A review of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray

Charles Murray knows how to draw attention. Soon after Coming Apart appeared, nearly everyone who follows public affairs knew of the yawning gap separating the declining, demoralized "Fishtown"—Murray's name for the 30% of the white population in households lacking a college graduate—and the prosperous, remoralized "Belmont"—his term for the 20% of the population in well-paying professional and managerial positions. He convincingly demonstrates that our conventional stereotypes of the religious, family-oriented, white working class and the secular, individualistic, educated elite are incorrect. In fact, what was once the white working class is now beset not only by falling wages, but by a precipitous decline in two-parent families, religious engagement, work ethic, law-abidingness, and social capital. Just the opposite is true in the affluent suburbs, whose residents have both benefited from increasing economic returns on education and rediscovered what Murray calls the "Founding Virtues": industriousness, religiosity, honesty, and marriage.

If Coming Apart had ended with Murray's alarming analysis of the contrasting cultures of Fishtown and Belmont, it would have added a crucial element to the current debate over the causes of growing income inequality. Unfortunately, he does not stop there, but wraps his Fishtown-Belmont story into a speculative and ultimately unconvincing populist tale about how a culturally and geographically isolated "new upper class"—a small slice of Belmont composed of "Overeducated Elitist Snobs (OES)"—bears responsibility for the disappearance of the Founding Virtues from Fishtown and ultimately for the impending end of the "American project." Many reviewers have politely ignored these grandiose assertions. But since Murray claims that Coming Apart is the product of a half-century of his thinking on the future of the "American project," his entire argument deserves to be rehearsed and evaluated. To do justice to the book as a whole I will identify the eight propositions that form its spine, starting with the most convincing and working my way down. I end on an optimistic note, showing that what is "coming apart" is not our exceptional nation, but the various strands of Murray's argument.

       1. There is a real Fishtown, a Philadelphia neighborhood that until recently was blue-collar, but not poor. Murray's fictional "Fishtown" represents all those white families in the country in which "nobody has more than a high school diploma," and the chief breadwinner has "a blue-collar job, mid- or low-level service job, or a low-level white-collar job." Not only has the average income of Fishtown residents declined significantly since the 1970s, but many of the poorly educated men have disappeared from the labor force. The percentage of Fishtown males ages 30-49 not in the labor force has more than tripled since 1970, and many of the rest are working less than full time. The percentage of Fishtown residents who either profess no religion or attend church no more than once a year now approaches 60%. Only 10% are regular churchgoers, the group that builds social capital by maintaining religious communities. In this anomic environment a third of Fishtown residents are socially isolated, "disconnected from the matrix of community life." Most alarmingly, the rate of out-of-wedlock childbirth, divorce, and separation has increased so dramatically that only a third of Fishtown children are now living with both biological parents, a rate "so low that it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation." All these problems reinforce each other, making it hard to see how Fishtown can pull out of its social nosedive.

* * *

Murray does us an important service by showing that these serious problems are not limited to racial minorities. His focus on white America makes it possible to talk about the work habits and family structure of those riding this "downbound train" (to use the title of a Bruce Springsteen song capturing this group's resignation and despair) without getting bogged down in endless debates over race. Murray shows that the plight of educationally deficient whites is not much different from that of their black and Hispanic counterparts, demonstrating that our most serious divisions involve class, not race or ethnicity.

       2. Murray's "Belmont"—not to be confused with the real Boston suburb that is home to Mitt Romney and many Harvard professors—reflects the 20% of the population in which at least one parent has "a bachelor's or graduate degree and works in the high-prestige professions or management." Belmont is thriving, not just economically, but socially. Not only have Belmonters benefited from the increasing economic returns on education—a well-known and well-documented fact—but their divorce rates are down and in the early years of the 21st century their participation in organized religions edged up. Crime, unemployment, and single-parent families remain rare. Educated baby-boomers' flirtation with drugs, sexual promiscuity, religious skepticism, and sloth has flickered out, producing the industrious, family-oriented "Bobos," David Brooks's bourgeois bohemians. (Rock-and-roll, in contrast, is here to stay, even if now sung by geriatric patients forever in blue jeans.) Murray does a masterly job contrasting the remoralization of Belmont with the demoralization of Fishtown.

