Washington Examiner commentary editor Timothy Carney, author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, described the “destruction of a way of life” among “working class” people in rural and industrial regions wrought by the status quo of globalization in a Monday interview on SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Tonight with hosts Rebecca Mansour and Joel Pollak.
Mansour invited Carney to share lessons he learned about rural America’s support for President Donald Trump while conversing with patrons of Smitty’s Bar and Restaurant in Uniontown, PA, during the 2016 presidential election season.
“Smitty’s is a roadside bar,” said Carney:
It’s not really walking distance from anything, and one of the things I learned in the 2016 election is that it definitely gives you a different slice of the electorate. The sort of bars I used to go to in previous elections were often yuppie Irish pubs. You had liberals, conservatives, old, young, but what the 2016 election taught a lot of us was that on the edge of town there were other people who might — in the average election — not be involved in politics but were brought in.
Carney continued, “And sure enough, everybody at Smitty’s was a Trump supporter, and we were talking about the economy, and one of the things they started talking about was how they thought a lot of people didn’t work hard enough, and welfare cheats.”
Carney recalled the story of a man whose son had died following an overdose on opiates.
“One of the guys there, Dave, told me he was on disability, and I said, ‘Dave, you’re here on a Tuesday afternoon drinking and not at your job, and you’re not retired like some of these other guys. What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘I can’t work because of my disability.'”
Carney went on, “Now, here’s the thing about Fayette County. I chose it because it has all sorts of bad economic and social indicators, and Pittsburgh nearby has actually swung back, and one of the things is a lot of men in Fayette County are on disability, and I said, ‘If you can sit at this bar for three hours talking with me, why can’t you work?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m numb today because this morning my son died.'”
“This was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me,” explained Carney:
Looking into his eyes and seeing on a human level that the suffering, the struggling of the working class and so much of Middle America was absolutely real, and anybody who was going to say this was an illusion, this was sort of a rhetorical flourish by Trump or this was just a grousing of the middle-aged white men who lost their privilege, really, I wish they had been there and seen the way the bar reacted. Everybody said it was opioids after Dave left.
Carney revealed, “It was a moment for me. We cannot deny that the perception that the American Dream is dead, that perception is based in a reality.”
Sociological analyses must be broadened beyond economic determinism to fully understand people, advised Carney.
“The most important thing — and this is a pretty old conservative insight — is that we have to understand people in the places that they are,” advised Carney. “Too often, sociologists [and] economists commit what I call the fatal abstraction. They look at people on a spreadsheet. What is your age? What is your sex? What is your income?”
“Looking at people as if they’re not living in a physical place is not really studying people,” remarked Carney, “and so more open trade can help out the U.S. economy as a whole — in the aggregate — but those aggregate numbers hide a lot that’s going on under the surface, and particularly [in] manufacturing places that are forced to compete with China or with Mexico after NAFTA.”
Carney went on, “In those places, what the sort of classical model would have predicted is slightly lower wages as these people move to the service sector or some other part of the economy freed up by the lower costs of goods that the rest of Americans are paying, but that’s not what happened, and it’s not just my anecdotal experience in places like Fayette County.”
Carney continued, “There are economic studies by David Autor, MIT economist, showing that in the places that were competing with China, particularly, there wasn’t just a small drop in wages. There’s a massive increase in unemployment, there’s a massive increase in dropping out of the labor force. An uptick in men like Dave, who are on disability, and an uptick in deaths of despair, such as opioids, drug overdose, and alcohol abuse.”
“So the classical economic models were based on an idea that people weren’t attached to anything,” explained Carney. “That they weren’t attached to places, that they weren’t attached to neighbors, that they weren’t attached to a field or a career or a job, and because people are attached to those things, when the factory shuts down — often, again, it wasn’t just a downtick in wages — it was a destruction of a way of life.”
Human beings are not as mobile as inanimate objects when examining economic shifts, noted Mansour. “I’m from the Motor City,” she said, “I’ve seen this again and again. When the factory closes, it destroys the community too. All across the Rust Belt, you see dotted little town like Uniontown, where the factory closes and then everything dies around it slowly.”
“And as you say, people aren’t widgets,” added Mansour. “They can’t just be interchangeable parts and just move someplace else, especially when all of the jobs are moving elsewhere and there’s no way they can compete.”
Carney elaborated on the decline of social capital caused by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs via contemporary trade practices.
