One of the paradoxes of the American right has always been its full-throated embrace of capitalism. In some respects, of course, this embrace makes perfect sense: Capitalism is a pillar of American national identity; markets (at least in theory) promote conservative virtues such as thrift and responsibility; and the Hayekian critique of government planning, according to which economies are too complex for humans to fully understand, is a form of classical conservative skepticism regarding the limits of rational knowledge. Yet if one thinks of “conservatism” in the broad sense as a preference for continuity over change — for history and tradition over novelty and innovation — it fits uncomfortably with an economic system that tends toward a relentless abolition of the old. In Europe, conservatives have tended not only to take a more positive view of the state than Americans do but to regard capitalism as, at best, a necessary evil — something to be defended against left-wing leveling but that has the potential to dissolve the sorts of traditional social bonds that conservatism exists to protect. As the conservative Catholic journalist Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote recently in National Review, “the traditional conservative position on ‘markets’ has always been one of guarded appreciation for private property, mixed with a little suspicion for commerce and wage slavery.”
In Dougherty’s sense, the American right prior to the 2016 election was profoundly nontraditional. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that before Trump came along, most conservatives saw very little wrong with the United States that couldn’t be fixed by cutting taxes, slashing entitlements, and educating Americans in the virtues of self-reliance. Today a few prominent voices on the right are beginning to reconsider. Tucker Carlson, for instance — a former libertarian who reinvented himself as a fire-breathing populist — has attacked the Republican mainstream for its worship of markets at the expense of “normal Americans.” Journals such as American Affairs and First Things are mounting a slightly more highbrow, often religiously inflected assault on neoliberalism, which they blame for the social collapse now devastating the white working class. Some thinkers, such as the Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, have gone so far as to claim that liberalism itself — including the American right’s “classical liberalism” — is a failure. These voices, with the partial exception of Carlson, are not totally mainstream, and conservative think tanks and magazines are still filled with defenders of the old religion. But the market triumphalism that has dominated the American right since Reagan seems, for the first time in a generation, to be on the back foot.
Tim Carney’s book Alienated America, published in February, is both an index of this transformation and a reminder of how far it is yet to go. Carney, a commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is about as mainstream as Republican writers come, and his book is yet another attempt the answer the million-dollar question in American politics: How did Trump get elected? Mixing a wealth of social science with his own reporting from down-at-the-heels sections of Trump country, Carney attributes the rise of Trump to a collapse of civil society — particularly marriage, religion, and family formation — in broad sections of the U.S. And his answer to this widespread “alienation” (his chosen term for the phenomenon) is to revive the bonds of faith and community that he believes have come undone.
Carney begins with the question of why certain places voted for Trump in the 2016 Republican primary. It’s easy to see why ordinary Republicans would vote for him in the general election — their only other option was a Clinton — but why would they choose Trump in a primary over more conventionally conservative options? In Carney’s telling, Republican districts that went for candidates like John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz tended to be those with strong communities and functioning civil-society institutions; those that went early and hard for Trump in the primary tended to be those with low levels of social capital, broken or nonexistent institutions, and high rates of suicide and drug overdose. A 2016 poll from PRRI, for instance, found that Republican voters who reported that they “seldom or never took part in community activities” were twice as likely to support Trump as Cruz; similarly, Trump won primaries in eight of the ten Iowa counties with the lowest scores on Senator Mike Lee’s social-capital index (which considers data on crime, marriage, trust, philanthropy, and other indicators of communal health) but lost nine out of the ten highest-scoring counties. This conclusion — that in white areas, social collapse correlates with Trump support — provides Carney with the leitmotif for the rest of his book.
In essence, Carney attempts to split the difference between those who attribute Trump’s election to cultural resentments (including racism) and those who blame it on economic anxiety. Both are true in Carney’s view, but both are symptomatic of the deeper disease of alienation. Because the book leans heavily on social science that is already fairly well publicized (Raj Chetty’s work on economic mobility, David Autor and his colleagues’ work on the China trade shock, Robert Putnam’s work on declining social capital), much of Carney’s story will be familiar. Still, the compilation of all these statistics in one place — the decline of male wages and workforce participation, the fall of marriage and rise of single-parent households, the emergence of “social-capital deserts” in poorer sections of the country, and the explosion of “deaths of despair” among American whites — paints an impressive picture of anomie. And as Carney repeatedly points out, these social pathologies are concentrated at the bottom half of the income-distribution range. While there is a popular rhetorical style on the right that blames godless elites for the decline of community and family, Carney notes that the wealthy and well-educated of both parties are far more likely to go to church, volunteer in their communities, and maintain strong social connections than are those in the working class. For Carney, this is particularly alarming because community, which gives life purpose and helps people through hard times, is all the more important for those without much material wealth.
Yet if Carney offers a convincingly bleak view of social collapse in working-class America, his explanation for this collapse — and his suggestions for what to do about it — are somewhat less satisfying. Carney channels, to a limited degree, some of the new right-wing market skepticism: He offers a soft criticism of big business for stamping out local variation in the name of standardization and efficiency; he laments the rise of “Taylorism” and its dehumanization of work; he attacks the “gig economy” for not providing workers with stability; he disapproves of suburbanization and the isolation that stems from it; he even quotes Deneen to the effect that capitalism breeds an individualistic mind-set that makes relationships contingent and easily broken. But in explaining the troubles of working-class America, Carney tends to fall back on the collapse of church and community, which he largely attributes to traditional Republican bogeymen such as the welfare state, the sexual revolution, the rise of expressive individualism, and secularization. These explanations are not wrong per se, but they are so large and fuzzily cultural that they resist solutions beyond the local and individual. Carney offers a few policy fixes he thinks might help — reforming the mortgage interest deduction, decentralizing control over public schools — but he admits in his closing chapter that the “solution is mostly: You should go to church. Also, You should start a T-ball team.”
Generally speaking, it probably is a good idea to start a T-ball team. And Carney’s willingness to critique aspects of American capitalism, mild as they may be, represents a marked shift from where the mainstream right was during the Obama years and where some of its leading lights still are. But at the same time, by delivering an account of a country facing full-blown social collapse and then retreating into calls for local, voluntary solutions, Carney ends up restating the basic premises of an old conservative consensus — it’s not the government’s job to fix your problems — that, as a political philosophy, has contributed to the alienation Carney so convincingly describes. It may be true, for instance, that the state is ill equipped to re-create devastated communities, but it is also true that state policy has enabled or even accelerated their devastation, and not merely in the sense that overregulation has hurt small businesses or that the welfare state has crowded out private charity.
Rising international economic competition, for instance, was always going to hurt the American working class. But as critics on both the left and the right have pointed out, globalization has been systematically tilted in favor of the mobile and highly educated. The critic Michael Lind, for instance, notes that the international harmonization of economic rules has focused on tariffs, financial liberalization, and intellectual property while avoiding areas that would benefit the Western working classes, such as wages, labor standards, and tax laws. Even some of the more diffuse cultural shifts lamented by conservatives have been midwifed by the state. As Harvard Law professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk Gersen have argued in their study of the evolution of Title IX, civil-rights laws designed to protect women’s equal access to education have created, through bureaucratic drift and activist institutional capture, a vast federal regulatory apparatus that treats socialization into “traditional” gender roles as a public-health risk and attempts, under the guise of fighting sexual assault, to inculcate among college students a progressive view of gender and sexuality.
The point here is not to chastise Carney for not adopting a more dirigiste political philosophy than the one he presumably holds. It is to say that, even on the right, intellectuals are concluding that the problems Carney identifies are so alarming that localist, laissez-faire solutions simply aren’t going to cut it. In a recent essay in American Affairs, Gladden Pappin issued a broadside against fusionist conservatives who, in his view, waste their energies calling for the resurrection of vanished civil-society traditions “that worked only as culturally embedded practices dependent on the traditions of aristocratic centuries.” Instead, Pappin demands conservatives ask themselves, “What can we do with the reins of power, that is, the state, to ensure the common good of our citizens?”
It remains to be seen whether anyone will take up Pappin’s call and, if they do, whether such a conservatism of the state would be effective or popular. But if Middle America’s condition really is as dire as people like Carney make it out to be, it’s hard to imagine that “go to church” will turn out to be a political winner. Carney ably describes the sort of malaise that led Republicans to flock to Trump, but if there’s one thing we learned from the 2016 election, it’s that desperate people want a leader who promises to try something different, however flawed his solutions might be.