Dutch Americans in Alienated America

In the 2016 presidential election, Dutch-Americans and the Mormons were outliers. Both voted heavily Republican, but were also strongly against Trump in the primaries. Why is this the case?

Timothy Carney, in a new book, Alienated Argument: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse (Harper Collins, 2019) argues that Dutch-American places like Oostburg (WI), Orange City and Sioux City (IA), Moline (IL), and Holland (MI) voted against Trump in the 2016 primaries because in these communities the American Dream is not dead and people are not alienated from their neighbors. Rather, these places are held together by thick networks of social capital. Churches, in particular, unite and connect people. So when someone in the community is sick, or when they lose a loved one, others come to their aid.  The communities are small enough so that people know each other. They are also small enough so that traffic and distance to work doesn’t drain people of their energy. (I noted that this is a particular concern for D.C.-area residents like Carney.)  The social capital of such communities is such a benefit to residents that Carney likens it to a $20,000 raise. So, if you are making $55,000 in Sioux City, it feels equivalent to $75,000 elsewhere, since you have all the benefits of membership in the community.

Recall that in 2018, the economist called the Dutch-American the most conservative Americans?  My response, in part, was that long-term republican voting patterns are not a perfect proxy for measuring conservatism, especially when the parties change over time and conservatism can incorporate a variety of different view. Carney’s thesis adds to this view that there are different kinds of conservatism, not different levels.

Carney credits social networks and community with making the difference in voting patterns. Dutch American communities, he thinks, mirror the rich suburbs of D.C. in that people are networked and happy. In many working-class towns, however, community has fallen apart, and people are retreating into their homes. People are fearful, angry, and lacking hope.

I’m no political scientist, so I’m not sure how Carney is handling the data. Just how strong is the correlation between strength of community and opposition to Donald Trump?  I suspect that it is one variable, but not the only, and perhaps not the strongest variable in the mix.

I also wonder what cause and effect mechanism is at play here. Carney’s argument that strong communities voted against Trump begs the question about what makes strong communities.  The common denominator for strong communities seems to be a common culture. Now, this is not an argument against multiculturalism, per se, since a strong community could include many different cultures so long as they are bound by a common code of tolerance or respect, etc.  Now, a common culture could be rooted in the church, as is the case in many Dutch American towns. The ethnic component then is like an additive to the religious cement, making it water-tight.

When I defended my dissertation on Dutch American identities (see my book: How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch) one of my committee members challenged me by saying something to the effect of: “Well, the Dutch Americans aren’t a real ethnic group, right? We are not talking about the Jews or the Amish here.”  I am convinced that he had not read my dissertation, but that’s another story.  As in any anthropology, it is difficult for outsiders to grasp the culture of another group.

Now, with each passing year, Dutch Americans are further removed from their origins.  Assimilation has long played out. Dutch Americans communities are now culturally and ethnically more mixed. Still, a uniqueness persists, and it’s something that those on the inside and outside sometimes fail to see. What I mean is that those on the inside think their communities are typical. They might joke that they are from a conservative Dutch place, but they assume that life in other American towns goes on just about the same. Outside observers, however, overplay the differences they see, and for them the Dutch American culture can become a caricature.  Fortunately, Carney hasn’t fallen into this trap. But those of us who go back and forth, who live now in the secular East or West Coast, and then again in Grand Rapids or Pella, it is easier to spot the differences: prayers in fast food restaurants, strong civic institutions, and nod to ethnic heritage that is missing elsewhere. These are the lingering effects, perhaps the positive eternalities, of culture.





One comment

  1. Mary K Risseeuw · · Reply

    Apparently, I need to find a copy of Carney’s book. I’d like more information on his claiming that Oostburg WI voted against Trump in the 2016 primaries.


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