know what's going on in our life, without us even having to tell them. So the carpool would pick our kid up, even if it was our turn to drive. Even if we were supposed to drop them off at their house, there was all these things that had immense value to us. And because of our connections to parishes and my workplace and other institutions, these things of immense value that were sort of sitting there like an insurance policy, we drew on them when we needed it.
Similarly, it’s not just in the case of an emergency, but I use the example of the T-ball and baseball teams that I started. I’ve been able to go to somebody at my parish and say, hey I want to do a T-ball team. Here's the things I would need. Do you know anybody who could hook me up with that and sure enough somebody grooms the infield. Somebody else tells me where to get some equipment. somebody gives me the email list to blast out and recruit all the kids. All of that stuff has real value. You could imagine spending money on it. But we have it for sort of zero monetary costs because we are plugged into these institutions and they provide us with these real valuable things, these social connections.
BM: That's great. I want to hit for a minute one other component to social capital and that is relating to upward mobility. Your still colleague, we still get to call him colleague for a little while, right, with Arthur Brooks. He likes to talk about it in terms of you know, so often we look at those in poverty as liabilities to be managed as opposed to human assets, human potential to be developed. How does social capital play into that upward mobility component? Because really, that is the essence of the American dream — the ability to climb a little higher to pursue your version of the dream. How does social capital play into that?
TC: So first of all, there are numbers on this that really caught my eye, and were one of the things that spurred the book. Raj Chetty is a researcher who saw how uneven upward mobility was in the country, that it sort of it seemed not to be getting worse. But if you look in a place like Charlotte, North Carolina, that area, it really was pretty bad. Someone starting in the lowest quintile had almost zero percent chance to getting up to the top one and there's a high chance of doing worse than your father, while San Jose, California, and Salt Lake City both had very high upward mobility, relative and absolute. And so he tried to figure out, controlling for all sorts of factors, doing brilliant regression analysis, and said the two most important things are the percentage of intact families in an area and the measures of social capital that they had, which included volunteering, charitable giving, number of organizations, number of churches, and all of those institutions seem to objectively, empirically do it. Provide upward mobility.
So why is that? I think a big part of it is just sort of a great exposure and mixing of different income and education. So much of the country is very, we’re much less segregated by race than we used to be, we’re much more segregated by income and education status. But I also think it's more than that. I think it's the sense of purpose that comes with being plugged into something. If you belong to an organization, secular, religious, volunteer, even just a strong, tight-knit workplace, you're going to be called on and people can say, Hey Boyd, we need you to do this. And that fact of being needed, that we take for granted, that sometimes some of us in elite and religious circles think we're called on to do a little too much. There's a lot of people in the country who don't feel needed and I think — but I'm not a psychiatrist so I can't prove it — I think that is a huge thing that keeps people from being able to climb the ladder, if they just look around themselves, and they feel like, they're pointless.
BN: Wow, that's great, great insight, I want to play off of that a little bit, because you mentioned the institutions around that. And you mentioned in the book, just the indispensability of institutions, and we live in this time where, again, national media, members of Congress kind of abdicating their authority. You know, all of these things seem to be eroding the trust of the American people in institutions, in big government, but it's splashing over into other institutions. And sadly, I think we're losing trust in one another, all the way down to the community and the individual level.
TC: Well, that's right. I mean, social trust is such an incredibly valuable thing and life just becomes so much better if you implicitly trust your neighbors and they trust you. Think about the ease — I think about like, you know, leaving your kids bikes on the front lawn, way easier than having to lock them up in the shed and that's a real big deal. And a big part of it is, yeah, as our attention gets taken away from what's close at hand and put onto the national stuff that we have no control over, what the special counsel investigation is going to turn up, what the tax rates are going to be, all the things that we have no control over, then we lose sort of connection of people around us. And then social trust diminishes. And then life just becomes a lot harder. I use a little image of the kids bikes on the front yard. But you can imagine all sorts of things. Just whether your kids are allowed to run around and play, whether you can borrow something, lend something to somebody, just show up and visit a friend, all of those things that sometimes seem just kind of nice or even quaint have incredible value and the more that those become harder, the more than social trust decays, just the poorer our lives become in ways that might not show up immediately in dollars and cents, but certainly do in quality of life.
BM: Yeah. And how do you think, you know, we sort of have this American image of the rugged individualism and I'm going to pull myself up by my bootstraps, and you know, we're going to push through this thing. And yet I think our history is so much more connected than that, it's the barn-raising. If the neighborhood needed a barn you raised a barn and it wasn't because the government told you to or you were threatened with a tax if you didn't or you know something. There is that natural connectedness How does that balance out here in America?
