Undoing the Ties that Bind
In America, it is currently difficult to define what it means to be an American. Not anecdotally, as in “what does it mean to you?” or “what does it mean to me?” but concretely, as in “what practices and beliefs have undergirded and characterized Americans from the Colonial Period to the twenty-first century?” Such questions have proven increasingly difficult to answer since the 1960s, when members of the counterculture began actively turning university into diversity and doing their utmost to divide Americans into categories and then set those categories against each other.
And here, Charles Murray’s most recent work, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, proves a boon to the inquisitive mind that wants to understand the details of how we got here and what happened to the ties that bind.
At the outset, it is crucial to note that Murray’s focus on white America is pragmatic in nature. He informs his readers that were he to focus on all races and ethnicities in America, every graph for white poverty would have to be balanced by a graph on black poverty and every graph on “Latinos who went to college” would have to be balanced by a graph for “non-Latinos who went to college,” and soon, the point of the book would be lost in the very categorization the counterculture has used to divide and conquer this country.
Instead, Murray’s point is that “an evolution in American society” has taken place since the early 1960s, an evolution wherein Americans have lost their reference point on what it means to be American. Thus they are coming apart, and the great effort begun at America’s 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,” is in a perilous state.
Murray accomplishes his goal by showing that Americans have become divided into new socioeconomic classes, which not only separate them one from another, but actually separate them from what has traditionally and metaphysically tied Americans to America. In doing this, he uses myriad graphs and charts throughout the book to juxtapose 1960s figures with figures from the early twenty-first century. These figures range from the percentage of people with a college education to the percentage of people who are married to the percentage of people who attend church, and so forth. But they also include figures that touch on values, such as views on extramarital sex, divorce, and taking handouts from the government.
The people behind the figures are working class and elites drawn from the bluest of blue collar zip codes and an archetypical elite zip code (which Murray refers to as a “SuperZip”).
One of Murray’s proximate goals is to show that a new upper class has emerged in America that has completely separated itself from the rest of the country. This class is one in which people who would have been considered “nerds” or misfits in the 1960s, because their strengths were math or a peculiar science, became uber-wealthy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by launching computer programming companies, discovering breakthroughs in cell phone technology, or by getting advanced degrees in esoteric branches of law. According to Murray, “These increasingly constitute a class. They are…increasingly isolated. The new isolation involves spatial, economic, educational, cultural, and, to some degree, political isolation.”
While some might argue that the wealthy have always lived somewhat apart from the rest of the country, Murray makes clear the divide between the new upper class and the rest of the country is not just one of physicality or association, but a division of historical knowledge as well. To use Murray’s words: “[Their] growing isolation has been accompanied by growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power.”
The problem is compounded by the fact that the values of the 1960s, which Murray demonstrates the lower classes have lost to their own detriment, are promoted by the new upper class, yet not practiced by it. By and large, the denizens of Murray’s SuperZip (or “Belmont,” after an upper-class enclave in Massachusetts), live very bourgeois lives, with stable families, regular church attendance, and public participation. But they no longer feel that those values should form the basis of a common culture or as aspirations for those lower on the economic scale. The toxic narcissism and relativism of the 1960s has seeped so deeply into their moral lives that they are unable to champion the very practices and values that have allowed them to succeed.
So as the new upper class has been taking shape, new values and practices of blue-collar workers have been unfolding. And what Murray shows is that, while elites have pulled away from their fellow Americans and their country relationally and intellectually, blue collar citizens have pulled away from formerly held common cultural assumptions on things like crime, diminished work ethic, family, and married life. Subjected to decades of media talking points that lessen the shame of taking handouts from an indulgent welfare state, together with changing cultural assumptions that view things like stable families and religious faith as negotiable, the ties that create and sustain stable communities are simply disappearing.
For example, Murray shows that prisoners per 100,000 blue-collar citizens rose from approximately 200 in 1974 to almost 1,000 in 2004. He also shows that unemployment has risen considerably among blue-collar workers (and goes out of his way to show that this is not simply due to the economic downturn of the last three years). Moreover, among those who are working, the work is not viewed as satisfying and is often not even full-time work. He shows that the percentage of male, blue-collar workers who work less than forty hours a week rose from 10 percent in 1960 to 20 percent in 1980.
And an absolutely horrifying statistic regarding the state of the family is the plummeting number of children who are living with both biological parents when the mother is age forty. According to Murray, whereas approximately 95 percent of children in blue-collar households were still living with both biological parents when the mother turned forty in 1962, that number was sinking below 30 percent by 2004. On the other hand, in the upper-class group that was surveyed, the percentage of children living with their biological parents had only dropped from approximately 98 percent to 89 or 90. Moreover, members of the new upper class were in the top 20 percent in the country to report they were “very happy” in their marriages, while those in the blue-collar segment of society were in the bottom 20 percent.
It doesn’t take long for Murray to conclude, quite persuasively, that two different Americas are developing: at least two, that is. And the differences between the two cannot be explained away by pointing to the amount of money one household makes versus the income of another. Murray makes it clear that the kinds of surveys on which his book is based aren’t surveys readily changed by financial matters.
This is evident in many of the declines in shared practices and values that have taken place across the board in America. For example, voting is not expensive, yet citizens in the upper class are among the top 20 percent of those who make sure to cast a vote in presidential elections while blue-collar citizens are in the bottom 20. In regular attendance of worship services, another inexpensive practice, the new upper class is again among the top 20 percent of those who attend weekly worship while the blue-collar citizens are in the bottom of the bottom 30.
As the reader turns pages in Murray’s book, it starts to look as if there are simply too many divergences from our past and from one another for this experiment to turn out well. And while Murray admitted to being tempted to such pessimism himself, in the closing chapter he points us back to how Britain appeared to be on her last legs in the 1700s, but she is still here centuries later, due to her ability to adapt to a new future and accept life in those constraints. He makes the point that there could be such an “alternate future” for America which, while not as prestigious as the future our Founders envisioned, is one that will allow us to continue as a nation nonetheless.
To be clear, Murray does not want a future that differs in the slightest from the one which our Founders had intended. However, he ends the book as realist who is trying to come to grips with the fact that the course that various classes of Americans are currently traveling is one that has them Coming Apart.
A. W. R. Hawkins is senior opinion editor and writer for the Alliance Defense Fund and was a visiting fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal during summer 2010. He has a PhD in military history from Texas Tech University.
Posted: March 11, 2012
Did you see this one?
A Literary Patrimony
Cecilia Kirk Nelson
Volume 34, Number 2 (Fall 1994)