Charles Murray is one of the most insightful Americans of his generation, with multiple watershed books to his name. His most recent classic, “Coming Apart,” seems spookily prescient in this election year. Four years before the rise of Donald Trump, Murray warned us that a disaffected, white underclass was forming, and that elites were making a huge mistake by ignoring their grievances.
“Coming Apart” explains how white Americans have, over the past half-century, bifurcated into two widely separated groups: a high-functioning but alarmingly cloistered upper class, and a struggling, increasingly dysfunctional lower class. “Belmont” Americans, Murray warns, are wealthy, highly educated and disproportionately influential. And they have no idea how the other three-quarters lives.
In summer 2016, Murray looks like a prophet. But precisely because he gets so much right, it’s easy to miss the things Murray gets wrong. Happily, Yuval Levin’s just-released book, “The Fractured Republic,” speaks to many of the weaker points of Murray’s analysis. Admirers of Murray should read Levin’s book for a more complete view of where our society stands in the stream of American history.
Levin’s analysis is a bit more optimistic than Murray’s. While both men recognize that there is no way back to where we were half a century ago, Levin sees more promising possibilities for the road ahead.
Murray’s Greatest-Generation Fixation
In broad outline, Murray’s mistakes are twofold. First, he indulges too much his nostalgia for the mid-century, post-World War II society of his childhood. He is clearly inclined to see our egalitarian, middle-class, post-war society as a particularly fitting expression of American values. The 1950s (when everyone ate similar foods and enjoyed the same television programs in architecturally similar suburbs) seem to represent for him a kind of original position for Americans, making later developments seem primarily like a departure from our ideals.
When I first read “Coming Apart” in 2012, this problem didn’t seem too egregious. Murray is a subtle thinker, and “Coming Apart” is a deeply insightful book. For three semesters running, I read it with classes of undergraduates to fuel discussions about social justice in America today. Even then, I simultaneously assigned Walter Russell Mead’s “The Once And Future Liberalism” to balance out the distortions of Murray’s somewhat nostalgic mid-twentieth-century-oriented perspective.
In light of Trumpism and the possible splintering of the Republican Party, those distortions have become more significant. If we’re going to give him credit for being a prophet, we should also note where his analysis might mislead.
What’s So Special About Late-Twentieth-Century Whites?
The subtitle of “Coming Apart” is “The State of White America: 1960 to 2010.” Murray gives a very compelling analysis of the demographic data we have on American whites across that time period, but some natural follow-up questions might be: Why those dates? And why whites?
He has plausible answers to both. He focuses on those years because he is charting a significant change that took place over that period. He looks exclusively at whites because the trends he wants to discuss are most easily seen in the white population. Other ethnic groups (most obviously black Americans) have been affected by a broader range of social changes, and especially by a major decline in racial prejudice.
That’s very much a good thing, but it complicates the causal story, making it difficult to chart the impact of other economic and social trends on minority groups. Few would argue that anti-white racism has been a serious or pervasive social problem in contemporary America, so focusing on whites enables Murray to isolate the relevant trends more clearly.
That’s reasonable enough, but even if we understand the parameters of his study, we should still ask whether and how they limit its capacity to illuminate broader social anxieties. America has been “coming apart” since 1960. Is that necessarily a bad thing? To what extent was 1960 a healthy or representative moment in American history? Is it either possible or desirable to be “together” to the extent that we were in those post-war decades?
Nostalgia Politics, Left and Right
Murray concedes that mid-century America was not in every sense a golden age. Unjust discrimination (especially racism, but perhaps sexism as well) was a serious problem. Cultural uniformity could be stultifying. Americans today enjoy (at least in principle) a dramatically expanded range of cuisines, entertainments, and professional opportunities. Modern life can be very good indeed for those with the resources to enjoy it.
