Once, white Americans across all classes shared a common culture when it came to “the basics”– marriage, work, religion and law-abidingness, argues political scientist Charles Murray in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. That’s all changed in the past five decades. “The white working class has deteriorated substantially on those four dimensions. It’s fallen away from some central cultural institutions that have been crucial to what used to be called the American way of life,” he told The Fiscal Times this week. “Meanwhile, a new upper class has developed a distinctive culture in their delayed marriage and childbearing; in their child-rearing practices; in their work environments; in their comparatively sparse exposure to mainstream film and television products; and in their increasing geographic isolation. They’re increasingly ignorant about how the rest of America lives.”
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With those at the top and bottom barely interacting, Murray argues that American culture is not just coming apart at the seams – it’s already there. And dangerously so. “It’s a bad thing for people who have a great deal of influence not to know what kind of country they’re governing,” he says. The solution? “America’s new upper class must once again fall in love with what makes America different.”
To avoid the controversy about race and IQ that surrounded his earlier and probably best-known book, The Bell Curve, Murray focused solely on white America this time around. He wanted “to get rid of distractions,” he says. “If I’d included everybody, readers could reasonably wonder much of the problems are grounded in America’s racial and ethnic history. [This way], those explanations are out the window.”
Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of other books that include Losing Ground and What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Edited excerpts from our interview:
The Fiscal Times (TFT): American social and economic mobility is not dead, you say. How so, given your thesis?
Charles Murray (CM): If you’re a talented youth, especially academically, with good grades and good test scores, it doesn’t make any difference where you’re from or what your background is. And if you’re really academically talented, the elite colleges have gotten very good at identifying you and paying you to be there. So the way up has never been more open for the talented.
TFT: How about mobility for others?
CM: The ways in which it’s not as good are a consequence of what happens in a meritocracy over generations. It used to be shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations: One man makes the money; his children spend some of it but not all of it; then the third generation spends all of it and has to go back to work again. But that was when the guy making the money was marrying the girl next door, or marrying the girl he meets at the country club. So probably they’re pretty average in ability. These days, among the really successful, the male lawyer from Harvard Law School who’s a partner in a big New York law firm tends to marry the woman he’s met during litigation who’s from Yale Law School and is also really smart. They’re passing down to their children not just money, but talent. After awhile, you tend to get more of a layer cake kind of society, than in the early days – when huge amounts of talent were located throughout society, without regard to socioeconomic status.