       3. Since the 1960s we have created a meritocracy fuelled by SAT scores, highly selective admission practices at the most prestigious colleges, and an economy that rewards brains—enormously at the very top—but not brawn. What former Labor secretary Robert Reich has called "symbolic analysts," urban studies theorist Richard Florida "the creative class," and David Brooks the more endearing "Bobos," Murray terms "the cognitive elite." This lucky group includes many more women, minorities, and recent immigrants than the stuffy old WASP establishment it has so thoroughly replaced. Unfortunately, the resources needed to compete in this new meritocratic system—good genes, good parenting, good schools, and well-connected friends—are available only to a limited number of people. Demands for equal educational opportunity opened the doors of elite schools to smart, ambitious women. Through "associative mating" they became increasingly likely to marry smart, ambitious men. These high-earning, two-income couples then sent their children to high-quality schools and taught them self-discipline—"We studied hard, and see how well we did." Stripping away so much artificial privilege has created a new elite, possessed of more ethnic, racial, religious, and gender diversity than before, but with new and even sturdier mechanisms for self-perpetuation. We have increased educational and economic opportunity while decreasing social mobility, a paradox deserving more attention than Murray gives it.

       4. After claiming that he will not examine the question of why America is "coming apart at the seams," Murray forcefully rejects the argument that the decline of manufacturing jobs caused Fishtown's downward spiral. Jobs are available there, he argues, but the men just aren't taking them. To be sure, these jobs don't pay as well as the old ones at General Motors or U.S. Steel, but they do pay enough to support a family.

Liberals, of course, reject the idea that the loss of manufacturing jobs is a sideshow. But not just liberals. David Frum has provided a critique of Murray's argument so extensive and persuasive I won't reprise it here. Suffice it to say there is no reason we must choose between arguments based on the decline of good jobs and the decline of beneficial social norms. Murray is describing one part of a vicious cycle. The exodus of industrial jobs led to the exodus from Fishtown of the most industrious men, leaving behind fewer role models, fewer eligible marriage partners, more crime, and more powerful peer pressure from those inhabiting "the street." Even though the decline of manufacturing jobs initiated this chain of events, simply increasing job opportunities cannot reverse it. Adequately addressing this deeply troubling vicious cycle requires us to move beyond the incomplete stories partisans insist on repeating.

       5. One might assume that the class divide that so alarms Murray is the one between Belmont and Fishtown. Wrong. It is the divide between what he calls "the new upper class"—a small subset of Belmont—and everybody else. His most sweeping, most inflammatory, and least persuasive argument is that this new upper class is: a) more insulated from the rest of society than any previous American elite; and b) somehow responsible for the demoralization of Fishtown.

Pinning down the foundations of this argument is hard, since Murray changes his definition of the nefarious elite so often that it's difficult to be sure where his scorn is directed. He starts by describing a "narrow elite" that numbers in the tens of thousands, implying that these are the people who really run the country. But he focuses much more of his attention on a larger group; his "new upper class" comprises the 2.4 million people in families headed by "the most successful 5 percent of adults ages 25 and older who are working in managerial positions, in the professions…and in content-production jobs in the media." He then goes to great lengths to convince us that most of these people live either in "SuperZips"—zip codes with lots of really wealthy people—or "SuperZip clusters"—which include contiguous zip codes with lots of relatively affluent people.

* * *

As one reads his increasingly convoluted argument, it's important to keep in mind that people not in his new upper class constitute the overwhelming majority residing in these clusters. Murray wants to show that his new elite is, to an unprecedented extent, isolated geographically as well as culturally. But all he shows is that the rich live near the nearly rich, who live near the somewhat less affluent, and so on. This is not exactly news.

