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Culture Q&A

Tim Carney

Land of the alienated

Street-level analysis of American politics and economy

Land of the alienated

Tim Carney (Gage Skidmore)

Tim Carney is commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His new book, Alienated America, examines why some places thrive while others collapse and explains 2016 voting patterns. Here are edited excerpts of our interview. 

You’ve described yourself as a free market populist. Tell us what that means. I’m very skeptical of concentrations of government or business power. When things get too far removed from the human level, power is wielded in ways that’s not in the interest of individuals. I’ve also become sensitive to the dangers of hyper-individualism. If I’m a libertarian from 9 to 5, I’m a conservative in the other hours, realizing the importance of tradition and history.

You’ve shown how big business lobbies for and profits from big government. Regulation kills smaller companies and big guys survive. When you increase the power of government, you’re multiplying the importance of a lobbyist. 

Unemployment figures don’t count the people who have dropped out of the labor force. What’s really going on in the economy? The labor force participation rate has been going down. The changing economy has made it harder for men without a college degree to find good work.

A typical male worker earns less today than in 1969? A big part of that is more competition from immigrants and more women working.

Just talking about the gross national product and national wealth doesn’t cut it on Main Street? It’s easy for policymakers and columnists to see all human beings lined up in columns and rows by age, sex, income, and education level, but people don’t live in those columns. 

Would you connect the dots of these two stats: In the past half century, nonworking men from 25 to 54 years old went from 3 percent to 12 percent, and unmarrieds from 21 to 35 years old went from 17 percent to 57 percent? Most of the drop-off in marriage is among the working class: Harder for men who did not go to college to find stable, steady work, less of an economic incentive for women to get married. But if you just say, “Working-class people aren’t getting married because of poor wages,” you are missing half the story. It’s also the erosion of strong communities that prop up families. 

‘Economists would tell you we’ve gotten greater efficiencies, but there was a real human cost to this change: towns destroyed, fewer people getting married, more deaths of despair.’

We’re having a debate about tariffs, but you point out that more jobs are lost to robots than are to other countries. Tariffs would not bring back jobs. Automation is the main threat right now. Manufacturing as a share of GDP has stayed about the same. Manufacturing employment has gone way down. A few people can now run a factory in a way that used to take tons and tons of men. 

So productivity per worker has gone way up, but at the same time communities are being ravaged? It’s great that our workers are more productive, but it used to be that a guy could graduate high school and, if he’s willing to put in the work, show up day after day, that’s enough to raise a family and have a decent retirement and a pension. There was something really good about that. Economists would tell you we’ve gotten greater efficiencies, but there was a real human cost to this change: towns destroyed, fewer people getting married, more deaths of despair. 

At suite level you can say people will move to where more jobs exist, but with family and community ties it’s not that easy at street level. Not everyone gets up and leaves when the factory shuts down.

You point out that people in a community might be able to get food more efficiently than by going to the diner, but if the diner closes down you’re missing something: The diner isn’t just about food. Yes, what if Bernie Sanders says let’s just deliver eggs to everybody every day, give everybody a coffee maker, and deliver them coffee grounds every month? They can get their breakfast at home. But that efficiency would erode a lot of social capital. 

“Civil society” provided opportunities for people to take leadership positions in a variety of ways outside of either government or business. An ambitious person could become president of the Elks or the Kiwanis. Now, it often has to be politics. We want not only to shape our own lives but to shape the world around us. Most people have less opportunity to do so now. One reason is the Washington, D.C., mindset that we should centralize decision-making and “liberate” people from the duty of building their communities.

When I reviewed your book in WORLD’s May 11 issue, I noted what you found out about Trump voting patterns in 2016. Could you summarize your research? The first distinction to make is between the early primaries and the general election, when people basically had to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In the early primaries his core support was 25 percent. The biggest factor in predicting a Trump vote was saying yes to “I feel like a stranger in my own land.” That’s about alienation. Religiosity did not predict whether you were going to vote for Trump, Rubio, Bush, Kasich, but when asked how often you go to church, that was a major predictor. In some primaries Trump got over 60 percent among Republican voters who reported basically never going to church. He got less than 30 percent of those who were at church once or more a week. Cruz won the evangelical vote in Iowa. Trump won the rural white populist vote.

Sioux County in northwest Iowa, where we hold our World Journalism Institute for college students every May, was Trump’s worst county early in 2016. It was his worst county because it was the county where the American Dream was the most alive, and it was a county that was most dominated by very strong, tightly knit Christian Reformed churches. They had done an immense job of building up really strong social capital so families are easier to raise and, when something goes wrong in their life, their neighbors are more likely to come and help.

How do we restore social capital? The federal government should stop crowding out nonprofits and churches. Churches have always been the core institutions of civil society. Ultimately it’s going to take something of a Great Awakening of civil society and local churches. Churches don’t escape the blame: Many have become overly politicized or have covered up horrific abuses or tried to become too modern so that they weren’t any different from day-to-day life and were just blending in with the world. 

Looking forward: With two dozen Democrats running for president, couldn’t one of them get traction in the primaries—he wouldn’t win—by being pro-life? No, Democrats have driven the pro-life segment thoroughly out of their party, and there’s a lot of desire on that side to attack the very institutions I’m talking about: It’s “you guys lost a culture war and now we’re going to stamp you out.” Don’t think that’s the way the average Democratic voter is, but enough think that way to carry a primary.

And compassionate conservatism is not just mostly dead but fully deceased? In an era of “lock her up,” it’s got a long way to go.


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  •  Tim G Larsen's picture
    Tim G Larsen
    Posted: Fri, 07/12/2019 02:58 pm

    Have conservative Christians lost their first love? Are we so busy correcting the heresies of our wayward churches that we neglect all the other of the Lord's commands? We forget all the attributes of the God of love. I agree with Tim Carney, we do need a great awakening in our churches. 

    To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
    2 “ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

    The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Re 2:1–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.