October 19th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Greta Thunberg: she's not doing it all on her own

EDITORIAL Time for Australia to rethink the neo-liberal experiment

RURAL AFFAIRS Queensland Labor punishes farmers to placate UNESCO

CANBERRA OBSERVED Morrison's 'positive' globalism has resonance

NSW ABORTION ACT Amendments annul some of the Act's worst excesses

GENDER POLITICS Doctors call for inquiry into childhood gender dysphoria

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong's 'software' may be key to its survival

GENDER POLITICS Pornography and the transgender agenda

RIGHTS & FREEDOMS Transgenderism poses biggest threat to religious freedom

OPINION When Maggie (Sanger) met Mickie (Mann)

PHILOSOPHY The element of justice in economic practice, Part 2 of two parts

POPULATION Lifestyles and policies ensure population peril ahead

HUMOUR If atheism is the answer, what was the question?

MUSIC Good, better, Bach: The composer who consistently outdid himself

CINEMA Joker: From a heart in darkness

BOOK REVIEW Hope, more than economics, drives Trump voters

BOOK REVIEW A pushback against visceral unreason


Books promotion page

Hope, more than economics, drives Trump voters

News Weekly, October 19, 2019

ALIENATED AMERICA: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse

by Timothy P. Carney

Harper Collins, New York, 2019

Hardcover: 368 pages
Price: AUD$49.99

Reviewed by Brian Coman

This new book from Timothy Carney follows a long line of broadly similar books charting sociological changes in the United States over the past few decades. Perhaps the best known of these was Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012). Murray produced a great mass of sociological data to support his thesis that America was, indeed, coming apart, with a growing gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots”.

This was followed by Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict (2014) and many other similar studies.

Carney’s starting point is the Trump phenomenon but, unlike so many lesser pundits commentating on Trump’s victory, Carney supports his thesis with a huge amount of data. Much of it is the result of his own field studies and the rest of it comes from a vast reservoir of published sociological data gleaned by other researchers in the field. In short, he finds that the key to understanding the Trump victory has little to do with economics and everything to do with human social relationships.

So, this is not primarily a book about Trump or the Trump victory. Rather, it is an analysis of why the voting patterns in different parts of America vary so widely.

When, some two and a half thousand years ago, Aristotle famously defined humans as Zoon politicon – often translated as “political animals” – he correctly supposed that the polis (community) provides the necessary environment for individual human flourishing and thus, the pathway for attaining one’s telos or proper goal in life.

Carney’s new study vindicates Aristotle’s thesis. It was not, in the first instance, the decline in job opportunities or wage stagnation or any other economic factor that led so many Americans to vote for Trump. It was, in short, a feeling of social isolation – a lack of what we commonly call “community spirit”. When Trump voters responded to the catchcry, “Make America Great Again”, it was (whether knowingly or unknowingly) a desire to regain this sense of community.

Carney demonstrates that sociological and not economic considerations are the major factors at play here by carefully dissecting voting trends in different parts of America. He takes his analyses down to the local level, giving real-life examples from interviews in pubs, eateries and other traditional gathering points.

What he finds, time and again, is that most of the Trump voters he interviews believe that the “Great American Dream” is dead. They believe this because they experience, in their own lives and the lives of those around them, a sense of alienation and hopelessness.

By contrast, when Carney examines voting trends and personal expectations in the enclaves of the “elites”, he finds that few of them voted for Trump and that they have an optimistic view of their own lives and of their own local communities. This goes against the commonly held belief that wealth and status bring unhappiness (we think of the highly publicised suicides amongst movie stars and other high-profile individuals among the rich and famous).

What Carney finds, in fact, is that the residents in these elite communities are, for the most part, heavily involved in their local community organisations. And so, again, it is social and not economic factors that matter most.

But there is a problem with the elites, which was ably demonstrated in the study undertaken by Charles Murray. Their communities are laterally integrated but not vertically integrated. That is to say, they tend to form their own closed communities, looking after their own interests and marrying within their own social class. Thus, they tend to be isolated from the wider polis or community.

