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‘Alienated America’ Introduces Us To The ‘Lena Dunham Fallacy’ Of Blaming Elites For Working-Class Sins

Elites don’t exactly live like the characters they create, or buck the norms they outwardly oppose, as Tim Carney explains in ‘Alienated America.’


Among the many important observations of “Alienated America,” Timothy P. Carney’s recently released book on the dissolution of working-class communities, is a phenomenon Carney refers to as the “Lena Dunham Fallacy.” 

Ben Domenech and I had a conversation with Tim about “Alienated America” on today’s Federalist Radio Hour, which you can listen to here. He talks about the Lena Dunham Fallacy at the 36:00-minute mark.

It’s defined in the book as “the tendency to attribute to decadent elites social phenomena really located among the working class” and the inclination to “[blame] cultural shifts away from traditional norms on highly educated, wealthy, white liberals.”

Where people on the right may ascribe, say, declining marriage rates, to the Dunhams and Hannah Horvaths roaming the streets of Manhattan, the marriage problem is not really with elites. 

“Marriage has dropped across the board, but it has dropped more for the working class. College-educated women are surely getting married later than they were two generations ago, but that accounts for a tiny portion in the drop-off of marriage,” Carney notes, citing research from Brad Wilcox and Andrew Cherlin, who found, “In the affluent neighborhoods where many college-educated Americans live, marriage is alive and well and stable families are the rule.” 

“In 1990, about two-thirds of all adults over 25 were married, with only a slight advantage (6 percentage points) for the higher educated,” Carney adds. “By 2017, only half of those who never went to college were married, and the gap between the highly educated and the less educated had more than doubled.”

What about religion? 

“Self-professed atheists, to be sure, are more likely to come from the ranks of the elites, so you can hold on to that stereotype with decent factual grounding,” writes Carney. “But the other half of the religiously unaffiliated demographic is the chunk of America that simply doesn’t belong to any religion. They don’t call themselves atheists, and they probably won’t preach to you about their religious disaffiliation. Pew calls them ‘nothing in particular.’”

“The ‘nothing in particulars’ are a bit less likely than the average American to have gone to college and to have graduated from college. The nothing-in-particulars are disproportionately male and white—the same demographic we’ve seen show up again and again, in discussing Trump support, suicide, and so on,” he explains. 

Carney cites Peter Beinart’s 2017 analysis of data that found, “The percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990.”

As “Alienated America” shows, shifting trends in religiosity are complicated, and the problem of alienation probably stems more from the deinstitutionalization of religion than surging disbelief.  “The unchurching of the working class is a specific instance—the most important instance—of the erosion of civil society,” Carney concludes.

The “Lena Dunham Fallacy” gives name to a problem that (a) is likely symptomatic of elite conservatives’ concentration in coastal cities and (b) creates easy cultural scapegoats that prevent us from understanding threatening trends that warrant our attention. The overrepresentation of single, religiously unaffiliated cosmopolitans in popular culture conditions us to project outward, and onto the left.  

There’s no question elites contribute mightily to the problem (as Tucker Carlson has memorably insisted). Carney tackles that here. But they don’t exactly live like the characters they create, or fully buck the norms they seek to intellectualize out of existence. 

Speaking of Dunham, the “Girls” finale offers some insight here. (Spoilers ahead.) Writing in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum lamented the show’s “disconcertingly conservative conclusion.” And with good reason. Entitled “Latching,” the finale found Hannah settling into motherhood, finally achieving some semblance of maturity in this new, jarringly traditional role.

Yes, she remained single. Dunham is unmarried as well. But for all the peace the ending conveyed, “Latching” did indeed feel shocking, bringing the famously progressive show to what its viewers may well have seen as a “disconcertingly conservative conclusion.” At least until they looked around at their own lives.

The Lena Dunham Fallacy explains a problem that’s kept us from seeing the real symptoms of a defining cultural sickness. Given due attention (as in “Alienated America“),  it can help us change that as well.