Despite that, Murray is more concerned than celebratory. He wants our society to be less elitist and more inclusive. He misses the solidarity and cultural cohesiveness of the post-war years. He wants e pluribus unum: an America in which congressmen can be the children of factory workers, and factory workers can occupy a respected social space. More simply, he wants to be a middle-class society again.
Murray isn’t alone in cherishing this dream. In one way or another, most Americans seem nostalgic for that same bygone era. Our grandparents’ era still dominates our political imagination far more than any period that came before.
Admittedly, we don’t all miss precisely the same things. Liberals yearn to recover the trusted governmental institutions, hyper-regulation, and powerful unions that they see as the foundation for prosperity and social justice. They see the Reagan era (wherein that arrangement largely unraveled) as a dark time, although the sexual revolution still represents in their minds a kind of moral awakening.
Conservatives are inclined to celebrate our freer and more dynamic markets, but they lament the cultural changes. They miss the broad-based Judeo-Christian moral consensus that once bolstered marriage and family life. They’d like to recover the clear-cut gender norms that once gave us high birth rates, delicious home-cooked meals, and a respected social space for (especially white) men who were willing to work.
Thus, we find ourselves in an odd position wherein most Americans want to recover some portion of the mid-century social arrangement, while cheering the demise of the other half. The reality is that we can’t have either, because the economic and cultural elements of 1950s America were interrelated, with both heavily dependent on contingent circumstances that we aren’t in a position to recreate.
Coming Apart Gracefully
Our victory in WWII gave us a massive burst of cultural confidence, along with a strong sense of national solidarity. Because other nations were still picking up their pieces after the war, our economy was relatively untroubled by global competition. A hyper-regulated and unionized economy was relatively light on innovation, but it created a large number of steady, lifetime jobs with fixed benefit packages. That gave working white men their desired social space, and supported the culturally uniform, mostly-suburban 1950s culture that conservatives remember so fondly.
This unusual moment is Murray’s starting point in “Coming Apart.” He’s largely right about what’s happened to our society since that time. But because nostalgia for mid-century life is so strong and so widespread, relatively few commentators remarked on the limitations of an argument that affords a quasi-normative status to such an aberrant historical era.
Murray ends up obscuring a point that Levin drives home more clearly: in “coming apart,” America isn’t so much departing from its historical norm as returning to it. Through the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, our society was far more diverse, both culturally and socio-economically. In the mid-twentieth century we went through a period of unusual uniformity, and since that time we have again grown more diverse.
The good news, obviously, is that greater diversity need not mean the end of our republic. We’ve lived with it before, so there’s reason to hope we can do it again. For that to be possible, however, we need to be courageous about weaning ourselves from outdated ideologies that have kept our politics churning for the past few decades. We need to craft policies and narratives that can speak to present-day challenges.
In periods of rapid social change, it can be challenging to keep our optimism and our pessimism in proper balance. There are reasons to prefer an overwhelmingly middle-class society. When sub-cultures come apart, there will always be tensions between them, and adjudicating those conflicts will be an ongoing challenge for statesmen and social leaders. We fight over material benefits, but also over social space, cultural norms, and respect. Only the simple-minded really believe that “embracing diversity” can be consistently exciting and pleasurable.
With proper historical perspective, however, we may be able to alleviate some of the despair that increasingly permeates our politics and civic life. If our goal is to recover the unified, solidarity-rich culture of the 1950s, then the cause is truly lost. We are too fractured. It doesn’t follow, however, that the American Dream is dead, or that our nation can no longer prosper. We must look for ways to come apart gracefully, using our diversity to mutual benefit wherever possible. As longtime proponents of federalism, conservatives already have many of the key concepts that might make this transition possible.
This is a dark time in American politics, and reading Murray, one might easily come to think that social decline is inevitable. Perhaps it is. As patriotic Americans, however, we must do our best to try to envision a way forward, so our descendants can enjoy the freedoms our grandparents fought to leave to us. Leaven Murray with Levin, and start thinking about how we can create a twenty-first-century America with room for all of our citizens to prosper.