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(Disclosure: I am tired of writing about this topic over and over again, and I suspect that regular readers of this blog are tired of reading about it over and over again – here and here and here and here and…. Yet one keeps getting provoked by media obliviousness. It’s dirty work, but someone has to…..)headbang

 

The trope that Americans have gotten more isolated and lonely over the last generation or so is irresistible to pundits and editors, no matter what academics say (and there are always one or two of us to provide journalists some cover). The latest, loudest declamation was by David Brooks in The New York Times of April 16, 2018, about the “epidemic of loneliness”–consistent with his recent psychologizing of what ails America. Yes, loneliness is a social problem, but no, there is no “epidemic of loneliness.” (If it’s epidemics of loneliness you want, check out the reports on farm women a century ago [1].)

Fortunately, others have responded to the latest wave. Notably, sociologist David Weakliem tracked down the one data link behind Brooks’s claim that loneliness rates doubled between the 1980s and 2000 and found that “the report of that survey didn’t say anything about changes in loneliness.” (Of course, the Times rarely publishes letters pointing out their mistakes.)

Below, I add a bit more to the fact base.

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In a recent web essay, the eminent historian (and my Berkeley colleague) Martin Jay raised this question: Why has the term “alienation,” which was the all-purpose diagnosis of social and personal ills a generation or so ago, seemed to wane in public discourse? “Why aren’t we ‘alienated’ anymore?,” Jay asks. So does historian David Steigerwald in a 2011 piece cited by Jay.

The question immediately resonated. Circa 1975, inspired in part by my teacher, Melvin Seeman, I had written articles with “alienation” in the titles, taught a seminar on the topic, passed around an alienation reading list, and generally joined that conversation. Now, forty years later, hardly at all. Yes, what did happen to “alienation”?

Alien_Hopper_The Automat_1927

Hopper, The Automat, 1927

Before trying to answer that question, however, we need to make sure that diagnosing “alienation” has in fact ended. If it has, we then need to figure out whether the conditions labeled “alienation” have diminished or just uses of the particular word have.

It turns out that academics have largely dropped  “alienation” as a topic, but high-brow writers are still deploying it, although much less often. That these fluctuations say something about changing life in America is less likely than that they are saying something about changing fashions among the intelligentsia.

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In the off-season–and any season without baseball is “off,” as in slightly rancid–the big news in the sports world was political, the fierce controversy over NFL players “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest… well, a variety of things, from police shootings to the rhetoric of the president. A good deal of this sports politics had to do with race–as a good deal of all American politics has to do with race. That helps explain where baseball stands in this controversy.

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Hart, McCovey, Mays 1967

With rare exception, baseball players remained standing during the anthem and stood apart from the protests. While the 2017 World Series winners, the Astros (minus Puerto Rican player Carlos Beltran), made the ritual trip of champions to Trump’s White House on March 12, 2018, the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors spurned the ceremony and several members of the Superbowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles said they would boycott a similar event. This contrast emerges from the historical connection between race and baseball.

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Local Cultures

The cliché is that modern commerce, media, and travel have washed out local cultures. A mall anchored by a Bloomingdale’s in Massachusetts is just like one in Arizona. Starbucks here is like Starbucks there. Everyone coast to coast listens to the same songs and watches the same cable and streaming channels. Except for the weather, the American experience is just about the same.

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Curry, Baptism in Kansas, 1928

And yet: We repeatedly run into evidence that at some level, perhaps a quite deep level, America’s local cultures are persistently different, perhaps increasingly different. One example is politics. There is some evidence that Americans increasingly cluster by political leanings–gerrymandering aside–as they look to be among folks who share their tastes. Another example is how interracial and same-sex couples prefer to live in large center-cities. Localities thus become more culturally distinct because “birds of a feather” more easily flock together, sorting themselves into homogeneous enclaves. Beyond that process, however, there is evidence that localities themselves still–even in this globalized era–shape cultural tastes, actually “coloring” the birds’ “feathers.”

Two recent papers from different corners of the social sciences make bold claims about very long-lasting psychological effects of centuries-old local cultures. One study, published in a psychology journal, finds that residents of what were long ago coal-fueled industrial regions of Great Britain have especially “adverse” psychological profiles today because of that history. The second study, this by economists, finds that residents of what were long ago frontier counties of the United States are especially likely today to be “individualistic” and hostile to government because of that history.

Claiming that historical cultures reproduce themselves for generations is not new. Historian David Hackett Fischer (no relation), for example, argued in great detail in his 1989 book, Albion’s Seed, that regions in the U.S. vary culturally today in ways based on who settled them centuries ago. That the Puritans landed in New England and the Quakers in Pennsylvania still matters. Similarly, psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen argued in their 1996 book, Culture of Honor, that variations in local rates of lethal violence can be explained by where groups from particular places in the British Isles came ashore–specifically, that immigrants from highlands herding regions brought with them a predilection to respond heatedly to personal challenges which lasts to this day. Long stretches of generations begetting generations and yet cultural distinctiveness lasts.

The two new studies expand the claim.

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Chain Migration

What’s an ivory-tower social scientist to do when he looks up from his cluttered desk and realizes that a handy but obscure academic term has become a mortar round in the culture wars? “Chain migration” used to have a serviceable technical meaning. Then, anti-immigration forces–anti-legal immigration forces–now joined by President Trump decided that chain migration is a tidal wave of foreigners submerging the American Way of Life (although more Norwegians would be OK). And it did not help that Senator Durbin further confused matters by saying that the phrase hurts the feelings of African Americans whose ancestors came in chains.

