A Libertarian Who Sounds Like a Social Conservative

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010

  • Charles Murray
  • Crown Forum, 2012; 407 pages, $27

Members of the notorious Baby Boom generation, including many like this reviewer who were born in the 1950s and reached adolescence in the 1960s, know from personal experience that the America they are passing on to their twenty-something children is not their fathers’ America. The country has undergone so many fundamental changes, changes that no one living in the 1960s could have predicted, it’s difficult to know where to start to capture all that has transpired. But Charles Murray, a preeminent political and social scientist who exercises skillful command over a wealth of surveys, statistics, and time-series datasets, provides the most comprehensive and understandable accounting to date. Consequently, his diagnosis of America at 2010 goes much further than claiming that a segment of the population (the poor) is Losing Ground, the title of his 1984 blockbuster that shook the political establishment. No, the situation is more precarious. In Coming Apart, Murray quantifies the myriad ways in which the “American project” and America’s civic culture are unraveling “at the seams.” According to Murray, “The trends signify damage to the heart of American community and the ways in which the great majority of Americans pursue satisfying lives. The trends of the last century matter a lot. Many of the best and most exceptional qualities of American culture cannot survive unless they are reversed.”

In making his case, Murray chronicles in exhaustive detail the ways in which America is no longer the predominantly middle-class society it was in 1963—when household-income differences were relatively modest, when only 8 percent of the adult population had college degrees, when 81 percent of workers were employed in nonprofessional jobs, and when, in Murrays’ words, “marriage was nearly universal and divorce was rare across all races”—but a highly segregated one of two socioeconomic classes that are polar opposites, the pivotal difference being marital status, not race. Or lack of participation in core social institutions, not poverty.

As he describes the caste system emerging, the “new upper class,” a subset of the upper-middle class (or the top 21 percent on his scale combining education and income measures), and the “new lower class,” representing a subset of the working class (or the bottom 30 percent), share very little in common not only with each other and also with America of fifty years ago. Moreover, its geographic seclusion keeps the new upper class from getting out into the real America. This new upper class includes, per Murray, a “narrow elite” of about 100,000 adults who directly influence the nation’s culture, the economy, and politics, as well as a “broad elite” of roughly 2.4 million adults and their spouses who are influential in a city or region. Both the narrow and broad elite are isolated in ways that translate, laments Murray, into a “growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power.”

The book’s discovery of a newly emergent class of highly educated, successful, and affluent Americans in a league of their own is not entirely original. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (Grand New Party, 2008), Bill Bishop (The Big Sort, 2008), David Brooks (Bobos in Paradise, 2000), and even Paul Fussell (Class, 1984) have also explored the same phenomenon. But Murray surpasses these other analysts in the gravitas and quantitative rigor he brings to the table. Confirming the isolation of the upper-middle class, he maps out with mathematical precision where its members live and procreate: in elite neighborhoods called SuperZips, or zip codes representing the top five centiles of his composite scale, and zip codes quite removed from those on the other side of the tracks. Confirming that birds of a feather flock together, his mapping reveals the inflation of “elite bubbles” surrounding New York (finance), Washington (politics and media), San Francisco (information technology), and Los Angeles (entertainment) that run the institutions of America.

Murray also points out that these bubbles are not anything like your father’s Philadelphia Main Line or Chicago North Shore, other than the fact that marriage remains the norm among adults in these neighborhoods, though they tie the knot significantly later in life, and bear fewer children, than their parents did. The big difference, relative to a generation ago, is economic. These elite locales have been the chief beneficiaries of the new economy because their residents—who dance to the rhythms of globalization in partnerships created by assortative mating—are perfectly poised to exploit the I.Q.-driven meritocracy Murray wrote about in The Bell Curve. It is no wonder these communities experienced a doubling of household income in real terms as well as a near tripling of the percentage of adults with college degrees between 1960 and 2000. Murray believes these trends only accelerated during the last decade. Murray also sees the dynamic William Voegeli explores in his accompanying essay, of privileged children of the new upper class multiplying their advantages when it comes to Ivy-League admissions, mating patterns, and the job market, reinforcing socioeconomic-segregation that provides fodder for the Democratic tag line about the rich and the poor. “The new upper class will remain wealthy, and probably continue to get wealthier, no matter what,” he predicts.