“The story of Alienated America is the story of, really, a social collapse and not merely an economic one,” stated Carney. “On the cover of the book, there’s a shuttered church, and this is because what I think defines a place where the American Dream seems dead is not just lower wages or even higher unemployment, but the loss of connectedness [and] of social cohesion. So what happens is, the factory shuts down.”
Rural areas are more vulnerable to social disruption brought about by structural economic shifts, explained Carney. He analyzed socially destructive cascading effects driven by modern globalization.
“If you just tell the economic story, that’s the first domino, but the next dominoes are the real collapse of these institutions,” Carney said. “This is important because it means that you can’t just sort of instantly rebuild it or [replace] it with some sort of welfare check. The loss is on a very human level when people lose a way of life that involves a sense of purpose and community.”
Strong institutions within civil society provide support and insurance to their members during unexpected hardships, said Carney. Such institutions are damaged or even lost when their economic nodes — such as factories — shut down.
“When life gets hard, you need these things you can rely on, and often it’s going to be institutions of civil society,” Carney explained:
Little platoons, most notably church, but also a Rotary Club, a swim club, a little league team, your workplace, hopefully, they provide that support, and when that factory shuts down and people start trickling out — particularly some of the most ambitious people, the starters and go-getters in the town — then you lose those institutions and that is not just not nice, that is deadly. Deaths of despair follow when people don’t have something to provide that uplift and sense of purpose.
Elites typically overlook the importance of civic institutions among the working class and the damage caused by the breakdown of such networks.
“Elites actually tend to be more enmeshed in these really strong networks, and these really strong institutions of civil society,” Carney pointed out:
They’re more likely to belong to things like putting their kids in sports teams. They have good public schools — which isn’t just a matter of spending per pupil, obviously — [with] lots of involved parents. There’s more intact families with a mother and a father. Mom is more likely to have a part-time job in a white-collar than a blue-collar world. You’ve got alumni networks [and] professional networks. … For the working class and a lot of the middle class you don’t have as strong of those institutions.
Carney added, “But the thing that drives me crazy — I spent a lot of Alienated America talking about how the elites tend to do a lot of things right — finish school, get a job, get married, have kids — but they somehow don’t realize that the strong communities and institutions that they have are their most valuable assets. So they don’t think it’s much of a loss when the working class loses them.”
Declining religiosity disproportionately damages rural areas’ social capital relative to urban zones, illustrated Carney.
“So you talk about the secularization of America, I think that’s really a big a problem for the working class,” declared Carney:
For the elite, well, if they stop going to church, they’ve got their Sunday morning yoga, or their country club, or their strong country club. So that’s one of the reasons that people would say, “Oh, this is about deplorables. There’s no real suffering out there,” because they don’t even understand the value of their own institutions, and so they greatly diminish the loss when Middle America loses their institutions.
Mansour asked Carney to examine what he characterized as “hyperindividualism.”
“Man is a political animal,” replied Carney. “We are made for community. We’re supposed to shape the world around us. We only live out our full potential when we are living together in a community, so anything pulling away too far from that really is hurting us.”
Carney warned of social fragmentation driven by contemporary economic, social, and technological forces.
“Cultural forces pulling us into being atomized individuals,” stated Carney. “[We are] no longer connected to our neighbors as much, and that really is at the root of a lot of these problems. … I do think alienation is a problem here, and hyperindividualism is one of its causes.”
“The Democrats’ attempt to drive the church out of the public square has to be stopped, and you’ve seen the Republican Congress and President Trump do a good job of that, reversing some of these things [like] the war on the Little Sisters of the Poor has stopped, [and] Christian adoption agencies are now legal, again. So that’s the first step.”
“Thou shalt not drive the church out of the public square,” quipped Carney. “That’s the single most important thing that Trump and the Republican Party have done.”
Mansour asked if the GOP suffers from economic myopia while failing to understand its own voter base.
“The belief that a rising GDP [gross domestic product] equals general across-the-board thriving, I think that still has too strong of a hold on the Republican party,” assessed Carney. “It’s hard to tell for sure, but that’s the worry I have, and there has to be more of an acknowledgment that people are suffering in material ways that a little bit more money or a rising GDP isn’t going to solve.”
Carney concluded, “There’s a real rebuilding that has to be done and that things have kind of been rigged by the elites in favor of the elites. It’s sort of an Elizabeth Warren line, but I think it’s one that Republicans can actually use with more effectiveness by pointing out it’s Washington doing the rigging.”
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Follow Robert Kraychik on Twitter @rkraychik.