Journalist Alum on “Alienated America” and Homer
February 4, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin
Timothy Carney (A00) is the commentary editor at Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, comes out February 19 from HarperCollins.
Why did you decide to write Alienated America?
I actually got a call from an editor in New York [in 2015] and he asked if I had any book ideas. I gave him some, and he said they were all boring and too similar to my first two books. But then he [asked], “Do you have any questions that you are wondering about that you don’t have the answer to yet?”
And I said, “Yeah, I think that the people getting behind Donald Trump are people who have decided that the American dream is dead. From my perspective, the American dream seemed very much alive and well, so why does so much of the country think the American dream is dead?” There were lots of perspectives, and I wanted to consider them all, but the editor said, “You need to come up with your own answer.”
What conclusion did you draw?
Well, what I realized [in] looking at the places where that belief didn’t seem to hold was [that] there are two types of places where there is lots of optimism, lots of upward mobility, [and] lots of good outcomes involving marriage: One, I would call the elite communities—places where most people have college degrees and incomes are well above average. The other were very strong religious communities, [like] Salt Lake City in Utah or Dutch reform churches in places like western Michigan—strong modern orthodox communities.
And so I thought, okay, what do those communities have in common? What they have in common is that the places where things are going well are the places that have strong institutions of civil society. They have community, and by community I mean institutions like clubs, organizations, networks, and—most importantly for the non-elite—church. And if half of the country thinks the American dream is dead, it’s because those institutions had faded away and weakened, and there’s tons of data that shows that’s what’s going on in the middle class. The proximate cause of working-class lull is the disappearance of strong institutions of civil society.
Let me put it this way: The most important institution of civil society for the middle class and the working class in America has always been church. The elite have their alumni associations, they have their professional associations that have strong public schools, but in working-class places and middle-class places, secularization basically means deinstitutionalization. It means people being left alone and alienated.
So the support for Trump among people who didn’t go to church as much, I chalk off as an expression of pessimism among people who don’t have strong communities and strong institutions that provide the modeling, safety net, and sense of purpose that Americans need to be able to build a good life.
Does that mean that religious people are less likely to be Trump supporters?
No. In polls, if you look at how much you say religion matters to you, that actually had a positive correlation with Trump support. It was the participation in a religious community that had a strong negative correlation to support for Trump. So understanding religion as what Tocqueville calls the ‘foremost of our institutions’ is the best way to understand it here. I’m not talking about the morals and views of religions and all of that, which I think matters, but just that a church community, a synagogue, a mosque is the single most accessible—and in American history, the single most common—institution of civil society.
Would you say the book is nonpartisan?
It is nonpartisan. I mean, I consider myself a conservative, but a good part of the book is dedicated to correcting some conservative errors that I think are out there. It’s not an endorsement of or an attack on Trump, but it includes a lot of defense of Trump voters. I think the book issues a corrective to conservatives like me. In the first chapter, [which] I call ‘It takes a Village,’ and which of course is Hillary Clinton’s [memoir] title, I talk about the misperception that a strong enough family can get through anything by itself.
I refer to the Cyclops, pointing out that it’s a beast that tries to raise his family without society around it, and that humans aren’t meant to do that. Even though he’s sort of a nice family man, he’s still a beast because he’s not in society. That’s one of the important lessons here: We have a lot of people correctly saying that strong families are the building blocks of a strong community. But I think it’s very important to emphasize that it’s the necessary infrastructure around strong families that make strong families possible.
You’ve mentioned both Tocqueville and Homer. Did the Program books play a significant role in Alienated America?
To some extent, Tocqueville talked about 80 percent of what I talk about here, which is local small institutions and particularly religion in American life. This was something I read 20 years ago, but I didn’t understand until I was trying to raise a family and all that stuff was really important. And there’s the notion that man is a political animal from [Aristotle’s] Politics. It was also something that in the 23 years since I read it has taken on a deeper meaning.