Holding degrees from Harvard and M.I.T., living just outside the largest cluster of elite bubbles in the country—that cluster comprising the western suburbs of Washington, D.C.—and working for the American Enterprise Institute, Murray is clearly a member in good standing of the new upper class, perhaps even the “narrow elite.” But he doesn’t feel at home. Indeed, he is clearly troubled that life in the SuperZips “is strikingly at odds with the what’s going on everywhere else” in America. To quantify those differences, the master statistician created two fictive towns using various data sources to measure behaviors and attitudes of white Americans, ages 30 to 49. In 1960, 64 percent of these Americans lived in Fishtown, his working-class community (where no one has more than a high-school education and where every working person holds either a blue-collar or low-level white-collar job); only 6 percent populated Belmont, his upper-middle class community (where every adult has a college degree and holds a professional job or is married to such a person). By 2010, 30 percent of the white Americans under scrutiny ended up in Fishtown; 21 percent qualified for Belmont. Both data-constructed towns function as proxies of the real Fishtown, a white, blue-collar neighborhood just north of Center City Philadelphia, and the real Belmont, an elite Boston suburb.

Marriage: The Social Fault Line

His focus on white, non-Hispanic Americans in their prime of life repre-
sents a methodological cue, capturing a razor-sharp picture of socio-
demographic patterns and allowing comparisons of similar groups of people over the past fifty years. His methodology thus reveals social realities missed by the government and news media—obsessed since the 1960s with race and gender as their interpretive lenses. Only by uncovering these long-obscured truths is Murray able to establish that Fishtown is the story of the working and lower classes in America, regardless of race and gender. So while Coming Apart tells the narrative of white America, Murray claims “its message is about all of America.” Indeed, among the four categories of behaviors that his data sources measure—behaviors that he believes embody the “Founding Virtues” of the American experiment—he finds that marriage is the “the fault line diving American classes.” That’s a refreshing conclusion coming from a scholar of Murray’s standing, and especially from a self-described libertarian. Indeed, his bold defense of the United States as a virtuous republic, not simply a procedural one, sounds a lot more like Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt than the Cato Institute or the Reason Foundation.

In illuminating the new fault line, Murray’s numerous charts outline a growing divergence between Belmont and Fishtown on a number of marriage-related measures. While the two statistical cohorts looked remarkably similar throughout the 1960s, Fishtown underwent an upheaval in subsequent decades, as the percentages of adults who are separated or divorced, adults who were never married, and children who are being raised outside of an intact family all increased dramatically. The blue-collar neighborhood likewise experienced significant declines in the percentage of adults who are married, adults who report that their marriage is happy or very happy, and children living with their biological mother and father. While the same tremors were also felt in Belmont, most of the changes in the marriage indicators in the middle-upper class cohort were marginal.

Murray fears the consequences of Fishtown’s higher divorce rates and very high illegitimacy ratio. Because so few of them stay married, the residents of Fishtown will generally know nothing of matrimony’s beneficial effects in fostering self-reported happiness as well as lasting satisfaction “with life as a whole.” Nor will they see how intact families increase a community’s reservoirs of social capital and so strengthen the overall fabric of civic life. Persuaded that biological parents who remain married produce “the best outcomes for children,” and that never-married mothers, including those who cohabit apart from marriage, “produce the worse outcomes,” Murray laments that the overwhelming verdict of the technical literature is “so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties.” In other words, the narrow and broad elite of the new upper class.

