Harvard University Professor Harvey Mansfield begins the editor’s note of his translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal 19th-century study: “Democracy in America is at once the best ever written on democracy and the best ever written on America.” He is right. The time is fast approaching two centuries since Tocqueville’s brief sojourn in Jacksonian America, and while his reflections have inspired dozens of books from some of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most thoughtful observers of politics—including Robert Nisbet, Robert Putnam, and Sheldon Wolin, to name but a few—we never quite seem to exhaust the Frenchman’s insights.
Washington Examiner journalist Timothy Carney is the latest in the line of authors who take Tocqueville as their guide, and one of the chief virtues of Alienated America is Carney’s skill at pairing social science data with Tocqueville’s thought in a way that freshens Tocqueville and gives depth of meaning to the numbers. In the encounter with these alienated Americans, we reach the sharp point of the stick—the dangers Tocqueville saw latent in democracy and particularly in the people of the United States have now come to fruition. We are in trouble.
Let us begin by correcting a misnomer. The American economy nearly collapsed in 2008 in what has been called the Great Recession, a downturn topped only by the Great Depression in its severity and scale. And yet, 11 years on, the economy is not only back, but stronger than it was before most of us had ever heard of credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities. There are, however, societal indicators more significant than GDP. The Real Great Recession, the subject of Alienated America, is the ongoing, widespread, half-century-long collapse of civil society, of the relationships and institutions that are the foundation of a good life.
Just as the Great Depression shaped the lives of an entire generation, so the Real Great Recession of civil society is shaping us. “Civil society” encompasses the institutions that mediate between the individual and the state: everything from the family to one’s neighborhood, from churches to clubs, volunteer organizations, and even labor force participation rates. And all of these institutions have been in sustained decline for decades. Many are gone entirely.
Does it matter? Is it really so bad if people are less tied down, if most people have never married, if fertility plummets, if Main Street churches close, if Kiwanis, Rotary, and the Junior League wither? The common sense answer is that of course it matters, and it is bad. The thinking here is premised on an ancient insight that man is a political animal. Humankind’s distinction among the animals is that we deliberate together to shape a shared life. This is core to who we are and to our flourishing.
Carney takes the reader to communities where it is still happening, places such as Chevy Chase, Maryland, and Oostburg, Wisconsin. In the Maryland suburb outside Washington, D.C., we learn that extreme wealth and advanced education have insulated the people of that small village from the loss of social capital. Cultural elites, solidly Democratic voters, are practicing what conservatives preach. They have healthy marriages, children, robust public spaces, community events and offerings, and neighborly spirit. They are active in their schools and generous to those in need. In considerably less wealthy Oostburg, it’s religion that guards the health of civil society. People help one another, make sacrifices for the common good, and regard the town’s children as the responsibility of everyone. In these places, the American dream of getting ahead by working hard, of each generation achieving a little more than the previous one, is alive and well.
Elsewhere, where civil society has collapsed, life is very different. The alternative to civil society—what has taken the place of marriage, neighbors, religious communities, and meaningful work (the four factors that account for nearly all of the happiness gap between these places)—is the soft despotism of the tutelary state: anonymous, transactional, formulaic, and coercive.
These features of bureaucratic care were brilliantly encapsulated (unintentionally) by President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign video “The Life of Julia,” which went viral among conservatives. In the animated short, a woman, Julia, progresses through every stage of life from toddler to retirement with the assistance and support of federal government programs. And only government programs—no friends, no mate, no parents, no community. When Julia is a child, we do not see the parents who instilled in her the virtues that contribute to her later success. When Julia has a child herself, there is no father there to share the responsibility. In her old age, it is not Julia’s child who cares for her, but the “benevolence” of the federal government.
Julia’s insipid life, even while materially well provisioned, is unappealing because it is largely devoid of the matrix of relationships—family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, co-religionists—that forms a meaningful life. For many Americans, as Carney demonstrates with ample, precise, and depressing statistics and anecdotes, a catastrophic loss of civil society (or social capital) is similarly affecting the prospects for a good life. They are like Julia, only poor. In those places, the American Dream is dead. Plagued by substance abuse, loss of economic mobility, unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and even suicide, they live in rotting towns marked by boarded-up buildings. People in these towns are alienated; they not only feel cheated, but no longer even feel a part of the social order. Opioids, transfer payments, free porn, and NFL football may keep them docile enough to avoid civil unrest, but those things are a terrible substitute for life.
