The Oblivious Elite
In 1890, the police reporter and photographer Jacob Riis published the grim and gripping How the Other Half Lives, the Muckracking era’s classic exposé of New York City tenement life. Riis’s book was a necessary cry in the wilderness for social reform, and a pointed critique of the elites of society who neither knew nor cared about the destitution they had engendered. “The greed that wrought the evil must now undo it, as far as it can be undone,” Riis wrote. Over the past year, many on the left (and some on the right) have voiced a similarly urgent concern that income inequality is the most divisive feature on the American social landscape. Congressional Democrats’ push for tax hikes on the upper classes and the President’s speeches at Osawatomie and the State of the Union reflect this. The media is in on the act, too. To take a sample at random, at some point during each of the first three days of the week of January 23rd, the banner headline of the Washington Post online focused on Mitt Romney’s wealth.
But for all the attention lavished on income inequality these days, iconoclastic conservative social scientist Charles Murray shows in his new book that the real fault line in American life hinges on class. The debate over economic inequality, whether exaggerated or not, is mere topsoil over the bedrock of a nationwide class division that, if left unchecked, will jeopardize the idea of America as the founders envisioned it. Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, articulates the dramatic divergences in social behavior between upper-class and working-class American whites since the early 1960s—and explains why this segregation should trouble every liberty-minded conservative.
According to Murray, the grouping mechanisms of elite educational institutions, the suburbs, and the practice of “homogamy”—that upper-crust whites increasingly marry people of their own social class—have produced an insular elite largely unable to understand and sympathize with the desires and problems of ordinary Americans. Sure, Murray writes, the rich have always had more money, and more stuff, but back then they still had the same things in the same places as Joe Six-Pack, only better quality. Things like corporate jets, gated communities, and delicacies like foie gras and caviar, almost de rigueur for the wealthy today, were considered too ostentatious by most moneymen, corporate honchos, and other members of the professional class of the 60s. Rather, they largely frequented the same bars, churches, baseball stadiums and movie theaters as the lunchpail crowd. Consider that in 1960, the median income of a family in Manhattan was $39,300 in 2011 dollars, even though Manhattan then still had the tremendously affluent neighborhoods above 59th street. Good luck raising a family in Manhattan on that today. If you want to test your own “bubble thickness”—namely, the extent to which you are socially isolated from and can’t relate to the other white America—Murray has helpfully included a self-survey that inquires about your familiarity with Nascar; when you last voluntarily shared the company of smokers; whether you’ve ever had a job that required you to wear a uniform; and whether mass-market beer takes up residence in your fridge. (I scored a 47, which makes me “a first-generation upper middle-class person with middle class parents.”)
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Murray documents in much statistical and anecdotal detail the travails of the white American lower classes, which live in places like the archetypal “Fishtown,” so-called for a holdout white working-class community in urban Philadelphia. They have experienced increasingly catastrophic breakdowns in what he describes as “the founding virtues”: industriousness, honesty, religiosity, and marriage, in stark decline thanks to serial cohabitation and divorce. Meanwhile, the higher stratum of white society (represented by the archetypal “Belmont,” a fashionable suburb of Boston) has not undergone the same erosion of virtue that Fishtown has. In 1962, 96 percent of children in Fishtown lived in a home with both parents; only 37 percent did in 2004. In 1972, 35 percent of Fishtown was de facto secular. Today, 72 percent. The rupture of the nuclear family in Fishtown has predictably led to escalating rates of crime, indolence, and parental abandonment, especially among men, who are more likely to be estranged from family life. The children of Fishtown are growing up without nature’s traditional mechanisms for material provision and emotional guidance, with the ballooning welfare state filling the void of traditional obligations with programs that pay the rent, put food on the table, and even watch the kids. As a consequence, Fishtown has increasingly seen a collapse of the sort of amorphous but powerful social authority that produces self-actualized, productive citizens who cultivate socially enriching voluntary associations.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that less than 20 percent of Fishtown residents described themselves as “very happy” in 2010, compared to about 40 percent of Belmont-dwellers. Murray theorizes that the welfare state, while striving to build a European-style safety net, actually encourages its members to run away from the difficult yet rewarding pursuits that impart meaning to life. “All of these good things in life—self-respect, intimate relationships, and self-actualization—require freedom in the only way freedom is meaningful: freedom to act in all arenas of life coupled with responsibilities for the consequences of those actions,” he writes. The ethos of radical individual liberation promulgated by the relatively affluent counterculture leaders in the late 1960s seeped into the wider culture, with destructive impact on those with less money and education, who today experience more alienation and anomie than true freedom.
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Murray offers several solutions to the problem, but his solutions are somewhat specious. “What it comes down to,” he writes, “is that America’s new upper class must once again fall in love with what makes America different.” As much as we’d hope the shapers of culture can recover the spirit of the American project’s individualism and virtue, it’s hard to think that the toothpaste can be put back in the tube. With the children of the Boomer generation having been intellectually cudgeled by warm and fuzzy ideas of “tolerance” and “nonjudgmentalism” in an age of unprecedented globalization and moral relativism, any confluence of classes in white America will seem to have to involve some level of top-down social engineering; the type of thing Murray abhors.
Murray deserves superlative credit for painstakingly sifting through a half-century’s worth of data and weaving a compelling, readable narrative to create this book; he’s certainly no mere armchair sociologist. It is one thing to make a statement about society based on a series of observations on the world around you, and quite another to espouse and codify it in a book. Here we find the deepest value of Murray’s work: a practical explication of the data to America’s elite decision makers, a segment of society growing increasingly isolated from the rest of the nation, one that has largely failed to notice how the other half lives. Here’s hoping this book will arrest their attention.
David Wilezol is a graduate student in Latin and a producer for Morning in America, a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former secretary of Education Bill Bennett. Follow him and his work on Twitter at @DavidWilezol.