New York (CNN Business)Local newspapers around the country have been laying off staffers and shutting down shop, forcing some Americans to live in "news deserts." But a new book paints a picture of something else that poses an even bigger threat to our democracy: Social deserts.
How 'social deserts' create blind spots for the media
Timothy P. Carney, commentary editor for the Washington Examiner, charts the collapse of local communities across America and their "human-level institutions" in his new book "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse."
From local news to Little League to Sunday school, the hallmarks of civil society have been hollowed out over time, he argues.
"Those institutions on which people rely and a lot of us take for granted, that connect you to other people, that provide a sense of purpose, that provide a safety net, those institutions shutting down in so much of middle America. That's what causes the alienation, and that, I argue, was one of the best predictors of the Trump vote," Carney told Brian Stelter on this week's Reliable Sources podcast.
Listen to the whole podcast here:
There's a gap in coverage by the national media when it comes to assessing Trump's rise to the White House, according to Carney. "Stories just about economic decline" fail to include details about the social "tapestry" of these communities, and their troubles, he said.
"Economics is only the first domino," Carney said. "The factory shutting down is a first step but then sometimes what happens next is the local diner where the factory workers used to go also shuts down. A couple more steps later and you have the local churches shutting down."
Carney says the media may have missed the mark when it comes to religion, particularly in assessing the nuances of Trump's sizable Evangelical voting bloc. He discovered a surprisingly inverse relationship between Trump voters and their church-going habits.
"The more you went to church, the less likely you were to vote for Trump in the Republican primaries," Carney said.
In other words, those who were engaged in their community, be it church or an alumni association, were "less likely to seek Trump in the primaries because they were less likely to believe that the American dream was dead."
These "alienated" narratives are all the more difficult to discern as local news outlets dwindle. Carney stresses that the rise of news deserts is a factor in the "erosion of strong communities."
"You become part of a region where you don't have a reporter who's even going to know who the principal of your local high school is," Carney said.
If national newsrooms must bridge this divide, Carney offers two suggestions. First, "you have to know what's going on in the churches, synagogues and mosques of America... because that is the beating heart and has been the beating heart of" local communities.
Second, he said, "People are people and places. We are not just on a spreadsheet of income, age, race sex... People's fates, who they are, is determined by where they are living, and the nature of that community, the strength of the institutions." In other words, shoe-leather reporting can provide insight that data sets cannot.
"Look at people in their places and the institutions there," he said.
Trump was able to appeal to these alienated people and places by declaring that the "American dream is dead," when he was a candidate. In "Alienated America," Carney writes, "The man telling us that the American dream was dead did the worst where civil society was strongest."