Conservative journalist and commentator Timothy P. Carney continues the conversation begun with Hillbilly Elegy and the classic Bowling Alone in this hard-hitting analysis that identifies the true factor behind the decline of the American dream: the collapse of the institutions that made us successful, including marriage, church, and civic life.
Carney doesn’t simply restate well-worn points. Rather, he uses his evocative personal narrative and independent reporting to bring life to the statistical descriptions of poor communities’ social and economic decline ... His assault on technology, however, falls short. Carney’s primary lament is that the decline of institutions leaves us with fewer opportunities to interact and come into close proximity with one another. He leads readers through an extensive discussion on how advances in technology have promoted atomization by making social relationships less important ... All this is certainly true: Technology makes it easier to avoid engaging with other people. Yet, interestingly, the healthy communities that Carney highlights are probably making good use of Uber, Amazon Prime, and Netflix. Indeed, technology is a problem only if you assume that engagement and proximity are sufficient conditions for forming and enhancing social relationships ... [Carney] does offer some 'small solutions' that are within the government’s purview ... Carney also admonishes readers to begin with the understanding that they are building a 'City of God' in whatever geographical location they find themselves. And he is absolutely correct: The remedy does largely begin with us and how we approach and engage one another in our everyday lives.
Carney maintains an even tone as he sorts through the forces at work within America’s communities. He is charitable with both those out of work and those undermining, intentionally or not, the civil-society institutions he prizes. He recognizes the faults of capitalism, big business and the gig economy as well as those of big government. He also concedes the potential risks of local, voluntary organizations, including their insularity ... In some ways the book, though written by an employee of a conservative publication and a conservative think tank, seems almost crafted to convince a left-of-center audience ... Carney might have done more, though, to discuss international, historical examples of how those who aspired to centralize power, whether monarchs, authoritarians, revolutionaries or even social reformers, often purposely undermined institutions of civil society ... offers too few solutions, a common problem among conservative writing about civil society.
In 13 thematic chapters, Carney details the decades-long trends he blames for civil society’s decline, from divorce to 'secularization' to the sexual revolution. Thankfully, Carney does not limit himself to these old conservative saws. At his best, he provokes the reader with nuanced observations. He notes the strength of so-called conservative values, such as marriage and volunteerism, in wealthy liberal suburbs; he emphasizes urban planning and shared community spaces as tools for restoring civil society. But the book stumbles with its scattershot focus and argumentation. Chapters that begin on a focused theme meander from one oblique topic to the next. Nevertheless, Carney delivers an earnest, sometimes stimulating effort to understand the social forces behind Trump.