A Society Split in Two

Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010
by Charles Murray
Crown Forum, 2012, 416 pages, US$27

The terms “libertarian” and “sociologist” are seldom used in the same sentence. However, in the case of the American author Charles Murray, the terms do actually go together. Technically, Murray is a political scientist, but what he does, generally, is sociology, and he does it rather well. But he is also a self-proclaimed libertarian—his philosophy was outlined in his 1997 book What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation—and a severe critic of the ever-expanding state.

Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the heavy hitters among the libertarian/conservative American think-tanks. He has been called many things by critics—“skilled polemicist”, “controversial”, “controversial but undeniably engaging”, “influential”, “shocking” (Paul Johnson), “the most consequential social scientist alive” (Jonah Goldberg), “professional contrarian” (Tom Wolfe). According to George Will, “when he writes, the terms of the debate change”. Murray is both a methodical and analytical social scientist, a data-driven researcher and a cut-through social critic and (often) controversialist.

Murray, one of the most prominent, perceptive, prolific and influential observers of American culture and society over the last three decades, and a widely recognised public intellectual, has recently released another work destined to be much discussed in public policy and broader circles. As he points out, Coming Apart is part of a unified body of work related to happiness and public policy that began several decades ago. Murray’s latest work has much to live up to, as he has an impressive corpus and a talent for creating a stir.

Perhaps his most famous work was Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–80 (1984), popularly thought to have guided or at least informed President Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms of the late 1990s. One reviewer of Losing Ground said that it would infuriate people but would also make them think. Then there was The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), co-authored with the late Richard Herrnstein, which got Murray into strife in various quarters for its wading into debates over race and intellectual ability—dangerous ground in these times. Murray described the Bell Curve and critical reaction to it as a “train wreck”.

Less well known, but no less entertaining, was Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences 800 BC to 1950 (2003), a freewheeling romp through the great human endeavours of history. This book, according to Michael Novak, provided Murray with “a Himalayan task worthy of his great talents as a pre-eminent social thinker of our time”.

My favourite Murray book is probably Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality (2008). This is a refreshing read that goes against the grain of much contemporary vacuous thinking about the virtues of an ever-expanding education sector. It reminds us that many people just shouldn’t be going to university, and that much of what passes for education in our schools is just so much twaddle. Perhaps most important of all, not least to Murray himself, was In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government (1988), a statement of his core values.

The argument of Coming Apart is that the American nation is indeed “coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams, but seams of class”. It is coming apart socially and culturally, seen through the divergent trajectories of the white upper class and the white lower class since the 1960s.

Broadly, Murray laments what he sees as the fracturing (since the 1960s) of the great “American project”—the creation of a free society underpinned by a virtuous citizenry in which people are empowered to pursue their own versions of happiness. (In a discussion very similar to Robert Nozick’s notion of a liberal utopia, Murray finds the almost minimal state envisioned by the Founding Fathers to be the source of the good life for the community.)

The core of American exceptionalism, famously explored by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, and less famously by Francis Grund in The Americans in their Moral, Social and Political Relations, Murray finds to be the founding virtues of industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. These founding virtues are, for Murray, also fundamental to the ways humans pursue happiness and the so-called “deep satisfactions”. The broad acceptance of these norms by most Americans of all classes provided what Murray saw as a vibrant civic culture until the 1960s.

Coming Apart is essentially about class, and about the ways in which two American classes have changed in profound and unfortunate ways. To focus the discussion, Murray describes two fictional but typical communities: Belmont (the upper-class precinct based on a suburb of Boston) and Fishtown (the lower-class enclave, based on a north-eastern suburb of Philadelphia). 

The book tells two separate stories, whose consequences, for Murray, together strike at the core of American culture. The Belmont story traces the emergence of the new upper class. This is the highly educated (well, at least highly credentialled), and spatially concentrated elite who attended the best schools, earn a lot of money and occupy positions of power in society. They live in the “superzips” (that is, the very best districts) and know little of what life is like in Fishtown. They meet at the nation’s elite colleges and mate, creating a state of “cognitive homogamy” in which bright rich parents will beget bright, rich children and thus perpetuate the new upper class. This class is different from the old upper class in its far more coherent and cohesive shared value system, a system that places it entirely apart from the rest of the population. Think inner-west Sydney, or the federal seat of Melbourne currently held by the Greens. Most of what the old upper class had in common was its wealth.