Part of the book’s conceit is that Carney goes in search of Trump Country, of the places where people supported Trump in the primaries over and against his more conservative rivals. One of the recovery’s salient features Carney brings to light is the quality of life—and almost all of it has happened in the major metropolises. In fact, employment and the economy in small towns and rural areas have contracted further since the crash, even as large urban areas have seen one of the country’s longest sustained expansions.
This partly explains why in the primaries Trump did poorly in most big cities, but was at his strongest in the areas that have seen no recovery. The more important explanation is that these are also the places where the collapse of social capital has been most complete. Trump beat Cruz more than two-to-one in the places where social disengagement is highest. Here is where Carney offers an important and original insight. Trump’s core voters were often not themselves poor or struggling, but they are from places that are poor and struggling. That is to say, it was not the economic collapse of 2008 that got Trump elected; it was the civil society collapse of the last 50 years that did. The culture is more important than the economy.
Is there hope? This is America—of course there is. But if the hope is to be realistic, it has to confront the truth of what really generates social capital and builds civil society—of what really makes a good life. The most important institutions bar none are marriage, family, religion, and meaningful work. And there’s data to prove it, from Raj Chetty’s research on social mobility within neighborhoods, Mark Regnerus’s tour of the contemporary mating market’s wreckage, and W. Bradford Wilcox’s analysis on marriage and economic success. What we learn from the best social science minds today is that the prospects for the future depend above all on a society that offers wide latitude to religious organizations and fosters family formation.
No amount of GDP growth will fix what’s broken. That said, the prescription can be stated simply and clearly (even if achieving it will inevitably be more complex and difficult): a culture that encourages people to go to church, graduate from high school (preferably with marketable skills), get married, and have children (and in that order).
When people do that, it’s almost like magic. Happiness goes up, poverty goes down; health gets better, suicide decreases; communities flourish and crime declines.
So what do we do? As a conservative, Carney is apprehensive about attempting much through public policy. After all, centralization and the smothering of mediating institutions are the core of the problem. He rightly prescribes local action (start a T-ball team or a coffee group or a book club), but is too quick in letting public policy mostly off the hook: “Where paving stones have killed grass, removing the stones doesn’t guarantee the grass will come back.” True, but you cannot successfully re-sod the ground until the stones are removed. A wide array of federal and state policies that discourage skilled trades, penalize marriage, disempower families, and offer perverse incentives to the vulnerable need to change. Those which harass churches, confessional charities, and religious businesspeople are actively harming American society and especially the poorest among us. Those policies (whether practices, laws, or court precedents) must change.
Our fellow Americans on the secularist Left will have to decide whether they care more about the most vulnerable in our society or their project of ridding public life of any trace of religion. If the former, then the prospects for compromise legislation improve. At the same time, they will need to stop chasing religious organizations out of adoption, stop threatening to push them out of healthcare (if, say, they refuse to perform abortions, euthanasia, or gender reassignment surgeries), and stop punishing (as Yale University recently did) those who go to work for religiously aligned employers. Churches are absolutely central to American civil society. As Robert Putnam once wrote, “Religious Americans are, in fact, more generous neighbors and more conscientious citizens than their secular counterparts.”
Those on the Right will have to bend as well, using the fearsome power of the state, at least at times and for a while, to create conditions where vulnerable institutions can grow stronger and, once healthy, displace much of the state’s current workload. When the stones are removed, it is worth exploring what incentives might help nurture new growth in social capital. We have a lot to learn from our thriving immigrant communities. Policies and programs that discourage family members from taking care of one another and that force churches out of social services need to be identified and replaced with policies and programs that foster family health and community strength.
Reorienting our political imagination to center around social capital—and particularly the importance of marriage, family, and religion—will lead to policies that create a healthy social environment in which relationships and institutions can flourish and rebuild our society. Even if that requires using the tax code in ways that smack of social engineering.
One of Tocqueville’s many other insights is that in a democratic society marked by flux, the law (and lawyers) will be the guardian of fixed commitments. The law is a teacher, and at every possible opportunity our law should commend to the next generation the priority and goodness of those fundamental relationships that promote the general welfare and are central to the pursuit of happiness. For all the attention economic growth receives, our country’s future hangs on whether and how we stop the slide of a half-century-long recession in social capital and restore civil society.
Kevin E. Stuart is executive director of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.