Coming Apart at the Class Seams

A review of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, and some comments on Yuval Levin’s review of it in The Weekly Standard

Charles Murray has written several books that have had a major impact on cultural and political discussion in America. Losing Ground (1984) and The Bell Curve (1994, with Richard Hernnstein) are the two best known – although Levin believes that In Pursuit (1988) is Murray’s finest work. Murray’s thoughts have been propelled to the forefront of the nation’s attention again with his most recent book Coming Apart.

In the book, Murray documents – and I mean documents; the charts, tables and graphs are copious and convincing – his latest thesis, which is: “America is coming apart at the seams, not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” Murray draws a detailed and poignant portrait of two new classes that have sprouted in America – which he calls the new elite or new upper class and the new lower class. Put simply, the former consists of people with very high levels of education, vocational achievement and wealth, whereas the latter is made up of those who lack all three and instead manifest poverty (or at best bare subsistence), no more than a high school diploma (and often not that) and either no vocation or only menial and inconstant paid labor – likely on the government dole in one way or another.

Now America has never lacked for people who fit either description (except perhaps for the government dole component). But their existence in the past was accompanied by connections between them and shared values amongst them. These commonalities increasingly do not exist between the two new classes. According to Murray, this disjointedness arises in two ways. The first is geographical. The new upper class typically lives and works in enclaves which are so sheltered that the denizens barely (and in many cases, never) interact with members of the new lower class. The latter might have some feel for how the former live from the media, but the new upper classes often have absolutely no idea how the lower class lives. More devastatingly, asserts Murray, the more critical divide between the classes is reflected in each group’s manifestations of the civic virtues that were always responsible for and reflected American exceptionalism – or as Murray labels it, the American project: that is, those special qualities or behaviors displayed by her citizens that made America unique among the nations. That special code (or as it used to be called, the American creed) consisted of a set of ideals or virtues, identified by the Founders and elaborated upon by De Tocqueville, around which America organized itself, and through which it expressed its devotion to the cause of individual liberty, limited government and the pursuit of happiness. In Murray’s words:

The American project…consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems. The polity based on that idea led to a civic culture that was seen as exceptional by the world. That culture was so widely shared among Americans that it amounted to a civil religion. To be an American was to be different from other nationalities, in ways that Americans treasured. That culture is unraveling.

Murray selects four aspects of the project (or creed), against which he measures the state of compliance with the creed by the new classes’ members: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion. He reveals statistically the health of these components of the creed for each of the two classes. Later, he broadens these four aspects into wider areas of life – vocation, community, family and faith – against which he engages in an even more elaborate data analysis to ascertain how well each of the classes is upholding its role in the American project.

Murray’s conclusion is that the project is alive and well among the new upper class, but nearly defunct within the new lower class. Moreover, Murray claims, despite their ability, indeed obligation, to do so, the upper class makes no attempt to promote its values to the lower class. It fails to “preach what it practices.” Thus unlike any time in the past, America has become a society with disjoint classes. One class no longer subscribes to the tenets of American exceptionalism, and although the other practices them, it no longer has faith in the ideal. Murray asserts that the situation is unsustainable. If it persists, the American project will die. America will cease to be an exceptional nation and the precious heritage of human freedom that America has stood for will vanish from the Earth.

Now, while generally laudatory in his review, Levin (in the March 18, 2012 edition of the Weekly Standard) has two major beefs with Murray’s hypothesis. Murray identifies a date on which the tear in America’s class seam originated – November 22, 1963, the date of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The vast majority of Murray’s statistical measures compare the state of America today – or at some point in the last 50 years – to what existed the day before Kennedy was killed. Moreover, Levin asserts – correctly, I believe – that Murray is presuming that the classless nature of American society, and more generally, the almost uniform acceptance by the people of the creed, existed in an unbroken fashion from the eighteenth century until the 1960s. But says Levin:

The fact is that America in the immediate postwar years was made possible by an utterly unrepeatable set of circumstances, and setting out to re-create it is not a constructive objective for public policy. What we need to do, instead, is to seek for ways to achieve broadly shared prosperity and cultural vitality today – to balance cohesion and dynamism in our time, which is a time of great tension and change.