There is one unexpected note in Murray’s analysis of Belmont, and it is important to his whole argument. Murray’s data support the conclusion that the upper class has largely retained its commitment to marriage and religion, certainly in comparison with the lower class.

Murray draws heavily for his analysis of the new upper class on the earlier work of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (2002), as well on David Brooks’s hilarious minor classic Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000). Murray also draws upon the work on declining social capital of Robert Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone ignited much debate in the early 2000s.

The second story, about Fishtown, charts the decline of the once proud American white working class, where, Murray argues, the four founding virtues have waned considerably since the 1960s. He cites increased marriage breakdown, the high incidence of crime, the growing reliance on welfare, and the decline in religious belief, as features of life in the new lower class. Manliness in its traditional sense has declined, with great social costs, especially for the children so often brought up fatherless and in households supported by welfare. In Fishtown, very few people have degrees, many work in low-skilled occupations, there is low labour force participation, there is a concentration of people below the poverty line, and many children are born outside marriage. There is civic disengagement aplenty.

It is the combination of the two stories—the abandonment of heroic virtue by the lower class, and the isolationism of the elites—that has led to the sad current predicament of American society and culture.

Murray claims repeatedly in the book that the upper class should “preach what it practices”, that is, it should defend the traditional American values, rather than adopting what he sees as non-judgmentalism. This, he argues in effect, would result in a kind of cultural trickle-down that would help keep in place the founding values across all classes. He yearns for a “civic great awakening” by the upper class. Absent this, Murray sees only further cultural disintegration. Given the likely continuance of the sheer spatial concentration of the new elite in the best suburbs and regions (another of its crucial defining characteristics), there does not seem to be much room for optimism in Murray’s portrayal. 

What, then, is to be done about Belmont and Fishtown?

Social science typically investigates patterns, consequences, causes and remedies in social phenomena. Murray, as always, is driven by data. Hence Coming Apart is largely concerned with identifying patterns and consequences, rather than underlying causes or solutions. This approach doesn’t please everyone. New York Times critic Ross Douthat was “exasperated” by the book’s lack of policy proposals. David Frum (a former George W. Bush speechwriter who, incidentally, coined the famous phrase “axis of evil” and was sacked from the American Enterprise Institute in 2010) is a strident critic of the book, decries its lack of curiosity about causes, and pretty much says that the book doesn’t tell us anything new about the lower class.

Certainly, Murray doesn’t spend much time unpacking the causes of the changes, or prescribing correctives, especially political correctives. Indeed, he tends to believe there is actually not much that public policy can do to turn things around. Recognising this might actually turn out to be one of the book’s most significant contributions to the debates over cultural decline. This notion of the limited utility of the state, of course, is a very libertarian way of viewing things.

This is in many ways also a very conservative book, especially in his identification of the core values of American exceptionalism, the crucial relationship between freedom and virtue as joint underpinnings of the polity, and the role the expanding state has played in crowding out, even undermining, the traditional community-building roles played by the core institutions of family and voluntary associations in American life.

For many, especially on the Left, whatever they think of Murray’s account of “the problem”, they simply won’t know what to make of his lack of an easy answer supplied by government. As well, for Murray, culture often trumps economics as an explanation of social phenomena. This will be a source of disbelief for many across the political spectrum, but especially for economic determinists of various kinds.

This is a fascinating work full of insight and good sense that meets most of the high expectations one has of a Charles Murray book. Whether the terms of the debate will change is another matter. Not every­thing he describes is new information. There will be disappointment over the lack of more systematic analysis of causes and remedies. But Murray asks some big questions, exposes a lot that is importantly wrong with America’s (and our) culture generally, and with our new cosseted elites and sad underclass in particular.

One final point. Coming Apart is a sad book. Reporting on the components of decline of the once great working class is itself sad—the inter-generational worklessness, the lack of will to work among many, the descent into drugs, the fatherless children, and so on. Just as sad is reporting on the fact that many in the new ruling class seemingly know no other life or culture than their comfortable own, and do not know of the struggles or travails of those with whom they share little and confront even less. And knowing that, on current trajectories, there is so little that can be done about all this is the saddest part of all.

Murray’s greatest contribution, I think, is reminding us that something very significant in American life has been lost.

Paul Collits is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland and is Research Director for the Economic Development and Enterprise Collaboration.

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