When Carney turns his attention to middle and lower-class America (for, indeed, America is dividing up into classes), he finds that disillusionment and the sense that the “American Dream” is dead, can be pinned down to a small number of factors: the breakdown of marriage and the dissolution of the family; the loss of the “little platoons” (Edmund Burke’s felicitous description of local organisations); retreat from the churches and religious belief; hyper-individualism (his term); and over-centralisation.

At this point, News Weekly readers might be forgiven for muttering, “we have been telling you this for years”. And, of course, that is true. The National Civic Council and its affiliated organisations have been strenuously defending marriage and the family for decades. So too have they defended religious belief as the source of an objective moral order and a set of guidelines necessary for human flourishing.

Herein lies the importance of Carney’s book. It provides hard data to back up what we know, instinctively, to be true anyway: that stable family life is important for any society; that such stable family life can only operate within the traditional concept of marriage; and that power (whether political or economic) always operates best when it is devolved or passed down the line.

Of special importance in Carney’s book is his analysis of religious belief as a community-building enterprise. Two of the total of 13 chapters comprising the book deal exclusively with the role of churches in American society. His focus, of course, is on the role of the churches as community-building enterprises.

Keeping in mind Carney’s central claim that Trump voters were driven, in large part, by a sense of isolation and hopelessness, why did so many Christians vote for him? Christians are, almost by definition, a people of hope. The answer is somewhat complicated and, when Carney looks at voting trends in the early primaries, he finds they differ markedly from the later vote between Trump and Clinton.

Among practising Christians, Trump tended to perform badly in the early voting but, when the choice was between Trump and Clinton, a great many Christians were influenced purely by the stand of the two candidates concerning abortion and religious freedom. Another factor was the difference between nominal and practising Christians. In his analyses, Carney finds that a big percentage of Trump voters identifying as “Christian” were Christian in name only and did not attend a church.

In the second-last chapter of the book, Carney elaborates on the nexus between religious belief and “community spirit” by focusing on the operation of the Mormons (Latter-Day Saints) in Utah.

Here, he is worth quoting in a little detail: “The devotion to a community is in Salt Lake City and the LDS world. As with all strong communities, there is a shared purpose driving the community and there are strong institutions of civil society organising and holding together the community. The ‘ward’, or local congregation, is the primary institution of daily life in the LDS church.

“The ward is analogous to a Catholic parish, and the entire church structure practises what we Catholics call subsidiarity, ‘trying never to centralise a practical function more than is needed’.

“Mormons worship on Sunday at their local ward. Many wards hold occasional potluck dinners. Each ward has a bishop, who is basically a layman serving a term as a pastor. Devolving things even further, wards have a handful of ‘home teachers’, who are each assigned a family inside the ward with which to work. If your marriage is in trouble, you can tell your home teacher. If you lose your job, your home teacher knows.”

In his final chapter, Carney drives home the point that, for middle and lower-class America at any rate, the only real answer to the problem of alienation and hopelessness is the proper operation of a religiously motivated community. This is because aspects such as charity, friendship, goodwill and, indeed, all positive aspects of human life are seen as having some divine mandate.

True enough, the elites can often manage within a secular framework lacking a set of objective principles, but their communities are non-inclusive and self-centred. They cannot serve as a useful blueprint for the larger community.

Behind every social pathology there lurks an underlying political philosophy. What Carney does not pursue in any detail is the root cause of societal breakdown. He prefers to deal with its manifestations and its immediate consequences.

The root cause, in fact, is a particular modern notion of the idea of human freedom which, since the time of John Locke and other Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers, has been focused on the individual rather than the community. It has given us what Malcolm Muggeridge once termed “the great liberal death wish”.

The traditional notion of freedom in the West was closely associated with the notion of the dignity of the human intellect. Freedom, then, was always a freedom to rise above our mere animal natures: what St Paul memorably termed, “the glorious liberty of the children of God”. The new “liberty” of Carney’s hyper-individual is, then, a complete retreat from this idea.

And that is why some places thrive while others collapse.

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