That this is hardly the first era of tension and change in our history should leave us more hopeful than Murray suggests, and should send us looking for guidance in eras prior to the postwar golden age. Murray implies that his description of America in 1963 applied to America before this time as well – from the era of the founding until half a century ago. But surely this is not the case. In other times—in periods of social tension, economic upheaval, mass immigration, and cultural transformation – America’s founding virtues have been under immense strain. But time and again, we have found our way to national revival – cultural, moral, religious, social, political, and economic. We have experienced multiple golden ages, and they have not all looked alike.

Perhaps it is this extraordinary capacity for the renewal of our founding virtues, rather than the particular strength we possessed 50 years ago, that really makes America exceptional. If so, then Murray’s project, which should be America’s project, is in better stead than this ultimately pessimistic book suggests.

Levin’s second beef is that Murray seems to be placing the blame for, and the need to fix the current mess on the upper class. Again Levin:

In this sense, Murray’s book suffers from a flaw that bears some similarity to the one that renders the liberal case regarding inequality largely incoherent. That case seeks to blame the wealthy for the growing gap between the top and the bottom, and in the process, treats the gap itself as the core problem when, in fact, it is the stagnation and decline at the bottom that should worry us most…[The] key factor behind the collapse of poor and working class life in America has been precisely the liberal welfare state [that liberals] hold up as a solution – a welfare state originally constructed on misguided moral premises, which has badly undermined the social institutions essential to human thriving in poor communities, and which now remains as a moldering relic growing increasingly bloated, inefficient, and regressive. The left’s cynical (or else pitiful) disavowal of this fact explains a great deal of its present obsession with inequality.

Murray, of course, suffers from no such self-delusion. He plainly sees how much the welfare state has contributed to the ruin of lower-class life. And he also understands…that the key problems faced by the poor today are fundamentally cultural (and therefore also moral), not simply economic.

Knowing that poorly designed welfare state institutions contributed mightily to these cultural problems does not solve them, however, and while the reform (greatly aided by Murray’s own work) of one especially counterproductive welfare program in the 1990s may have helped to slow the bleeding, it has hardly stopped it. Murray … suggest[s] that America’s elites could help a lot by offering a moral argument for their own way of life: By preaching what they practice, and therefore helping to link the traditional American virtues to examples of lived success…

But surely, this is a highly implausible practical solution to the immense cultural ruin that Murray describes. It is hard to see how the graduates of elite universities who live in their cultural islands of privilege could really speak with any moral authority to the problems of working-class life… Rather, the cultural disaster Murray describes seems to be a failing of America’s moral (and therefore largely its religious) institutions.

I believe that Levin’s second beef is legitimate, but his first is off the mark. Yes, the country has encountered grave crises in its pre-1960s existence – even existential ones such as the Civil War. And we managed to recover each time. But when we encountered major crises in the past, the American creed was intact. We did not have large swatches of the population who no longer had faith in American exceptionalism, who doubted that the US was and is a force for good in the world, who had rejected the basic tenets of our country’s founding, such as: individual liberty trumps group fairness, free markets work better than central planning, traditional morals grounded in religious faith produce superior civic virtues; the US Constitution (as amended) is the supreme law of the land to which all citizens owe complete fidelity. Well we do now. And so one cannot be so sanguine – as Levin is – that we will blast our way out of the sand trap as we have so magnificently in the past.

In the end, despite their disagreements, Murray and Levin come to the same ultimate conclusion as to the key component of the way out. There must be a great moral awakening in the country – among both classes – which recognizes the folly of the Progressive bad trip that we have been on, and results in a rededication to the classic moral principles that guided our Founders and also our ancestors who followed them. Murray thinks that the awakening must be lead by the new upper class. Levin feels that it must arise more spontaneously throughout the entire culture. Whoever is right, I pray that the awakening comes soon.
This review also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at: