March 12, 2019


‘Alienated America,’ a Self-Help Book for You and Your Community

By: Jason Russell

My friend and Washington Examiner colleague Timothy P. Carney’s new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, is often described as a book about sociology, political science, or economics. What you’ll seldom see it described as is a self-help book for individuals and communities. Between the collections of vivid anecdotes and research, Carney provides insights into how you can live a better life and improve your neighborhood.

The main crux of the book, as others have described in numerous positive book reviews, is that the places that thrive are places with a strong civil society — active community participation in churches, PTAs, scouts, VFW posts, and other non-governmental organizations. The places where these organizations had crumbled, for whatever reason, were disproportionately the places that comprised President Trump’s core base in the 2016 Republican primaries.

To understand why these organizations are so important, consider the ways America’s Future Foundation has served as an institution of civil society.

As described in the book’s preface, AF (whose board Carney served on “for years”), was one of several organizations and people that helped feed the Carney family when Tim and his wife Katie spent nearly a week in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit with their youngest child, Eve. Last week, AF spread the word when Stephen Kent (my friend and a member of the AF-Raleigh chapter) and his family lost their home to a fire and were in need of financial help. And AF has brought together countless friends who help each other professionally and personally, whether it’s feedback for a draft op-ed or cat-sitting for a month when someone moves halfway across the country.

Simply put, the more we meet our neighbors regularly in an organized manner, the better off our communities are.

Showing up is the most important part. As Carney writes, “Remember that it is attendance more than anything else that makes religion so correlated with charity, trust, mobility, and optimism” (emphasis in original). But showing up for civil society is just the easy first step.

“In places [where civil society thrives], people are given things to do,” Carney writes. “Those of us tangled up in thick webs of civil society show industriousness not mostly because we are self-starters. Our industriousness is thrust upon us.”

For those of us already doing the attending and helping, don’t wait until someone else asks how they can help. After they’ve been to five worship services, ask them to help pass out bulletins next Sunday. After they show up to five Little League games, ask if they can pick up and drop off the player whose parents have to work late. After they’ve been to a few AF events, ask them to volunteer at check-in for the next one.

For the objectivists in our midst who may be thinking it’s not in their self-interest to help others, consider that strong civil societies engender trust among neighbors and help economies grow. The book features several vignettes of Jeremiah 29:7, which Carney translates as “Seek the shalom of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for in its shalom will be your shalom.” Simply put, “If the city doesn’t flourish, you cannot flourish.”

These “platoons” of civil society, as Carney sometimes calls them, are best supported by strong families. “Intact families…are a necessary building block of strong communities,” Carney writes (as well as the product of strong communities).

Carney writes of a “success sequence,” which, if you like, could be understood “as simply an instruction manual,” a one-sentence guide more simple and academically sound than most self-help books. One study found that only 3 percent of people under age 35 who followed this sequence lived in poverty: “If you finished high school, had a job, and got married before having a baby.”

With the increasing over-centralization of our politics, we often jump to the federal government for solutions to our (societal, and often individual) problems. But when the solution is stronger communities, it’s not enough to tell the federal government to get out of the way (though this would certainly help).

We have to dive in head-first to build the families that build the organizations that build strong cities and towns.

I’m biased, but church is a great place to start. In Bowling Alone, which Carney cites frequently, Robert Putnam’s evidence basically showed that half of civil society is related to religion. It’s also free to show up and get involved. For anyone who considers themselves a believer, I cannot stress how important it is to be in the habit of regularly attending religious services.

Not that church should be our only source of civil society, for the religious or non-religious alike. Our workplace can be a civil society, and so can a weekly get-together for Dungeons & Dragons or board games, or a group of friends who come together to watch their favorite football or soccer team.

If you’re reading this, may I recommend looking into AFF’s chapters and finding out how you can get involved?