The central theme is that social cohesion and economic well-being are together on one end of a spectrum of which the other end is alienation and isolation. Drawing on social science and his own reporting, Carney concludes that all good things go together with civil society -- the institutions that existing between the individual and the family and the government, such as unions, sports teams, recreational groups, and, above all, churches. Apart from civil society, you have the opposite of flourishing: Unemployment, distrust, resentment, drug use, and suicide.
By thinly slicing voting data from the 2015-2016 GOP primary, Carney concludes that it is the people who have lost strong civil society who were President Trump’s earliest and strongest supporters. Republicans in economically strong areas weren’t interested in Trump, and Republicans in tight-knit, church-going communities, such as Dutch Wisconsin, weren’t either. But to voters with neither material prosperity nor strong civil society, Trump’s pessimistic rhetoric, his call to make America great again, sounded compelling.
How did a significant chunk of the country end up so alienated and ready to turn to Trump? Carney, a staunch conservative, places some of the blame on the government. He argues that government is necessarily in tension with civil society, and that government services cannot substitute for human ties created in a church community -- and that, in some cases, the government services meant to liberate poor or dependent groups may actually deprive them of human ties.
Yet liberal-leaning readers skeptical of that conservative narrative should read on to the second half of the book, in which Carney also blames big finance, big business, and a general libertarian-tinged atmosphere of individualism for the rise of alienation. He says that big business, aided by big government, has had a homogenizing effect on the country, making it harder for local institutions and ways of life to thrive.
He notes, for instance, that the rise of contingent work, such as driving for Uber or contracting for Amazon, has made us materially richer but has also weakened the human ties we used to make via the workplace, threatening to stratify and dehumanize the economy.
In his conversations with voters, Carney says, he’s found that some of Trump’s strongest supporters are veterans, former cops, and laid-off union workers -- all people who once worked in ultra-cohesive units, in which they relied on each other for their livelihoods or lives, and then lost it. Forced then to acclimate to a hyper-individualistic society in which people’s relationships with each other are largely contingent, those vets, cops, and union workers have a difficult time adjusting.
Overall, Alienated America is a convincing portrait not only of the factors that led to the rise of Trump, but also of some of the most serious problems with our country, which the past three years have shown we are only just now learning how to discuss, thanks to the efforts of people like Carney. Maybe in another three years, his next book will help show the way out.