Fishtown, Philadelphia, sits perched on the banks of the Delaware River, a working-class neighborhood with Irish Catholic roots. Historically, its economy was anchored in the fishing industry. More recently, gentrification has transformed the old neighborhood to the point where a recent issue of Vogue declared it “the city’s latest hub of cool.” Chic cafes and five-star eateries are Fishtown’s new icons, as hipsterism seizes yet another working-class stronghold.
That’s quite ironic, given the cultural significance of “Fishtown” in this last electoral year. In the minds of most Americans, Fishtown is now a symbol of the white America that globalism forgot, where the jobs have dried up and the people aren’t willing to take it anymore. But just like the real Fishtown, the “Fishtown” of populist lore is more complicated than its champions would have us believe.
Fishtown and ‘Fishtown’
Born in the pages of Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart,” “Fishtown” was a sociological thought experiment designed to show the adverse effects of economic and cultural change on America’s working class. Using data from the General Social Survey, Murray created two statistical “towns” based on education and profession. His findings are now the stuff of political legend. The white-collar professionals of “Belmont” are mostly thriving, while blue-collar “Fishtown” is not.
“Coming Apart” made a splash in 2012, but became even more salient in 2016 when “Fishtown” militarized under the banners of Donald Trump, derailing the old GOP, and throwing America into a new political chapter. Murray’s complaint about the “bubbling” of the upper classes has become a populist credo, the stuff of Fox News base-beating and right-wing talk radio. Celebrities like Tucker Carlson have made small fortunes on popularized versions of many of Murray’s arguments.
We all understand now about the role of universities in creating a self-segregated elite. We all know how our sneering cosmopolitans lock themselves away in “SuperZips” where they don’t have to think about how the other 95 percent lives. Murray’s work was transformative for the political right.
Here’s the problem. Today’s populists read “Coming Apart” selectively. There’s a part they love to remember, and a part they’d rather forget. Both parts are essential, however, if we really want to renew our culture and help the struggling inhabitants of “Fishtown.”
Here’s the Part We Remember
“Coming Apart” was more than just a sociological study. Murray had an overt social agenda: he wanted America to come back together. In gently chiding tones, he urged the educated elite to un-bubble themselves and assist in rebuilding a common culture. Rediscover the rewards of a shared civic life. Get back to maintaining the guardrails of an ordered civilization.
By way of personalizing his message, Murray even included a quiz: “How Thick Is Your Bubble?” It was something of a gimmick, but with a pointed social message. Murray asks: Have you or your spouse been fishing over the past year? Do you spend time with people who smoke, or drive pickup trucks? Have you ever decorated a high school float? If yes, award yourself common-man points. You are normal, or at least have associated with normal people enough to have some understanding of Real America. If not, you’re bubbled. You’re just an out-of-touch elitist.
This aspect of Murray’s narrative resonated hugely with conservatives. By explaining how liberals came to dominate the corridors of power, it validated our sense of grievance against intolerant progressives. It explained why the deck always feels stacked. It enabled even the obviously privileged (like Carlson) to feel like the good guys, provided they were willing to battling the vicious stereotypes of snooty cosmopolitans who thought they were too good for Applebee’s. Meanwhile, casting liberals as the true out-of-touch rubes was utterly delicious.
This is all very easy to understand. Unfortunately, there are some less-savory details of “Coming Apart” that conservatives were all too anxious to forget.
Here’s the Part We Forget
Murray’s “Fishtown” has some real grievances. It also has some real social problems. Populists don’t love talking about those, unless to blame elites for not noticing or caring.
Murray’s upper-middle-class professionals are not the callous and un-American “Davos Men” of Steve Bannon’s rhetoric. They’re guilty of some mostly benign neglect, but in general their lifestyles are fairly admirable.
They’re disciplined and hard-working. They embrace healthy life habits. They are conscientious parents who get involved in their (bubbled) communities. It’s also interesting to note that Murray sees his upper middle class as a genuine cognitive elite. He actively defends the thesis that higher IQs (not just a socially “stacked deck”) have been critical in helping them get ahead.
In short, Murray in “Coming Apart” seems to regard the residents of “Belmont” as fine exemplars of many core American values. He doesn’t want to see them deposed. He just wants them to try harder to reach out to their less-fortunate compatriots, which is especially critical because “Fishtown” needs some help in this regard.
What social patterns do we see on the other side of the line? We see a rash of non-marital births. We see scores of people who are neither working nor looking for work. We see low levels of community involvement and less parental investment in child-rearing. We see more substance abuse and less healthy diets.
We don’t have to choose between a theory suggesting that “Fishtown” needs more and better professional and educational opportunities, and one suggesting that Fishtowners need more discipline and better life habits. These claims can easily both be true.
But if they are both true, then we won’t be able to lift “Fishtown” up just by tearing “Belmont” down. Populism likes to lionize the common man, but that wasn’t Murray’s impulse. He wanted the elite to “preach what they practice,” negatively judging Fishtowners’ misbehavior for their own good and the good of our shared society.
Towards a Common Culture
We certainly don’t lack for irony in 2017. As market forces transformed the real Fishtown into a chic foodie paradise, Murray’s appeal for American togetherness became fuel for a rapidly escalating class war. Ah, for a dull moment!
“Coming Apart” can still offer a valuable critique of American society, but we need to remember all of it. Americans from all backgrounds deserve to be remembered, and to have their interests represented politically. If we are genuinely interested in rebuilding civic life, we should work on the assumption that every group has some valuable insights to bring to the table.