The Roots of American Alienation

After the 2016 elections, many tried to explain what happened. Some theories are not convincing since they seem to hide a darker reality of which we dare not speak. Others appear a bit too simplified to explain what we experience in daily life.

To start the process of understanding our crisis, we need a clear vision. One book that manages to sift through the simplifications and penetrate some dark mysteries is Alienated America, Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse (2019) written by journalist Timothy Carney.

Straddling the Line Between Two Americas
The book does not aspire to be a major scholarly work of sociological analysis. Although well documented, Mr. Carney lets others do the heavy lifting. He borrows liberally from the theses of sociologists like Charles Murray and Charles Putnam, who have convincingly described the emergence of two separate Americas after the 1960s.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

One America consists of a more vibrant sector that prospers with its networks and social institutions. The other is a shattered, dysfunctional America lacking sufficient community links and well-constituted families.

Mr. Carney manages to straddle the line between the two Americas in observing the 2016 elections. We can identify with his observations, experiences, and anecdotes. He describes vividly how a massive collapse of civil society is destroying the America we once knew.

The book raises important questions about where we went wrong in our society and culture. More importantly, it also provides insights upon which we might ruminate and ponder.

The Concept of Alienation
The concept of alienation is one such point to ponder. Mr. Carney makes use of sociologist Robert Nisbet’s definition of alienation as “The state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom or even hostility.”

Large sectors of America are alienated. This notion helps explain the great disconnection of those all across the political spectrum who no longer participate in civil society. No one prevents them from associating with others, but they have lost their desire or interest in being part of a social order.

The author invites us to think about the causes for this alienation—whether it be hyper-individualism, social media, trade policies, lost jobs, opioid abuse, secularization, or the Sexual Revolution. He shows how all these influences have played their role in fragmenting America, although they are not the causes.

Not Collapsing but Disintegrating
Mr. Carney goes to great lengths to prove that the real cause of our crisis is the collapse of civil society. “America is the land of opportunity because it is the land of civil society,” he affirms.

Those opportunities are now dying out.  In some places, the moral institutions of family, community, and faith are not just collapsing but disintegrating before our eyes.

The gravity of the problem is highlighted by the fact that restoring civil society cannot be done by simply bringing back jobs, government programs, or tweaking the system. In many places, there is no system upon which to build. In others, individual self-interest reigns supreme.

This is especially true in areas where the family is in shambles. Without this basic social unit, no society can be rebuilt. Consequently, communities are also missing. There are no longer those intermediary associations that protect the family and its members from an intrusive state.

The Disintegration of Religion
However, Mr. Carney has the courage to say that the most important cause of alienation is the collapse of religion. He rightly proclaims it as “the largest and most important institution of civil society.”

From his purely natural perspective, he notes that the church has always been America’s indispensable institution. Tocqueville said that Americans value their churches as the first of their political institutions. Where churches are shuttered, communities crumble. The author does not hesitate to say that “The erosion of civil society is largely [due to] the collapse of churches.”

This makes sense. Religion is the institution that establishes and maintains the norms of right and wrong. It should defend the natural law, which is so well laid out by the Ten Commandments. Society will maintain order to the extent that it follows this objective law suited to the nature God gave us so that we might prosper.

Mr. Carney’s vision is limited to his sociological treatment of the subject. Although a Catholic, he does not enter into the role of the Church as the guardian of the moral law. He does not consider the supernatural action of grace that facilitates enormously the practice of virtue in common.

He only deals with the decay of this institution which clashes so violently with our self-destructing culture.

Abandoning God
Hence it should be no mystery as to why so many Americans are alienated. We have abandoned God and violated his law. Historically, this turning away from God has always had drastic social and economic consequences. Of course, The Washington Examiner journalist does not put it in these almost biblical terms. However, his conclusion does give special meaning to the culture wars since one side seeks to call Americans back to God and his law.

The author’s more immediate conclusion is that the moral wasteland of an alienated America explains the victory of President Trump, who appealed to those who feel that society does not make sense anymore. He makes a compelling case that the alienated vote—especially the vote of the unchurched—favored the president.

The Other America
Mr. Carney also presents the other America: those who are not alienated. This is an America in which the moral institutions of family, community, and faith survive. Its properly constituted families all but guarantee some degree of prosperity. These families build networks and vibrant faith communities.

Their rates of divorce, drug use, criminality, and other negative social indicators are all low. These successful families tend to cluster themselves as elites in exclusive neighborhoods or super zipcodes. They might also be found in certain closely-knit ethnic and rural communities with strong personal ties.

The author tends to agree with the conclusions of Charles Murray and Robert Putnam who portray this other America as almost immune to the moral crisis that devastates the nation. Such communities survive in enclaves and bubbles that seem to mock the alienated.

A Generalized Crisis Affecting Everyone
From a material perspective, this evaluation might appear to be true, for there are rich neighborhoods and excellent schools. These visible signs perpetuate the idea of a better life.

However, from a spiritual perspective, this conclusion ignores the upheaval of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s which devastated relationships and public morals. No family is exempt from the effects of this vast destruction. Social networks might mitigate its effects, slow down the processes of decay, or change the way social rot manifests itself. However, it does not change the generalized crisis affecting everyone.

Indeed, all is not well in the other America. Studies show that unhappiness is a universal postmodern phenomenon that respects neither education nor income level.

More Not Less Social Capital
By framing the debate in terms of social network haves and have-nots, it is hard not to construct a class struggle narrative. However, Mr. Carney resists the temptation. He sees the need to create more social capital—not less—between the social classes.

He laments the formation of “elite bubbles” that cluster those in leadership positions within exclusive neighborhoods, thus depriving other areas of the organic leadership structures they need.

Efforts to help the less fortunate are further hampered by a militant egalitarian culture that leads elites to what he calls “infertile virtue.” They suffer from an unwillingness to spread good habits and practices lest they reveal their advantages. Delegating such tasks to the government avoids this embarrassment.

In addition, the author stresses the need for involved local communities fortified by religious ties, as these have proven rich in social capital and innovative in providing solutions.

A Need for Spiritual Regeneration
However, it is one thing to point out the need for leaders and local communities; it is another to create them. Thus, Alienated America proposes a return to a society where everyone gets along without resolving the essential differences that caused the problem in the first place. Such solutions try to satisfy everyone but usually convince no one.

Nothing can avoid the conclusion that this is a moral crisis and not an economic one. We must return to God whom we have abandoned. The Church with her immense treasury of social teachings has a vital role to play in any eventual restoration of the social order. The more we flee from such solutions, the more we deceive ourselves and adopt schemes that increase the ranks of the alienated.

The role of the alienated in the 2016 elections should give us pause to ponder the kind of America we need. What ails us will not be easily resolved. It will take much courage and a resolve to suffer in order to set things aright.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Nighthawks” painted by Edward Hopper in 1942.


  • John Horvat II

    John Horvat II is vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property and the author of Return to Order.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...