Subsequent chapters confirm the cultural distance between Belmont and Fishtown in most of the measures capturing the Founding virtues of industriousness (work) and honesty (crime, imprisonment, and personal bankruptcy). Yet in contrast to the divergence in marriage-related measures, a convergence emerges in measures related to employment patterns among women. Wives in both towns roughly doubled their labor-force-participation rates since 1960, keeping those rates remarkably close: only 6-percentage points apart in 1960 and 7-percentage points apart in 2008. And although a smaller percentage of employed women were working full-time in Belmont than in Fishtown in the 1960s, the pattern had reversed itself by the late 1980s.

Murray’s data on religiosity likewise register red flags in both communities, even as those flags were more troubling in Fishtown. As Murray notes, “white America as a whole became more secular between 1960 and 2010, especially since the beginning of the 1990s.” Both towns share roughly the same percentage of adults who claim no religion (about 20 percent in 2010); both have experienced declines in church attendance, even among adults who profess faith; and both have seen increases in the percentage of adults that Murray classifies as “de facto secular” (now 60 percent in Fishtown; 40 percent in Belmont). Most important, both towns have suffered big losses in active church or synagogue membership, or as Murray says, “the people who teach in the Sunday school, staff the booths at the charity fund drives, take the synagogue’s youth group on outings, arrange help for bereaved families, and serve as deacons.” Among adults in their prime years, just 23 percent of Belmont residents and 12 percent of Fishtown residents are now active church members, numbers that Murray fears are insufficient—especially in Fishtown—to generate the social capital necessary to keep American democracy afloat. Given the retreat from marriage in Fishtown, and increases in full-time labor-force-participation rates of women in Belmont, these findings of declining religiosity are not all that surprising.

Keep in mind: Fishtown represents the larger working class from which Murray constructs his “new lower class” category, just as Belmont represents the upper-middle class of the SuperZips from which he constructs the new upper class. Murray’s new lower class represents a composite of three “problematic categories”: men of prime age who are not making a living sufficient to lift a two-person household above the poverty line; unwed mothers with dependent children; and other adults—what Murray calls “isolates” —disconnected from community life. Confining his analysis to the population of white adults in their prime (ages 30 to 49), Murray finds that these “new lower class” individuals represent 33 percent of the fictive Fishtown (up from 10 percent in the 1960s) and nearly 20 percent of their white fellow citizens that live neither in Fishtown nor Belmont. The new lower class has not only doubled in relative size since the 1960s, but it is also, according to Murray, “losing the virtues required to be functioning members of a free society.”

Taking Responsibility for Fishtown

Still, it is not the residents of Fishtown who are the object of Murray’s sharpest censure. No, it is the residents of Belmont. Although these Americans live more conventional and industrious lives than their Fishtown counterparts, they have lost faith in American exceptionalism. They may have adopted the Founding virtues as personal ideals, but they refuse to affirm them as social ideals. Following the code of “gushy” niceness—a code preoccupied with personal feelings as the end-all—the members of the new upper class never “preach what they practice,” according to Murray. So America may have more of an upper crust than ever, but that class has abdicated any sense of noblesse oblige that would set and promulgate social norms. “It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values,” notes Murray, “and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.”

Murray’s venting against the new upper class while showing utmost sensitivity to the plight of the working class, upon which he refrains from casting judgment, is commendable. But he passes on the opportunity to draw a much tighter connection between a thriving upper class living in their posh enclaves and a country coming apart at the seams. These privileged Americans do not simply fail to preach what they practice; they preach the very opposite, an irony that Bryce Christensen calls “inverted hypocrisy” in his accompanying essay. Is not the new upper class, and its predecessors, responsible for the deconstruction of the flourishing family system that held the country together in the 1960s?