Then, to make his argument more telling, he suddenly shifts to an attack on the "Big Four" SuperZip clusters, those surrounding New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Here we find the Wizard of Oz of the conservative imagination, the all-powerful "liberal elite" sabotaging "the American project." Murray has no interest in the "SuperZip clusters" surrounding Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, or even (surprisingly) Boston. He is like the skilled magician who creates so many diversions that few in the audience can see how he is pulling a rabbit out of his hat.

What are we to make of Murray's claims that the gap between this new upper class and the rest of society is different, in kind and degree, "from anything the nation has ever known"? Or his assertion that the new upper class culture "has been accompanied by growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much new power"? One cannot help wondering how those liberal media elites manage to create so many popular TV shows and movies that mesmerize and degrade a public about which they know so little. Murray makes the arresting claim that this new elite has become large enough and wealthy enough to create its own culture, but he offers no evidence to demonstrate that this is true now or wasn't before—during the Gilded Age, for example. Admitting that we have virtually no evidence on what this upper class knows about those outside its borders, Murray resorts to a cute quiz to convince the reader that he is right.

The quiz, to which he devotes an entire chapter, is designed to show how little his well-educated readers know about everyone outside their bubble—unlike Charles Murray, the erudite Harvard-educated scholar who still has his hand on the pulse of the real majority. This is a wonderful device for condescending to both the insulated elite and the vulgar mass. He can demonstrate his familiarity with the trash average people watch on TV, and simultaneously condemn the "Overeducated Elitist Snobs" who live in liberal SuperZips for being grievously out of touch with evangelical Christians and NASCAR fans. This is his first big step toward convincing us that this "hollow elite" is "as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its." Apparently Murray wants OESs to follow the example of that real resident of the real Belmont, Mitt Romney, and attend more NASCAR races. That should help bring us together.

In attempting to describe the culture of the new upper class Murray frequently refers to David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise(2000). The contrast between the two is instructive. Brooks describes a group of educated, accomplished people trying—often humorously, sometimes clumsily—to cope with the conflict between their wealth and their antipathy to everything bourgeois, between their distrust of authority and their recognition that they are now in positions of authority, between their insistence on being liberated and their search for attachment and community. Brooks helps us understand these people because he recognizes their foibles, but does not despise them. In fact, he acknowledges that he, too, is a Bobo. Murray, in contrast, is so intent upon heaping scorn on all those Overeducated Elitist Snobs that he creates stick figures that harden prejudices rather than promote enlightenment.

       6. Murray's most obviously incorrect claim is that the new upper class leans heavily to the political left. Lest it appear that I am unfairly attributing this assertion to him, let me quote: "The new upper class tends to be liberal, right? There's no getting around it: Every way of answering that question produces a yes." (Emphasis added.) I doubt he could find a single serious student of public opinion or voting behavior who would agree with that bald statement. Sure, some of the top 5% vote Democratic, but even more vote Republican. Murray himself shows that, outside the "Big Four," SuperZip clusters elect approximately equal numbers of liberal and conservative members of Congress. For Murray's statement to be true, we would need to redefine the "new upper class" to include only those who live in liberal enclaves. Then it would become perfectly true because completely tautological. Define "the elite" as you see fit, and you can attribute to it all the features of American politics you hate. This is partisan rhetoric gussied up in a few statistics.

       7. In the book's final chapter, Murray puts our present discontents into world-historical perspective, drawing on Arnold Toynbee's argument that a civilization goes into decline when the "creative minority" who built it with "a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue, and purpose" eventually loses its confidence "and no longer set[s] the example." Our new upper class has failed to instill the Founding Virtues in the residents of Fishtown. They have descended into an enervating "nonjudgmentalism." How they managed to instill these virtues so well in the citizens of "Belmont" remains something of a mystery. When Murray says that the new upper class lacks self-confidence, he seems to have in mind university professors who suffer from "status-income disequilibrium" (a phrase he takes from Brooks) rather than the "Masters of the Universe" (to invoke Tom Wolfe's apt term) whose arrogance brought the world economy to the brink of collapse.

