Coming Apart

Mitt Romney at Daytona 500

Mitt Romney at the Daytona 500 in February

American conservatives have rarely dwelt on the idea of class. It comes up only twice in Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives (2009), for example. Conservatives held that slavery could eliminate the possibility of class conflict by “linking masters and slaves together in extended families”; later on, they thought that fascism might get us “complete centralization and rational economic planning… without the communist resort to class warfare.” If, for the Left, class-consciousness was central to the battle for the various rights and privileges that we take for granted today, the Right thought that class consciousness disrupted an otherwise peaceful society (if it thought about it at all). So you know something odd is going on when the popular public policy book of the moment is by a conservative and concerns the emergence of class conflict. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 builds on his previous bestseller, The Bell Curve (1994). That book caused a stir because it claimed that black people were, on average, less intelligent than white people. Murray used IQ tests as evidence, leading even conservatives like Brigette Berger to accuse him and his co-author of “methodological fetishism.” A less well-known argument of Bell Curve is that a permanent white underclass would develop just like the urban black underclass. Coming Apart, among other things, shows that Murray was right about that.

In his newest book, Murray argues that American whites have divided sharply along class lines over the last few decades. Working class neighborhoods, he argues, are falling apart because the working class as a whole no longer holds onto the American “founding virtues” of industriousness (as measured by hours worked), honesty (as measured by crime rates and, yet more improbably for a book published in 2012, rates of legal bankruptcy), religion, and marriage. It no longer holds onto these virtues because the upper-middle class tells poor people that it’s okay to be lazy, dishonest, atheistic and single, while simultaneously telling its own children that they’d damn well better be virtuous. American immorality thus finds its home not in East Coast hamlets of elitism, but in poor, middle America.

The center of the new upper class, meanwhile, is a broad elite, the “most successful 5 percent of adults ages 25 and older who are working in managerial positions, in the professions … and in content-production jobs in the media.” These elites share tastes, preferences, and “growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power.” Previous elite groups were unable to “impose their will” on the rest of society, but this new elite core is large enough (2.4 million) to pose a problem; in addition, while previous elite groups were “culturally diverse,” today’s is homogenous. We all live in the same places, and suffer from “overeducated elitist snob” syndrome, thanks to which we believe that our tastes and preferences are superior and make us superior. According to Murray, this is the result of an increased market for intelligence, which has led to increased economic inequality and the concentration of the wealthy in elite colleges. The core of the new underclass is men who have no jobs and aren’t in the labor market, single mothers, and “isolates” uninvolved in any secular or religious organization. Murray’s claim that this is genetically based is bizarre, but it’s hard to deny that he’s pointing to a real phenomenon. [1]

Murray’s analysis is really about broad classes, as opposed to the extremes that helped his book make the headlines. On his definitions, 20 percent of white American adults are upper middle class or better; 30 percent are working class or worse. The 30 percent is increasingly less likely to: marry, be happy in marriage, be in the workforce, work long hours (for Murray a key sign of “industriousness”), or attend church regularly. They are increasingly more likely to divorce or separate, be born outside wedlock, live with a single parent, be unemployed, be a prisoner, be victims of violent or property crime and be “secular.” The 20 percent evinces none of these trends. [2]

Of course, there have always been differences between upper-middle class culture and working class culture. The problem today, as Murray describes it, is that the upper middle class and the working class are increasingly unable to relate to the middle class, or to each other (c.f. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, John Kerry’s presidential campaign, McCain’s running mate, etc.). These new class differences “affect the ability of [working class] people to live satisfying lives, the ability of communities to function as communities, and the ability of America to survive as America.”

How can we cure this problem? The mainstream Left answers predictably: “Suddenly,” Paul Krugman tells us, “conservatives are telling us that it’s not really about money; it’s about morals … but is it really all about morals? No, it’s mainly about money”:

So we have become a society in which less-educated men have great difficulty finding jobs with decent wages and good benefits. Yet somehow we’re supposed to be surprised that such men have become less likely to participate in the work force or get married, and conclude that there must have been some mysterious moral collapse caused by snooty liberals. And Mr. Murray also tells us that working-class marriages, when they do happen, have become less happy; strange to say, money problems will do that.

And Murray has claimed that the problem will persist “for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture.” In a Wall Street Journal chat, he re-states his theory that the decline in “social capital” [3] is due to “great secularization” and falling overall rates of marriage. Thanks to these cultural changes, the U.S.A. might be in a situation akin to that of Rome, whose “initial downward step… was its loss of the republic when Caesar became the first emperor.” This nation’s “Caesar” is the European model of social democracy, which, Murray claims, relieves people of their freedom and of responsibility for their own lives. Instead of working hard to create anything, Europeans just “while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible.” [4] The American alternative “is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things—raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and a good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can.” We can overcome the European threat if we re-affirm these intellectual underpinnings of the American Project: people must believe that their work is meaningful, and that having children in wedlock is important. [5]

This exchange between the American Left, which responded to Coming Apart bog-standardly, and Murray, who has responded to the Left bog-standardly in turn, epitomizes the stalemate of contemporary political debate. Since World War II, public discussion in America has been pinned down in a war. This war doesn’t have “rockets and missiles, but it is a war nevertheless … a war of ideology, a war of ideas … a war about our way of life. And it has to be fought with the same intensity … and dedication as you would fight a shooting war” (Paul Weyrich). Of course it’s common, and correct, to bewail partisanship in politics, as if only momentary insanity keeps Democrats and Republicans from some bipartisan happily-ever-after. But the “war of ideas” is bipartisan, inasmuch as the field of battle was chosen bipartisanly. The battleground is “America,” at least insofar as our politicians seem sincerely to believe that “America is an idea.” [6]

