Coming Apart, and Back Together?

Ryan T. Anderson
February 8th, 2012
Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 is already making waves. On its release date last week, David Brooks devoted his New York Times column to it, and Brad Wilcox it for the Wall Street Journal. Earlier in January, Murray had published two lengthy essays adapted from the book, one in the Journal (here) and one in the New Criterion (here). You should read these but also the book, for Murray is a deft thinker and captivating writer who brings data to life. And the story he tells in Coming Apart is fascinating, frightening, and deadly serious.

This is the centerpiece of Murray's argument: The American project can be sustained only by virtue; and culture, more than politics or economics, is the social force that sustains (or corrupts) our virtues. The Founders knew this. For them, it was a truism that our republican form of self-government depended on a virtuous people who could exercise individual self-governance. And from the founding generation until 1960, a shared national culture fostered the virtues necessary to sustain both the American project and our authentic happiness, which Murray defines as "lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole."

But since 1960, Murray argues, the virtues of the bottom third of America's population have weakened, and two social classes with divergent cultures and little interaction have emerged, threatening the future of the American project. His thesis leaves us wondering how this happened and how we can fix it, but his book disappoints those who seek causal explanations or plausible solutions. He focuses on the scene before us, not on how it arose or how we can change it. (I should add that the cultural changes he reports aren't based on race or ethnicity; Murray filters out these variables by focusing on non-Latino "white America.")

Murray defines the "founding virtues" as industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion. The basic idea is that one should work hard to get ahead in life, follow the law and keep one's word, be faithful to one's spouse and do right by one's children, and worship that author of the universe who makes everything - morality included - intelligible. Culture long sustained these virtues through fraternal organizations such as the Elks, Moose, and Odd Fellows, television, cinema and radio, the Sunday pulpit, and the McGuffey Readers used in American schools.

For Murray, what made America exceptional before 1960 was that almost everyone shared and participated in this culture. The rich and powerful weren't hermetically sealed off from the rest of society. People tended to view themselves and treat others as if all were of the same class. He points, for example, to a 1963 Gallup poll in which "95 percent of the respondents said they were working class (50 percent) or middle class (45 percent)." Following Tocqueville's observation that "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations," this attitude built up what Robert Putnam termed "social capital" - connections to other people, norms of reciprocity, trust, and neighborliness. These voluntary associations, Murray notes, "drew their membership from across the social classes, and ensured regular, close interaction among people of different classes." And the classes weren't all that different: they lived out the same virtues, valued the same goods, and led similar lifestyles. They watched the same TV stations, listened to the same music, ate the same food, lived in homes more or less comparable, drove similar cars.

The culture of the 1940's and 1950's taught Murray what it meant to be a man:

To be a man means that you are brave, loyal, and true. When you are in the wrong, you own up and take your punishment. You don't take advantage of women. As a husband, you support and protect your wife and children. You are gracious in victory and a good sport in defeat. Your word is your bond. Your handshake is as good as your word. It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. When the ship goes down, you put the women and children into the lifeboats and wave good-bye with a smile.

He admits that his summary sounds like a list of clichés, but that's his point: "they were clichés precisely because boys understood that this was the way they were supposed to behave." School, church, and the airwaves reinforced the message: "It was taken for granted that television programs were supposed to validate the standards that were commonly accepted as part of 'the American way of life' - a phrase that was still in common use in 1963." It was a time, in fact, when the Production Code of the Motion Picture Association of America could include this line: "The subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned." Murray isn't blind to the many problems that plagued America during this time - racism, sexism, poverty, pollution - but he insists that the culture did support many crucial virtues.

And then it came apart. In the past 50 years, a "new upper class" and a "new lower class" have formed. The new upper class, accounting for about 20 percent of the population, has been formed by competitive admissions in higher education that select for intelligence, a new economy that values cognitive ability above all else, and marriage patterns that couple successful intelligent people, who go on to have equally talented children. Living, working, and socializing together, they've formed a distinct upper-class culture while continuing to live out the founding virtues: crime is low and industriousness is high, predictably, but they also marry, stay married, and practice religion at remarkably high levels. And, as a result, they're pretty happy.

Things aren't so good for the lower 30 percent. Few people go to college, only half of those aged 30-49 are married (and their marriages aren't as happy as those on the top), 45 percent of their children are born out of wedlock, only 60 percent of adults work at least 40 hours a week (only 53 percent since the recession), crime is up, and religious practice is down: 60 percent are religiously disengaged, and only 12 percent, by Murray's estimate, constitute the "religious core." This last factor is particularly troubling, for as Putnam noted, about "half of all associational memberships are church-related." Not surprisingly, these behaviors produce rather unhappy lives.

Murray's observations aren't novel. David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise popularized some of these trends at the top, and Brad Wilcox's research at the University of Virginia has highlighted them at the bottom and top, and in the middle. While Murray doesn't explain what caused the bottom third's plight, he does note broader cultural changes that began at the same time: the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution and introduction of the contraceptive pill, and the introduction of government welfare programs through the War on Poverty. Surely these had some impact.

