Emerging Issues: Mr. Murray and the Decay of American Virtue: Inequality III

April 9, 2012
by Bill Barnes 

Charles Murray's new book, "Coming Apart," is a lament - wrapped around some data and analysis - for an American community and individual qualities that never existed but for which he mourns and wishes nonetheless.

In contrast to Thomas Edsall's rather fierce "Age of Austerity," which focuses on electoral politics and its policy consequences, Murray's almost elegiac book is concerned with "new" white upper and lower classes and the content of their character and culture. (See related Emerging Issues columns, Nation's Cities WeeklyFebruary 27 and April 2.)

Both are Big Think Books. Neither is fully satisfactory, but both are informative, readable and provocative. You should read the one that you think will make you angry and make you think.

Tales of Two Cities

Murray says that America is "coming apart at the seams, not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class." These classes are "different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known." There have always been rich and poor. What's new is that these classes "diverge on core behaviors and values...and barely recognize their underlying American kinship." Murray's concern is the shift in values that threaten the "American project." He describes two fictional neighborhoods, Belmont and Fishtown, which epitomize the differences.

His analysis of the "new" upper and lower classes deals only with non-Latino whites in order, he explains, to make the case that the challenge is not mainly about racism or immigration policy. A late chapter presents data on all Americans, which Murray claims shows that the class division in white America "is what is happening throughout all of America." This methodology seems at least awkward; methodologies in Murray's previous work have been vulnerable to criticism.

Murray's new white lower class has separated from "the norms of traditional America" and has become a "shaping force in the life of working class America." This "bottom 30 percent" has drifted away from the "founding virtues" that, he says, made America "exceptional": "industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity." The new white lower class, he finds, is "dysfunctional" along all four measures.

In contrast, Murray's new white upper class outperforms the lower class on those measures. They are also successful, rich and powerful. They "share tastes, preferences and culture; they are "increasingly isolated"; and they have a "growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power." These attributes "are remarkably consistent" among these folks across the political spectrum.

The new upper class, mainly managers and professionals, benefited from the "increasing value of brains in the marketplace." Since the 1970s, they have taken greater and greater proportions of the national income. That wealth has "enabled" them to consolidate a culture, protect their advantages and isolate themselves.

The new upper class folks are dysfunctional too, but on a different count: the class is "hollow at the core" because its members do not accept the responsibility of using their positions "to help sustain the republic in day-to-day life" - that is, to insist that others also live up to those "virtues." He deplores the new elite's "code of ecumenical niceness" and an associated "nonjudgmentalism." He wants that elite to be "preaching what they practice" and to lead a "civic great Awakening" that will return the nation to its "old norms."

This complaint about elites has considerable pedigree. Murray dates the most recent iteration of it to Robert Reich, who wondered, in "The Work of Nations" (1991), whether the new knowledge class of "symbolic analysts" would turn its back on America. Murray, in effect, reports that it has.

Very Deep Trouble


Murray's class analysis is secondary to, at the service of, his sorrow and anger about a drift away from the "founding virtues." Murray does not begrudge the upper class its disproportionate share of the nation's wealth. Nor does he bemoan that the poor are, well, poor. His concern is with the quality of people's conduct, with their virtue, with what they do with what they've got.

Murray is not optimistic that America will fix these cultural deficiencies. In his view, economic policies and welfare state programs will not work: "the changes that matter have to happen in the hearts of Americans."

Murray is wrong about American "exceptionalism": it's a sad, all too prevalent, bit of national preening. He is wrong to refuse to see the obvious roles that globalization and economic differences play in the formation of society, classes and individual behaviors. But his indignation about the insular smugness of the elite and his objection to the dysfunctional behaviors of both classes is useful. His claim that spatial and other separation matters is important.

Both Edsall and Murray urge us - for radically different reasons - to consider that the nation's troubles go far deeper than current economic woes. Both challenge readers to accept that reconciling the effects of half a century of fundamental economic shifts, social upheavals,= and growing inequality is the rendezvous that is our destiny. 

Bill Barnes, director for emerging issues at NLC, can be reached at barnes@nlc.org. Previous monthly columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage at www.nlc.org.