Reviewed by Frank Blechman
What surprised me most about this book was the fact that it shared more with communitarians like Amitai Etzione (Spirit of Community) and Robert Bellah (Bowling Alone, Kids) than his work at the American Enterprise Institute and the Washington Examiner would predict.
In considering how the idea of “The American Dream” has changed, he begins with the idea that it is dead. Most Americans, he says, no longer believe that their children will be better off than they are, or that the streets will be safe for anyone to go out and play. Behind that dreary assessment, he asserts, sits personal isolation that has led to the collapse of the social networks (which include churches, labor unions, recreational leagues, book clubs, and most nonprofit volunteer-fueled organizations) that support individuals, families, and entire communities. That isolation not only leaves people unconnected but unable to imagine why they should make the effort to reach out to others.
He systematically reviews the evidence of declining marriage rates, shrinking mainstream religious participation, corporate consolidation, elite withdrawal, opiate addiction, and fragmented news. However, unlike Charles Murray (Coming Apart) who he cites often, he does not ascribe the cause of these phenomena to hyper-individualism. Carney draws the arrow the other way. He hypothesizes that collapsing communities leave individuals unsupported, isolated, and vulnerable.
Although he tries really hard to avoid sounding either partisan or sectarian, his background betrays him. At the end of the day, he looks back fondly on his upbringing in a stable two-parent family, in a community anchored by the Catholic Church. The homogeneity made relationships easy. His strongest segments are about other similar places. He cites cases where secular communities are thriving, but still wishes everybody could have what he had.
Why should progressives read this conservative small-government-is-better tour of America? We certainly won’t agree with many of his conclusions. Nonetheless, as a traditional Republican, Carney is struggling with the same questions we are. He wants to know, “Why did Trump get elected President? What made his rants resonate? More than that, what about his pitch motivated people who are isolated and not engaged with their neighbors or their communities to come out of their shells to vote?”
The key Trump voters were people who were doing OK, but saw others lose their jobs, saw community institutions dying, and feared that the same could happen to them.
The answer offered by his research is that the key audience was not those who lost their jobs and feel hopeless; the key Trump voters were people who were doing OK, but saw others lose their jobs, saw community institutions dying, and feared that the same could happen to them.
The lesson here for progressives is that Trump, in his own dark way, offered them more hope for a better future than we did. Trump’s claim that he was a smart tough guy who cared about them and would fix the problems they could not address was never credible to us. Yet it spoke to the fears of voters who felt ignored, abandoned, unserved, and even betrayed by big social programs.
The book tells us that if we want to win back this vote, we must be much more specific about how we will acknowledge the struggles of small towns and rural areas, and how we will help them.