So how does one rebuild a common culture, one that promotes virtue for those on the bottom? Murray predicts two futures. His pessimistic vision sees a hollow elite. Though they enjoy great wealth and social capital, the new upper class lacks the self-confidence necessary to defend the founding virtues. They ascribe to "ecumenical niceness," whereby one is to live and let live. They "lost self-confidence in the rightness of [their] own customs and values, and preach nonjudgmentalism instead." This attitude contributes to the "unseemliness" of some elite behavior: Aaron Spellings' 56,500-square-foot home and a Pfizer CEO's $99 million golden parachute (after poor performance) are prime examples. If the elite really are hollow, then for Murray "all is lost": the class is "as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way."

Murray's optimistic outlook, however, foresees a great civic awakening. Murray favors this event as the likely future, though tentatively and for impressionistic reasons. He predicts the following: The elite will wish to avoid an American version of the European collapses. They will realize that the welfare state cannot work for scientific, moral, and fiscal reasons. And they will rally around American ideals, start "preaching what they practice," and engage the bottom of society. Murray doesn't ask that the elite "sacrifice their self-interest," only that they recognize its breadth: "a life well lived requires engagement with those around us." Though it might "be pleasant to lead a glossy life, it is ultimately more rewarding - and more fun - to lead a textured life, and to be in the midst of others who are leading textured lives."

I have trouble seeing this prediction as a viable solution to the problems Murray has described. First, too many elites are deeply committed to the sexual revolution and secularism - and thus are actively working to undermine the founding virtues of marriage and religion. Second, I fear that many of the new elites practice the founding virtues only for their utility, not their moral value.

As to the first point, Brooks in his review claims that Murray's data show that "it's wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It's wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites." But is this really true if the Hugh Hefners and Margaret Sangers of the world shaped American culture post1960? Today's popular culture no longer promotes the founding virtues - we need only consider our music, movies, television shows, and the public morality imposed on us. There's no denying that there has been a coordinated effort to undermine the family, morality, and religion in America.

As to the second point, I've noticed a sort of practical Machiavellianism among the undergraduates I've taught - many of whom come from and are going to the new upper class, though most are of the middle. Insofar as they behave in ways that conform to traditional morality, it's largely because they've figured out that those behaviors lead to the most practical success. Rather than practicing moral virtues, they've acquired Machiavelli's "effective truth," virtu. They're good utility-maximizers. But they don't believe in a binding morality, in obligations to virtuous behavior, or in any sort of moral sanction from God. If they do believe in God, it's a God without demands. It's what Christian Smith described as a "therapeutic deism."

You can even see this phenomenon in Murray's own language. The harshest denunciation he can muster is to call something "unseemly" - a term more suggestive of aesthetic than binding moral judgment. And the biggest push he can give the new upper class to help the new lower class is to say that a "textured life" is more fulfilling than a "glossy" one.

We are left with an elite who through education, law, and media have torn down the values and beliefs that made America prosperous, even while they still behave more or less in accord with those values for strategic, utility-maximizing reasons. If this is true, I don't foresee the optimistic future in which they choose to interact with the lower class, nor how their engagement could fix the problems of the lower class. University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax has noted that we need to create and sustain "simple rules for simple people." While the particularly cunning may be able to navigate this world by cost-benefit analysis for their long-term happiness, most people can't. They'll default into maximizing their short-term welfare. What we need, and used to have, are a series of shortcuts, heuristics, mores, and life-scripts - culture - that help people navigate their lives without recreating the rules from scratch.

Wax's analysis "reveals why preserving a 'marriage culture' is not just a matter of ideological commitment. Its most important effects are in encouraging the daily habits of thought and action that foster lasting bonds. Strong marriage norms help guide and shape decisions that lead to optimal choices." Other research shows both that marriage causes behavioral change and that non-marriage can explain cultural pathologies. As the late Steve Nock demonstrated, after their wedding men tend to spend more time at work, less time at bars, more time at religious gatherings, less time in jail, and more time with family.

But I don't see how Murray's suggestions will restore this lifestyle. Regardless of the technicalities, the recent discussions on Public Discourse show that God and morality are linked at a conceptual level - and even more strongly on a psychological and motivational level. What's more likely to prompt a new elite to interact with the poor: a discussion of unseemly behavior and textured life, or seeing Christ in the poor and hearing commandments to love one's neighbor? What's more likely to help restore the founding virtues: documenting how they lead to long-term self-interest and utility-maximization, or believing that God desires virtue of his people and sanctions those who fail to practice them - especially those who work to destroy them?

Murray is right to remind us that republican self-government relies on virtue, and that virtue needs the support of culture. But he should go a step further to ask what creates culture. George Weigel reminds us that at the heart of culture is cult, religion. Murray's data and analysis don't tell us enough about the types of religion being practiced, and the specific beliefs being fostered. Therapeutic deism and sexual revolution a healthy culture do not make. But a morally demanding God, with transcendent values, just might.