Ed West says that Charles Murray’s careful study of America’s growing social divide is disturbing
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
by Charles murray
Charles Murray has produced a sociological study of America that should startle readers on both sides of the Atlantic. The political scientist has trawled through the statistics to paint a picture of how American society has changed from 1963 to 2008, and his conclusions are clear: that since the 1960s America’s society has cracked into three parts, with a broad middle class separating a super-rich elite and a growing underclass.
Back in 1960, Murray argues, America was essentially a classless society. There were rich and poor people, but people generally ate the same food, took the same kinds of holidays, watched the same sort of television and, crucially,
had the same values.
There was an elite, he writes, but it “was not a group that had broadly shared backgrounds, tastes, preferences or culture. They were powerful people, not a class.” It was also fairly fluid, with a great deal of upward social mobility.
Compare that with the new upper middle class of today, the group that David Brooks characterised as Bobos (“bourgeois and bohemian”) or, in Murray’s words, “the cognitive elite”, one first popularised in the 1980s television series Thirtysomething.
He writes: “The culture depicted in Thirtysomething had no precedent, with its characters who were educated at elite schools, who discussed intellectually esoteric subjects… the characters all possessed a sensibility that shuddered equally at Fords and Cadillacs, ranch homes in the suburbs and ponderous mansions, Budweiser and Chivas Regal.”
The new elite are ultra-hard-working and competitive, and their “are the object of intense planning from the moment the woman learns she is pregnant”.
Murray argues that the cognitive elite have been responsible for a huge stride in technology, but it comes with a downside: the new rich being more isolated from the rest of American society, congregating in ever more exclusive neighbourhoods that he calls “SuperZIPS”.
At the other end of the spectrum, and far more distressing, is the lower class, who are morally cut off from the rest of American society in a way that very few people were 50 years ago. One of the strange paradoxes of the last half a century is that cultural changes have largely been driven by the young wealthy, and yet the wealthy are still very conservative in their behaviour.
Perhaps the biggest social change of recent years has been the decline in marriage, yet births outside marriage have barely increased among the middle class, up from three to about six per cent. In contrast, among the poor they’ve gone from three to almost 50 per cent. Only 0.2 per cent of wealthy men of working age declared themselves unfit to work in 2010, compared to 10 per cent of the poor (a five-fold increase). The marriage gap between rich and poor has increased from 10 per cent to 35 per cent.
Murray has asserted the negative impact of illegitimacy for three decades, both for children and men, and takes the view of sociologist George Gilder that “unmarried males arriving at adulthood are barbarians who are then civilised by women through marriage”.
Most surprising of all, considering the stereotype, the wealthy are actually more religious, with white working-class neighbourhoods suffering a shocking decline in religious belief and participation, with just 12 per cent of people in those areas now involved.
Murray writes: “Such a small figure leaves the religious core not as a substantial minority that is still large enough to be a major force in the community, but as a one-out-of-eight group of people who are increasingly seen as oddballs.”
And though atheists can be good people, Murray says. “The empirical relationships that exist among marriage, industriousness, honesty, religiosity, and a self-governing society mean that the damage is done, even though no one intends it.”
The author is writing about America, but Britain’s gulf may be even worse, which makes this book important reading. Inequality is a major topic at the moment, and rightly so, and although there are economic causes, at the heart of the gulf is the worst inequality of all – one of culture. Until we start to tackle the perverse state systems that help to create this problem, both Britain and America will continue to come apart.