* * *

This failing of the new upper class is compounded by its support for our slow slide into a European-style welfare state. From out of the blue come stunning assertions devoid of any support save the revealed truths of Murray's libertarian religion. This is particularly apparent in the section entitled "Watching the Intellectual Foundations of the Welfare State Implode." Unable to offer any social science evidence to support his claims about the new elite's culpability for the descent of the white working class, he offers wild speculation about what sociobiology and neuroscience will teach us in the future. "During the next ten or twenty years, I believe that all of these intellectual foundations of the modern welfare state will be discredited by a tidal change in our scientific understanding of human behavior that is already underway." This "new knowledge will make us rethink every domain in which the central government has imposed its judgment about how people ought to live their lives." "It will be found," Murray assures us, that "the institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith" inevitably "deteriorate in the advanced welfare states for reasons that are intrinsic to the nature of the welfare state." It will be found, in other words, that Murray was right about everything all along. Here is one member of the new upper class who does not lack confidence. I promise to revisit this review in 20 years to see if this confidence is justified.

       8. This brings us to one of the oddest arguments of the book: despite the severity of the crisis confronting the nation, there is nothing the government can do to address the problem. Our new crisis of the house divided is even greater than the one confronting Abraham Lincoln. We face the impending collapse of "the American project," the end of this "different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious." Anything government does, however, will only make matters worse. When government intervenes, the web of family and community inevitably "frays, and eventually disintegrates." Once bureaucracies are given the task of catering to human needs "the neighborhood becomes a sterile place to live at best and, at worst, becomes the Hobbesian all-against-all free-fire zone that we have seen in some of our major cities." Three decades ago Murray believed that we could attack the problems of joblessness and single-parent families by reforming welfare. He doesn't bother to mention that the 1996 Welfare Reform Act incorporated some of his recommendations (and also increased benefits to the working poor, something he did not advocate), or that these reforms seemed to make the situation somewhat better. Such incremental adjustment is now beneath him. What we need, he asserts, is not different policies, but another Great Awakening.

Here Murray takes a key conservative insight—government actions often constrain and displace the voluntary associations and informal networks so vital to a thriving community—and turns it into libertarian dogma—government destroys everything it touches. This dogmatism forces Murray to propose puny responses to the crisis of the West: employers should abolish unpaid internships and colleges should rely more on achievement tests like the ACT and less on aptitude tests like the SAT. Rather than send more and better teachers to Fishtown schools, he seems to want more Bobos to begin preaching about the Founding Virtues on its street corners. As a social scientist, I can confidently predict that the major consequence of that initiative would be to make criminal assaults more frequent in Fishtown.

* * *

How has a man of Charles Murray's intelligence managed to paint himself into this intellectual corner? Facing the same set of problems, the late James Q. Wilson, a man Murray credits with being among his most important teachers, recommended experimental programs in preschools and government efforts to improve the parenting skills of poor young mothers. Not Murray, who boldly asserts that his libertarianism is "grounded in premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data."

Such dogmatism prevents Murray from entertaining Tocqueville's argument that the individualism that lies at the heart of democracy constantly threatens to undermine the institutions and character traits that sustain a decent liberal democracy. That, of course, is a paradox, and true believers seldom appreciate paradox. Mores may be stronger than the laws, Tocqueville argues, but good laws can help to sustain good mores. One cannot know how to write good laws or to run effective government programs without understanding why unalloyed individualism is so corrosive to our Founding Virtues. Murray claims that this book is the culmination of a half-century of thinking about the topic. Now that he has completed this task, perhaps he could rethink his premises.