In 1955, President Eisenhower claimed that the Cold War was about “the true nature of man. Either man is … ‘a little lower than the angels’… or man is a soulless animated machine.” Either man is American, or he is Soviet. This rhetoric has dominated the last fifty years; the great victory of conservative politicians and pundits has been their ability to identify the idea of America with themselves. Anything opposed to Americanness is ipso facto of the enemy: as Murray has it, freedom, self-reliance and Christian families are ours; reliance on the state, oppression and nihilism are theirs. Krugman is right to say that Murray focuses on morality or “culture.” But if you accept Murray’s assumptions, that’s inevitable. For Murray, theories that explain human behavior or suffering by reference to money imply that man is Soviet—that is, that human beings are nothing other than their income level. And if you accept Krugman’s assumptions (that human suffering and behavior are best explained by reference to material conditions, that man is, to some degree, Soviet), Murray must look like an armorer for the gilded age factory owners who put machine guns in their buildings pour encourager les ouvriers. The assumptions of each render the other not only incorrect or misguided, but an actively evil enemy.

When a private disobeys an order during a time of war, she can expect, at best, jail time. If she deserts, she can expect much worse. America’s war of ideas enforces this level of discipline on politicians, wonks and scholars. Popular books of policy, science or history might as well come with a battalion insignia: eagles armed for biographies of the founders, two beehives for a social history of oppressed peoples; lions guardant for moral decline, snake courant for economic injustice; argent a chevron sable between three oaks for climate change denial, the same chevron between three smoke stacks for climate change opportunities. Hayek or Keynes? Laissez Faire or Planning? Freedom or equality? Liberty or happiness? Meanwhile, intellectually promising projects rarely make it out of the University library, let alone into the opinion pages. So the world economy turns itself upside down, wages stagnate and real wars (with rockets and bullets) commence.

Murray’s book is full of fascinating and disturbing statistics. Any sane reader will come away thinking that the white working class’s problems are real, dangerous and damaging, and that the only solution to them will require new kinds of work for, expectations toward, and attitudes from, white American men. And in his recent op-ed in the New York Times, Murray himself makes four sensible, concrete, proposals: i) eliminate unpaid internships, which only the rich can reasonably take up; ii) drop the SAT for college admissions and replace it with subject-specific tests; iii) make it illegal to discriminate in favor of Bachelor’s degree holders in employment; iv) replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action. If we actually did these things, it would be easier for poor men and women to get their foot in the door for wealthy careers; it might be easier for people to get into college (although subject-specific tests are no less distorted than the SAT); and our society might actually suggest that it cares for the welfare of the poor, regardless of their genetic make-up. These measures should appeal across political lines, whether Republican/ Democrat or “Conservative”/”Liberal.” There’s little to be said against any of them. They should stand every chance.

And yet, Murray concludes they’re all more or less useless, since “the changes that matter have to happen in the hearts of Americans.” In other words, it’s not about money, it’s about morals.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1 Murray has learned his lessons, and now gives his genetic arguments a different spin: increasing “educational and cognitive homogamy” results in “the increased tenacity of the elite in maintaining its status across generations.” In other words, smart people are successful and have smart genes, therefore the children of smart people are successful because they, too, are smart. Murray’s case for the genetic basis of intelligence notwithstanding, his argument for “cognitive homogamy” leading to a new upper class is unconvincing. The concentration of influence and wealth has obviously taken place in somewhere between zero and one generation (since 1960, basically); in 1960 only 3 percent of couples were made up of two college graduates; today, 25 percent. That is so obviously a function of increasing educational opportunities for women as to make any correlation meaningless. This is one of the most glaring deficiencies in Murray’s work: he ignores even the largest historical shifts of the times he is studying. So, e.g., he shows that unemployment rates and work-force participation by working class men, which should inversely correlate fairly well, come together around the early nineties, when both unemployment and working-class work force participation decreased: “a substantial number of prime-age white working-age men dropped out of the labor force for no obvious reason.” Later he suggests that this happened because men today are lazy. The fact that these men are simply not qualified for the service jobs available once manufacturing plants have been moved overseas doesn’t even warrant a mention. 
  2. David Brooks has pointed out that this result will likely be ignored by many liberals, because the 1 percent doctrine sells much better; and it’s true that most media attention has focused on the underclass/elite distinction rather than the more statistically believable 30%/20% distinction. 
  3. 3 Note that Murray relies on Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2001) for this idea, and much of his other data, even though Putnam has admitted that his book is deeply flawed. Other researchers have found, for instance, “that Americans saw their friends in person about as often in the 2000s as they did in the 1970s.” 
  4. 4 One particularly horrifying result of this is that the European work week is shorter and people have longer vacations. 
  5. 5 Note that Murray asks people to believe that their work is meaningful, as opposed to suggesting that they should have the opportunity to actually undertake meaningful work. It’s easy for intellectuals, who do generally find meaning in our work, to decry the cynicism of a working class that refuses to recognize the meaningfulness of factory labor and menial service. 
  6. 6 Europeans and Asians have long fought about ideas, but they’ve never thought that the continents they lived on were ideas to be fought over. C.f. Bill Clinton, “Remarks at Georgetown University,” 7/6/95
Justin Evans is the Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University. View all posts by Justin Evans → This entry was posted in Culture, Economics, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Tags: , , , ,
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