The Magazine

Mind the Gap

The rich get richer and the poor are broken.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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Their unwillingness to do this is the source of some of Murray’s moral indignation toward the elite, and something like the mechanism by which he implies that the emergence of a new upper class has contributed to the emergence of a new lower class. Rather than isolate themselves in cocoons of cultural success, Murray suggests, today’s elites have a moral obligation to offer example and instruction—to help lead working-class Americans out of the cultural wasteland into which an earlier generation of elites helped to lead them.

But surely, this is a highly implausible practical solution to the immense cultural ruin Murray describes. It is hard to see how the graduates of elite universities who live in their cultural islands of privilege could really speak with any moral authority to the problems of working-class life, even if they were inclined to preach the virtues they practice. Greater self-confidence would not help them get taken more seriously by people whose problems they can barely imagine, and having the elite live among the poor (as Murray seems at times to advise) is not a realistic prescription on any meaningful scale. It is simply not clear how the members of today’s upper class are really doing anything wrong, given the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Rather, the cultural disaster Murray describes seems to be a failing of America’s moral (and therefore largely its religious) institutions. And although he does not put it this way, Coming Apart is a scathing indictment of American social conservatism.

Social conservatism serves two kinds of purposes in a liberal society: We might call them justice and order. In the cause of justice, it speaks up for the weak and the oppressed, defending them from abuse by the powerful, and vindicating basic human dignity. In the cause of order, it helps us combat our human failings and vices, and argues for self-discipline and responsibility. Think of abolition on the one hand and temperance on the other.

In our time, American social conservatism has much to be proud of as a movement for justice: Social conservatives devote themselves to the pro-life cause, to human rights, and to the plight of the poor abroad. But American social conservatism has almost entirely lost interest in the cause of order—in standing up for clean living, for self-discipline and restraint, for resisting temptation and meeting basic responsibilities. The institutions of American Christianity—some of which would actually stand a chance of being taken seriously by the emerging lower class—are falling down on the job, as their attention is directed to more exciting causes, in no small part because the welfare state has overtaken some of their key social functions.

The cultural revival essential to addressing the crisis Murray describes is barely imaginable as long as this remains the case. Indeed, whether such a revival is imaginable under any circumstances is by no means clear in Murray’s telling. Surely an all-out return to the condition from which he says we have fallen seems far out of reach. But this may have as much to do with the particular cultural high-point against which Murray has chosen to measure our current state as with the potential for a moral revival in American life.

Murray opens his book with a description of America in November 1963, on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s assassination—a date he plausibly posits as roughly the beginning of the transformations his book lays out. Almost every one of the dozens of charts here describes the trajectory of some cultural trend from the early 1960s to the present day, and in nearly every case, America rates more poorly in the present day than we did a half-century ago.

Although Murray is clear-eyed about the improvements achieved since that period (especially in terms of technological progress and cultural openness), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some of what is at work in his defining comparative device is precisely the sentiment behind much of today’s liberal lament as well: nostalgia for the roughly two decades that followed World War II. There is much to mourn in the passing of that era, to be sure: The searing experiences of the Depression and the war had united Americans as perhaps nothing had done since the American Revolution, and the war and its aftermath (with all of our global competitors having burned each other’s economies to the ground while ours alone stood strong) made possible a series of economic booms that launched into being a broad middle class unlike anything the world had ever seen. Social trust, and faith in government, reached unprecedented heights, while a liberal but generally capacious and tolerant political consensus kept the temperature of our politics unusually low (except when it came to the question of race).

The result was the America of the 1950s and early ’60s: Marriage and childbearing rates were high, religious practice was strong, employment was generally plentiful and rewarding, and crime was low. It was a time of cultural cohesion, economic dynamism, and government activism all at once, and thus a time that both liberals and conservatives can look back to with approval. This is the golden age in the background of Obama’s domestic policy speeches; it is the America lovingly recounted in the opening of Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal (2007)—and in strikingly similar terms, in the opening words of Coming Apart.

All these descriptions of that era are a bit selective, of course, but they are not false. This was an America unlike any that had existed before the immediate postwar years, and unlike any we can expect to see again anytime soon. The left wants to re-create that America by re-creating the activist state and the powerful labor unions that characterized it, but this stands to make economic dynamism very difficult. The right wants to re-create it by re-creating the economic dynamism it achieved, but this stands to make social cohesion very difficult. Murray implicitly hopes to re-create it by recapturing its social cohesion, but acknowledges that this is no easy feat.

The fact is that the America of the immediate postwar years was made possible by an utterly unrepeatable set of circumstances, and setting out to re-create it is not a constructive objective for public policy. What we need to do, instead, is seek for ways to achieve broadly shared prosperity and cultural vitality today—to balance cohesion and dynamism in our own time, which is a time of great tension and change.

That this is hardly the first era of tension and change in our history should leave us more hopeful than Murray suggests, and should send us looking for guidance in eras prior to the postwar golden age. Murray implies that his description of America in 1963 applied to America prior to that time as well—from the era of the founding until half a century ago. But surely that is not the case. In other times—in periods of social tension, economic upheaval, mass immigration, and cultural transformation—America’s founding virtues have been under immense strain. But time and again, we have found our way to national revival—cultural, moral, religious, social, political, and economic. We have experienced multiple golden ages, and they have not all looked alike. 

Perhaps it is this extraordinary capacity for the renewal of our founding virtues, rather than the particular strength we possessed 50 years ago, that really makes America exceptional. If so, then Murray’s project, which should be America’s project, is in better stead than this ultimately pessimistic book suggests. 

It is clear that we are badly in need of such a renewal of our commitment to the American ethic, and it is clear that such a renewal must direct itself especially to addressing the collapse of the institutions of family, society, work, and culture among the poor, rather than to the second-order problem of inequality. It is fairly clear, too, just what problems it would need to address in that arena, and just how bad things are. Although the work of such renewal will be a mighty challenge, it is a challenge of a type (and perhaps even a scale) that America has undertaken before. And beginning with such clarity about its purposes and aims would be no small advantage.

For that clarity we owe a great debt to Charles Murray: not only for this deeply impressive and important book, but for a long career of careful, honest, loving attention to the state of the American project.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.