Heather Wilhelm/RealClearBooks/February 3, 2012
Americans, the saying goes, don't like to talk about class -- but they certainly enjoy reading about it. They also love to see how they stack up against their peers.
One of the most notorious and snobby books on the topic, Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, capitalizes on this repressed American passion with its "Living Room Scale," which measures social class based on your décor. A worn Oriental rug will earn you eight points; a new one (and, by extension, new money) will lower your score. A ceiling 10 feet or higher is good; the presence of Reader's Digest, framed diplomas, or "any work of art depicting cowboys" (sorry, pardners) is not.
Charles Murray, the prominent political scientist, doesn't shy away from awkward subjects -- he's best known for The Bell Curve, which stirred up a progressive hornet's nest in the mid-1990s -- and he tackles the charged issue of class in his new and important book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. America, Murray writes, "is coming apart at the seams -- not ethnic seams, but the seams of class." Culture, not money, divides the new upper and lower classes, which live in increasingly different worlds: one rarefied, walled-off, and at the helm of the country; the other dysfunctional, adrift, and hapless when it comes to the game of life.
Tracking white Americans to avoid blurring trends with race and ethnicity, the numbers Murray presents are startling: In the new upper class, which amounts to about 20 percent of the country, out-of-wedlock births are rare: around 6-8 percent. For the more dysfunctional working class, which accounts for around 30 percent of the country, the number is mind-boggling: 42-48 percent. The numbers also turn a few stereotypes on their heads: In the lower working class, for instance, the rate of church attendance has dropped at nearly double the rate as that of the supposedly secularized elite.
America's working class, Coming Apart argues, has increasingly forsaken traditional values like marriage, religion, industriousness, and honesty -- and, as a result, it is rotting from within. Happiness levels are down; participation in the labor force is down; television watching (an average of 35 hours a week) is up.
Elites, meanwhile, have quietly embraced traditional values, segregated into upper-class residential enclaves, and largely lost touch with the realities of those who haven't. Murray sees this as ominous, particularly for public policy. "This growing isolation" of the elites, he writes, "has been accompanied by growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power."
While he declines to rate the rug in your living room, Murray does include a quiz to determine your upper-class street cred: "How Thick Is Your Bubble?" It's rather entertaining, delving into your NASCAR knowledge, hard-knocks childhood stories, and more, but I actually think it could be shortened into one question: Do you become horrified when you enter a Wal-Mart, not just because of an alarming selection of T-shirts with dramatic white wolves howling in a lightning storm airbrushed on them (also a staple at truck stops), but because of America's raging obesity problem? Done, done, and done. (If you have never entered a Wal-Mart, well then, we're also done.)
And here we get to an odd anthropological trait of the new upper class: a rather contradictory mix of high-level snobbery and quasi-religious "nonjudgmentalism." Your typical elite enjoys saying snooty things about cultural middle America (Obama's infamous "clinging to guns and religion" comment, for instance, or David Carr of the New York Times spouting off about "low-sloping foreheads" in "the middle places" of America). But when it comes to judging things like, say, rampant divorce, or having children out of wedlock, or being on welfare while also having children out of wedlock (just writing that, by the way, feels terribly judgmental) the new upper-classers tend to bite their tongues.
"Nonjudgmentalism is one of the more baffling features of the new-upper-class culture," Murray writes. "If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself. The new upper class knows the secret to maximizing the chances of leading a happy life, but it refuses to let anyone else in on the secret." Ultimately, he argues, the key to American success will be the willingness of the upper class to preach what they practice when it comes to marriage, children, religion, work, and more. But first, members of the upper class have to believe that their values actually matter -- and to understand why they do.
Coming Apart is a must-read for many reasons, but its main value comes from its insistence on drilling down beyond materialism. In a book ostensibly about class, Murray spends much of his time exploring the things that really matter in life, fighting against the presumption that we're here to merely pass our days as pleasantly as possible.
"If we ask what are the domains through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life -- achieve happiness," Murray writes, "the answer is that there are just four: Family, vocation, community, and faith." The advancement of the welfare state, he argues, results in the slow gutting of these domains, as well as personal responsibility, which are "the institutions through which people live satisfying lives." This cultural disintegration has had a disastrous human cost for the working class. It's a cost that many in the new upper class don't experience or understand.
Unfortunately, in today's political landscape, the idea that government "help" can sap human virtue is a radical concept. "Those in the new upper class who don't care about politics don't mind the drift toward the European model," Murray points out, "because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience -- much cheaper than actually having to get involved in the lives of their fellow citizens."
Even the American political right, often caricatured as welfare-bashers, can fall into this trap: Republican front-runner and much-maligned rich guy Mitt Romney recently stepped in it by declaring he wasn't worried about the very poor, because, well, "we have a very ample safety net." Ah, then! Nothing to worry about. Everything's fine!
Murray ends his book with a bit of optimism, confident that "the more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated." A more accurate understanding of human nature, he argues, would lead to an understanding of the importance of traditional values and virtues -- for everyone, not just the new upper class -- and a restoration of the American experiment.
I hope he's right, but I'm a bit skeptical. In the pages of Coming Apart, we often find Murray bending over backward to explain obvious points, either to avoid offending his more sensitive readers (or to make sure no one thinks he's a racist). But certain facts -- say, that some people are smarter than other people, or that smart people who marry each other tend to have smart children -- tend to infuriate a certain sector of the population, polite explanation or no.
In another instance, Murray points out that children clearly do the best with two married, biological parents, but also acknowledges that "I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties."
Some of this stems from good intentions: People don't want to make struggling single moms or divorced parents feel worse than they already do. Much of this comes, as do many of the building blocks of hyper-progressive politics, from plain old wishful thinking. And some of it stems from a subtle hostility toward the idea of universal virtues existing at all.
"Discussing solutions is secondary to this book, just as understanding causes is secondary," Murray writes. "The important thing is to look unblinkingly at the problem." That task alone, it seems, is more than a big enough challenge for today.