Murray’s intention, of course, is not to address causes; he’s focused on expounding the nature of the problem. That’s all well and good, but the perceptive reader of this journal is bound to see the hollowing out of once-thriving working-class communities like historic Fishtown as the consequence of conscious actions of the narrow elite. Did not that narrow elite impose on the country Roe v. Wade and other high court decisions that undermined marriage and weakened parental authority? Did not this elite, working through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in February, overturn a provision of the California Constitution, approved by the electorate in 2008, that recognizes marriage as the conjugal union of one man and one woman? This same narrow elite has further weakened marital and family ties by giving us no-fault divorce, publicly funded birth control, gender-based affirmative action, and a dysfunctional welfare system. And it has gutted the economic viability of Fishtown through free trade, globalization, an unstable dollar, the Wall Street crisis, and the callous exporting of family-wage factory jobs oversees. Meanwhile, its cronies in Hollywood have worked around the clock to debase popular culture through the television, music, and motion-picture industries.

It will surprise no one familiar with the dynamics of twenty-first century politics that Murray’s data indicate that members of the new upper class living in the metropolitan areas of New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles are predominately liberal on the political spectrum. Indeed, his analysis finds that “doctrinaire liberals” in Congress represent nearly two-thirds of the population of the SuperZips located in these four power centers. While the SuperZips between the coasts, and even in Metro New Jersey and suburban Los Angeles, are not uniformly blue, it’s clear that the “narrow” and “broad” elite continues to advocate for anti-family policies—including same-sex marriage, “comprehensive sexuality” education in the public schools, public funding of Planned Parenthood, and abortion-on-demand. This elite also supports welfare-state expansion, dubious economic policies (illegal immigration, free trade and globalization), and crony capitalism (Wall Street bailouts and federal subsidies of green-energy industries such as Solyndra). As the late Samuel P. Huntington implies in Who Are We?, these same elites would probably feel more at home in socialist France or Sweden than in the United States. So while Murray’s findings may suggest that Red America is no longer reliably socially conservative, it’s still not the residents of Fishtown who are framing or pushing the liberal agenda.

Even many Republicans who qualify for membership in the new upper class are as clueless as their Democratic neighbors about the social import of the Founding virtues. They too are AWOL, claims Murray, at “using their positions to help sustain the republic,” demonstrating a “hollowness at the core.” He doesn’t mention this example, but high-ranking Republicans, including former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, worked around the clock raising big money from Wall Street while colluding with the Human Rights Campaign to deliver the Democrats a victory on same-sex marriage in New York State in 2011. Nor does he allude to the tendency of Republican officeholders to turn on their own who are attempting to defend the Founding virtues, as was the case in Pennsylvania earlier this year when this reviewer became the object of scorn of the Philadelphia Inquirer because of his association with this journal. Rather than defend an appointee it had recruited, the Republican administration not only fell for the media’s smear of The Family in America but also amended his terms of resignation to placate the newspaper.

As much as Murray finds the new upper class wanting, he expresses optimism that a fourth “Civic Great Awakening” might save the country along the lines of America’s earlier religious revivals dating back to the seventeenth century. He foresees not only that the looming bankruptcies of the failed European welfare states will wake up American elites but also that “a tidal change in our scientific understanding of human behavior that is already underway” will destroy the intellectual foundations of the welfare state, including the prevailing construct that “human beings are not really responsible for the things they do.” Instead, once “old ways of human thinking about human nature will be vindicated,” elites “will have to acknowledge that the traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.”

The fact that American elites have chosen to ignore more than a generation of social-science literature affirming the promise of the natural family may dampen hopes that an awakening might be around the corner. Yet Murray’s Ronald Reagan-like faith in the power of the American experiment to renew itself offers a ray of hope for social conservatives who have been swimming against the tide a long time. Indeed, Coming Apart could be an important conduit of that very renewal. So while Charles Murray still prefers to call himself a libertarian, he surely sounds more and more like a social conservative, and one who should feel very much at home as the newest member of the editorial board of The Family in America.

Mr. Patterson is the editor of The Family in America. In January, he resigned as a special assistant to the secretary of public welfare of Pennsylvania the same week the elite media of Philadelphia declared him an “extremist” unqualified to serve in Governor Corbett’s administration.