It’s been a month and a half since I read Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010” and this is a good reminder that I need to blog more quickly after finishing a book. My passions about “Coming Apart” have cooled considerably since and now I’m struggling a bit to capture how I felt after I initially read this book.
I should say now, as Murray does in his introduction, that the subtitle is indeed, “curious.” Murray notes that “for decades now, trends in American life have been presented in terms of race and ethnicity” and says most research about poverty, education, and so on, compares whites to non-whites. The author says that he uses white American demographics to help remind readers that we aren’t “looking at stresses that can be remedied by attacking the legacy of racism or restricting immigration.” His bottom line—this book isn’t describing a condition that faces white America—it faces all of us.
So what’s the condition he describes? That we are growing apart in ways that are troubling for our society. In fact, I recall being so troubled by some of the statistics that I was left mouth agape at several points. Borrowing heavily from Robert Putnam and David Brooks, Murray describes the new upper class and the narrow elite and the world they inhabit. It is entirely different from the world that “everyone else” lives in and Murray presents the differences in stark terms, using statistics about health, religion, employment, education, family structure, and of course, income.
This new narrow elite is segregating itself from the rest of America. Members of the narrow elite are more likely to live near one another, marry one another, go to the same schools and frequent the same cultural institutions. Murray decries the fact that they are increasingly removed from the rest of society. In the prelude to Chapter 4, Murray muses that a “new upper class that makes decisions affecting the lives of everyone else but increasingly doesn’t know much about how everybody else lives is vulnerable to making mistakes.” Again, it’s a troubling predicament that Murray presents. (Chapter 4 contains a quiz that will help you determine if you are “connected” to the lives of “ordinary Americans.”)
The device Murray uses to frighten all of us is to hypothesize about two towns—Belmont and Fishtown. He describes Belmont as the place where “everyone has a bachelor’s or graduate degree and works in the high prestige professions or management, or is married to such a person.” Fishtown is the opposite—“nobody has more than a high school diploma” and everyone is in a blue collar or service job. It’s close enough to describe it as the top 20% vs. the lower 30%. Then he shows how in measurements of his four identified Founding Virtues—industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity—Fishtown has fallen incredibly behind since 1960. Fishtown works less, commits more crimes, no longer values marriage and family, and is less religious.
Murray lost me a bit with his identified “Founding Virtues”—I don’t quibble with the importance of industriousness and so on, but I’m not crazy about how he makes some judgments on how different individuals should value religion or family structure. I could only get so far with that criticism though—the data Murray presents in his description of Fishtown and Belmont is haunting. Let me give an example—there are many in the book: Divorce in Belmont rose from nearly 0% in 1960 to just about 7% in 2010. It’s held flat since the 80s. But in Fishtown? It rose from 4% in 1960 to nearly 35% in 2010. It’s still trending up. When he describes the vast differences in family structure, Murray says that the issues in Fishtown are so troubling that “it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”
After presenting all this data that shows how far apart Belmont and Fishtown are on the Founding Virtues, Murray ends with a statement that, I think, reflects his overall worry that we are “Coming Apart.” As he is talking about the new lower class, he encourages readers to think of a member of “your own extended family” that may not have their act together. They are “the despair of parents and siblings, even though they seem perfectly pleasant when you meet them. That’s mostly what the new lower class involves. Individually, they are not much of a problem. Collectively, they can destroy the kind of civil society that America requires.”
It should be noted that Murray’s description of the new upper class / elite is just as grotesque as his picture of the “lower class.” However, at times it feels like he is sitting on high, saying “look how bad the lower class is doing.”
Murray drifts in Part III of his book, as he begins to offer solutions that resemble a political philosophy that many won’t agree with. He seems to over-rely on a theory that the “counterculture” of the sixties created many of these problems. He laments “transfer payments” which presumably would include things like government-provided health care and food stamps and seems to enjoy prancing all over something he calls “The European Model.” He’s perfectly concise in explaining the data that should give us cause for concern; he is less than clear as he tries to explain what needs to happen to reverse these troubling trends. (Though his section in Part III on Unseemliness is excellent.)
So I’ve mostly recapped here and not offered much of an opinion. The book generated hot viewpoints, including a back-and-forth between Paul Krugman and David Brooks in the New York Times that is worth reading. Brooks concludes that we need a national service program that would force some of the top 20% to spend time with the bottom 30%. He’s not wrong. Krugman rebuts Murray hard, saying this isn’t a debate over morals, it’s a debate over money. He makes a good point too.
So my short take: Lots of liberals tried to discredit this book, and I think that’s a mistake. It’s also a mistake for conservatives to use this book to advance their current agenda. As I’ve stated over and over, the data in this book is astonishing. It must be considered. If only it could be considered in a thoughtful manner. But instead—and here’s where I think our biggest problem lies—our government isn’t capable of thoughtfully considering anything. We return to our corners and play to win elections and not improve our country. Data like this becomes a tool to advance a partisan agenda, instead of becoming a moment that makes us all stop and say, what can we do together to improve the current state of our society? Murray is making the case that our civil society is broken. He may be right. What’s more? Many of the institutions that we rely on to mend society are just as broken.
And that’s why this book is so frightening.
Thanks for reading.