In the acknowledgments of the book, I actually start off with a story about Mera Flaumenhaft. She had just finished her book on the ethics of Euripides, Shakespeare, and Machiavelli. And she turned to Mr. Flaumenhaft and said, “I’m afraid there’s nothing new in this book.” And he replied something like, ‘Oh, Mera, if there were anything new, that would be a sure sign it was wrong.’
The great insights that we make are going to be standing on the shoulders of giants, as we like to say. [They] are going to be synthesizing other insights. So that was a great thing that carried me through as I would write stuff and think I had come up with a new interpretation and then find either Tocqueville or Robert Putnam or just some essay online with exactly the same argument.
If we were going to not publish truths that weren’t new, we would’ve stopped shortly after Aristotle at least.
In another interview, you talked about how you think it’s a good thing that St. John’s was not too involved with national politics. Why do you feel that way?
We had the [Clinton] impeachment going on [when I was in school], and in retrospect, things that one would have learned from the impeachment I think are banal compared to studying what we studied at St. John’s. Debate over these issues get so heated and just sort of naturally draws one to taking sides and presents too many temptations towards oversimplifying things.
Particularly in the Trump era, it heats up emotion and takes away from the good ability to discuss bigger ideas of right and wrong and the individual and society and the role of the state—all of those things. When you [understand] them, you’re actually better equipped. If you’re going to get into this political fray as an adult after college, you’re better off spending four years thinking about these things removed from the heat of the current political debate and the temptations of partisanship or oversimplistic ideologies.
The idea of St. John’s as a hub for civil discourse is popular right now. Would you agree with that?
To come as a cocky 18-year-old into seminars and to have errors or oversimplistic thinking laid bare, and realizing that the people who disagree with you are your friends and neighbors and roommates and hallmates is a great preparation for being able to civilly discuss something with an aim towards better understanding rather than with an aim toward simple point-scoring. I’ve been able to better see the truth in the arguments of people I disagree with, the truth in arguments I think are generally wrong but that have good points embedded in them. I think the St. John’s discussion-based education definitely armed me with that skill. I sometimes get frustrated that fewer people in the political commentary world care about that.
Would you say the Program influenced your politics?
Yes, I would. One way to think about it is that when I arrived, there was this one truth I knew, which was that Achilles was the greatest hero and that anybody asking him to pay respect to his fellow countrymen and his leaders was not paying enough attention to virtue and paying too much attention to stodgy old hierarchies and that sort of thing. In other words, I was overly individualistic as an 18-year-old.
Understanding the shortcomings of that nature, our nature as political animals, was definitely something that Aristotle, Plato, Tocqueville, and so many other authors drove home—that right and wrong and all those things are not sort of just divined from our pure reason.
I understood virtue sort of as an individual exercise, again, looking at Achilles, but then more and more began thinking of it as a habit, realizing that it needed training and practice. It planted the seed. As I went through my 20s and 30s and began to raise a family with my wife, some of those ideas actually didn’t even blossom until later—when I saw the necessity of a community, of comradery, of all of that for building a good life.
When I was in college, I wasn’t religious. Now I’m a Catholic, and I don’t know if that would have happened if I hadn’t gone to St. John’s. It wasn’t even mostly [because of] the Bible, frankly—a lot of it was Aristotle and Augustine.
I think that the science curriculum, Euclid and Newton and eventually Lobachevsky and Einstein, has helped shape my view of the world and the universe and how we perceive it, too.
Changing tack—what advice would you have for Johnnies interested in journalism, particularly political writing?
I would say the most important traits are independence of thought and curiosity. That’s what I look for most when I’m hiring and what I think drives people the most. You have to love learning stuff, which I think St. John’s is a great training for. It’s not an amazingly lucrative field. So if you’re not enjoying it, there’s not a good reason to do it.
Note: This article was updated to remove a reference to the Iliad.