TC: It's an irony that de Tocqueville noted and I mean Tocqueville, while writing "Alienated America" have come to suspect that Tocqueville was a time-traveler, because he seems to have predicted so much of this, but he describes overcentralisation and the hyper-individualism, seemingly two opposite things, as actually being two sides of the same coin. That a growing central power breaks the sort of horizontal bonds among individuals and between individuals and these middle institutions. And so, that I think is a big part of it, that we get separated off by cultural and governmental and a technological thing that sort of can make everything in some ways more centralized, but then leaves us standing more alone.
BM: Yeah, absolutely. I want to ask you when you came out to Utah in 2016, and again, with all these other places, you went from Iowa, to Wisconsin, and everywhere in between, I want to get a sense of what you expected. And then what you saw here. You came during a really interesting period there during the election. I think the week you came here, I had, I think, 18 or 19 international journalists come who were trying to figure out what’s going on in Utah, why are they rejecting Hillary Clinton and they're rejecting Donald Trump. Why is that happening?
You know, we would kind of showcase the the strong free market economy and the civil society component. But I want to get your sense. What did you think you would see coming in? And then what did you see? And then how does it relate to a lot of these other places you went?
TC: Well, the most surprising thing to me was, especially coming off of 2012 when the Republican mantra sort of became, I did build that. The rugged individual. And I show up in this conservative, low tax, low regulation state. And I sat down with some Deseret News editors, and there was this talk of outreach to refugees. And, of course, Trump's antipathy to Syrian refugees was one of the things that probably won him a lot of positive attention in the Republican primary. But then there was sort of the stuff that, as a Catholic I'm used to seeing Jesuit priests, which is lots of talk of communitarianism. And then the beehive imagery that I’d never spent any time thinking about, I started noticing that everywhere and thought that sounds a little bit communist. We’re all a bunch of worker bees? What's going on here.
And then I sat down with you, Boyd, in your office and you said, Well, Hillary was right it takes a village. And this brought home what had been sort of fledgling ideas in my head from my visits to Oostburg and Orange City. This idea that people who go ahead and live their institutions, build these really strong-knit community, they had an optimism that kept them from buying into the pessimism of Trump saying "The American dream was dead," but also some of the antagonism, the anti refugee and some of the idea that there's some bad other that needs to be fought off. A lot of that is mitigated, the more that people feel that they trust their neighbors. And I found a real interesting study about this with Islam. People who go on the big pilgrimage to Mecca come away, compared to people similarly disposed people who don't go on it, come away with warmer feelings toward Muslims from other countries, which you'd expect, but warmer feelings toward the West, warmer feelings towards non-Muslims, warmer feelings toward more egalitarian ideas about gender, warmer feelings towards America. If you go on this religious pilgrimage, you come away loving other people more because it's just this intense communal relation aimed at something higher that builds trust. And so I think I saw the same thing in Oostburg and in Salt Lake City. And something about the 2016 election made for an easy way to identify these places. Where did Trump bomb in the primaries? Let's go to these places and figure out what makes them different and what makes them different was very strong institutions, very high social capital.
BM: So people have been listening to us for 25 minutes, they read your book "Alienated America," what's the "Therefore, what?" What do you hope people think different, What do you hope they do different after the experience?
TC: So I was thinking about this the other day, walking around the University of Pennsylvania and I saw buildings named after wealthy billionaires who gave a million dollars but then I came home to my daughter's CYO basketball game and I noticed on the back of all their jerseys is this circle and it says Al Weaver, St. Andrews sports 1966 to 2016. And I thought that's what I want. I'm not going to be the guy who has my name on a building. I want them to name the baseball field at my parish after me so that when people say, what are we supposed to do about collapsing society? There's stuff that the government can do. But on the federal level, most of it is don't do this bad stuff. Don't crowd the church out of the public square. Don't crush these institutions. The real solution is going to be the people who listen to this podcast who are going to say, you know what, I could start a T-ball team. You know what, I could start a weekly potluck. People talk about good neighborhoods to raise a kid. Two parents on a block could have sufficient social capital that if they put in the effort they could make their neighborhood be a good place to raise a kid. And then there might be one more couple that gets married, one more couple that has a kid if they do that. So that's the "Therefore, What?" It's not a big policy prescription. It's me thinking about how can I be the guy who builds the social capital, who connects people, who gives more people a sense of build more safety net and helps people access the good life. It's going to happen on the local, human level. That's the solution they're going to come from.
BM: Yeah, that's fantastic. It does take a village and the village is not the government, it's the people and it's those connections that are so vital. I do have to let you know, Tim, that in my neighborhood, we have an annual 1K donut run. It doesn't even go all the way around the neighborhood. It's just 1K, it's over before it starts, but they raise money, they pick a charity every year. And it's an extraordinary thing to watch. It's exactly what what you've been describing today. Thanks so much for joining us Tim Carney. the book is "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse." It's a great read, great things to think about and more importantly, a lot of things that we can begin to do. Tim, thanks so much for joining us on "Therefore, What?"11 comments on this story
Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseret news.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"