Here’s what immigration scholars have meant by the term: “People immigrate to locations where they find connections and a measure of familiarity.” “Migrants who already live in the destination…. help their friends and relatives by providing them information, money, and place to stay, perhaps a job, and emotional support.”

Immigration restrictors use the term, however, to refer to a specific version of chain migration: family reconstitution, the process by which naturalized American citizens can bring in extended kin who can bring in extended kin who can… etc. The idea is that each legal immigrant will, especially once a citizen, open the door to dozens of others. In fact, this is, as is well explained by an article in Vox, a great exaggeration. Each immigrant brings in very few extended kin and even those arrivals usually take decades.

But this post is about what real chain migration brought to America over the course of our history. Here is a pretty common story: A teenage boy sails into New York City to join and room with his older sister and her husband; they had made the trip two years earlier. Not speaking English, he nonetheless quickly gets a job from another immigrant of the same origin. He lives for several years in a neighborhood that is an enclave of aliens from his home region. Years later, after much adventure, he returns a wealthy man to his city of origin and brings a wife from there back to New York. This successful man is a link in a chain of migration. This man is Fredrick Trump, the president’s grandfather. (A recent Politico story looks at the family histories of other anti-immigrant activists.)

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It’s over a year now, but academics, journalists, and political junkies still cannot get their fill–nor can I–of addressing the question, Why Trump? The obsession is understandable. Aside from the clear and present dangers his administration poses to the nation, there is the compelling puzzle of how so many Americans could vote for a man who…. well, whose own leading appointees call him an “idiot” and a “f**king moron.” As I wrote before, the social science question is not why he won. Trump’s electoral college victory can be blamed on many small incidentals (and, perhaps most deeply, on the Founding Fathers’ suspicion of popular democracy). The big question is why Trump did so much better than other also out-of-the-mainstream but less outlandish candidates like Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ross Perot.

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(source)

Discussion has largely focused on whether Trump’s special appeal to white working class (WWC) voters which helped him win the Republican nomination and then key swing states arose more from those voters’ economic anxieties or more from their cultural anxieties. Journalist German Lopez’s recent review in Vox of several studies leads him to conclude that “the evidence that Trump’s rise was driven by racism and racial resentment is fairly stacked.” That “Trump! Trump! Trump!” has become a racial taunt underlines Lopez’s claim.

In response to such assertions, conservative columnist Ross Douthat reasonably responded that both motivations mattered and that economic concerns should not be dismissed as an important source of Trump’s appeal. Liberal columnist Kevin Drum responded that Trump’s racist support was no different than that of past GOP candidates and, anyway, it’s all besides the point, because his election is former FBI Director Comey’s fault. Neither Douthat’s nor Drum’s responses is compelling–nor is it compelling to reduce Trumps’ supporters to racists. Better understanding of the Trump phenomenon is both intellectually interesting and potentially important. So, I return to the topic of a post about a year old, “Explaining Trump,” only this time with much new data and debate to integrate.

As before, distinctions must be made, even after setting aside the question of why Trump won the electoral college. We must separately address the question of who became key Trump enthusiasts from the question of why he managed to get 46 percent of final vote (while Goldwater in ‘64 got only 38 percent, Wallace in ‘68 14 percent, and Perot in ‘92 19 percent).

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(December, 2017. It turns out that a year ago, I was so disoriented by the election and administration-elect (like most Americans) that, while I had drafted this post as a break from those obsessions, I forgot to post it.  [Jay Livingstone points out that I did post this a year ago. Oh, well, a different sign of that time’s distraction. As I wrote then:] “Meanwhile, for something that’s totally different … or maybe not.”)

In 1969, singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, who died this year [2016] at 79, had a country music hit which also won the Country Music Association song of the year award: “Okie From Muskogee.” “Okie” became the Vietnam-era anthem for millions of “Silent Majority” Americans who resented the insult to their ways of life they saw in the antics of 1960s anti-war protesters and do-your-thing hippies.

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t take no trips on LSD / We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street / We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

Merle Haggard, then

Merle Haggard, then

Haggard would later tell conflicting stories about the song that largely defined his career. At various times, he described it as a joke, a satire, a defense of his Okie father, and a justified rebuke to young kids who were bitching about America while soldiers were dying for their freedom to bitch. “I wrote the song to support those soldiers,” he once said. “I thought about them [hippies] looking down their noses at something I cherished very much and it pissed me off,” he said more recently. Though celebrated at the Nixon White House in 1973, by the end of his career Haggard was, in sharp contrast, performing for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2010, he said, “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection.” And he regretted, according to Rolling Stone, being seen as the “Poet Laureate of Pissed-Off White People” (see here, here, here).

Whatever Haggard’s intentions and regrets, the song became bigger than he. Country music audiences demanded it and cheered its flag-waving defense of Middle America. Many fans whose closest connection to rural America was wearing cowboy boots nonetheless saw themselves as culturally country and Haggard as their champion.

That was almost 50 years ago. Today, “Okie From Muskogee” also serves to tell us something about change in the parts of America that Muskogee represented.

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