America against itself
Charles Murray talks to Sean Collins about the new class war.
With the publication in 2012 of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, political scientist Charles Murray – celebrated and denigrated in equal measure for his earlier works, Losing Ground (1984) and The Bell Curve (1994) – produced a searing, searching analysis of a nation cleaving along the lines of class, a nation, as he put it, ‘coming apart at the seams’. On the one side of this conflicted society, as Murray sees it, there is the intellectual or ‘cognitive’ elite, graduates of America’s leading universities, bound together through marriage and work, and clustered together in the same exclusive zipcodes, places such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Boston. In these communities of the likeminded, which Murray gives the fictional title of ‘Belmont’, the inhabitants share the same values, the same moral outlook, the same distinct sense of themselves as superior. And on the other side, there is the ‘new lower class’, the white Americans who left education with no more than a high-school diploma, who increasingly divorce among themselves, endure unemployment together, and are gathered in neighbourhoods that Murray gives the title of ‘Fishtown’ – inspired by an actual white, blue-collar neighbourhood of the same name in Philadelphia.
It is in Fishtown that the trends Murray identifies as the most damaging over the past 50 years – family breakdown, loss of employment, crime and a loss of social capital – are felt and experienced. Its inhabitants have a set of values (albeit threadbare ones), an outlook and a way of life that are entirely at odds with those from Belmont. And it is between these two almost entirely distinct moral communities, that the new Culture Wars now appear to be being fought. Sean Collins, spiked’s US correspondent, caught up with Murray to talk about the cultural drivers of this latent class conflict; how it plays into the rise of Trump; and what can be done about this dangerous division.
Sean Collins: In Coming Apart, you argue that the top and bottom of American society are divided culturally as well as economically. Fishtown is not only poorer than Belmont, but engages in different cultural practices, and has different values. For example, the value placed on marriage and religion differs among the people in your two archetypal towns. What forces have created this divide? To what extent have economic trends, such as a lack of employment opportunities, contributed to the divide?
Charles Murray: In Coming Apart I deliberately avoided talking about causes, and the reason for that was to enable people on the left to read the book without giving up on it. In my own view, many of the left’s policies, starting in the 1960s, contributed to this breakdown. They contributed to the breakdown of the family; they contributed to rising crime; they indirectly contributed to declining religiosity; and, above all, they contributed to the withdrawal of a lot of males from the labour force. Those policies weren’t the only causes, but I didn’t want to talk about those I had discussed in an earlier book, Losing Ground. Instead, I wanted my audience to confront the fact that this division between top and bottom had occurred.
However, in terms of the forces driving this division, I would say the economy’s role has been vastly overstated. My reasons for saying that are, first, that we have had a natural experiment. We have had prolonged periods in the US where the job market has been tight, with more jobs than workers: we had scattered years in the 1970s, for instance; then we had a period in the mid 1980s, during the second term of the Reagan administration; and, most obviously, in the latter half of the 1990s, labour markets were very tight. Yet during all of this time we saw the low-skilled, poorly educated workers of Fishtown drop out of the labour force. If the labour market was to blame, then presumably males would have come back into the labour market during those periods – they did not. The decline slowed somewhat during those periods, but it did not reverse. So, when people say, ‘oh, we can solve this problem by creating plenty of jobs at good pay’, I say, we tried that. You have to tell me what is going to be different about a tight labour market in the future, that was different from, say, the latter half of the 1990s.
I think the much larger changes in the culture were driven by, as I mentioned, a variety of social policies that I discussed in Losing Ground. But I should add to those a couple of others. First, the invention of the birth control pill, which liberated women from the fear of pregnancy and generated a sexual revolution. This led to a situation in which males’ incentives for marriage changed. A major incentive for a young male to marry prior to 1960 was to have regular sexual access to a woman, which was hard to do at that time if you were not wealthy or otherwise in a fortunate position.
Second, feminism. Women were able to get into the labour market in ways they had not before. It was a good thing to happen, but it also fundamentally changed the role and status of the working-class male. So before the entrance of women into the workplace, he could say ‘I am the head of the family; I am putting food on the table, and a roof over the heads of my children’, which gave him not only a personal sense of satisfaction, but also a status within the community. But the role and status of males changed when so many women started to become economically independent of men.
So, it’s a classic case of many forces creating the problem I described in Coming Apart. Forces which were progressive – I’m glad that the feminist revolution occurred, I’m glad that better contraception was available for women. But they had collateral effects which were problematic.
Collins: You paint a fairly bleak picture of life in Fishtown. People are not only poor but despairing, and otherwise leading difficult lives. Do you think the elite is to blame for Fishtown? Do the people of Fishtown have any culpability for their situation?
Murray: The people of Fishtown have a lot of responsibility for what’s gone on. If you go to a Fishtown in the US – that includes lots of small towns in the Midwest and West, as well as urban working-class neighbourhoods – you will see, for example, lots of healthy, able-bodied males in their twenties and thirties, who are not working. They are not looking for work; they do not take jobs if they are available; and they spend their lives essentially playing video games. That’s not really an exaggeration. The statistics on the number of hours spent by these guys on video games are stunning.
Now, it is a classic argument of the left to say, ‘ah, they are demoralised. They are not responsible for their decisions.’ And I agree, in some sense they are demoralised. But I also do not want to deprive them of moral agency. They have the option to behave differently. There are people in those same communities who are behaving differently. There are men who are in the labour market, are employed, are doing the right thing. So, if you talk about the new lower class, there are two points to make. One, do forces outside the control of the people in those communities have a bearing on their lives? Absolutely. Two, does that excuse them from the choices they make, to live off of others – girlfriends, parents, friends, the government? No, it does not excuse them from making those choices.
Collins: Coming Apart was published in 2012. Have the culture divisions you identified in the book persisted? Have they evolved at all?
Murray: The divisions have continued to get worse, but not that rapidly. For example, if you look at the marriage rate for guys in their thirties and forties, it hasn’t fallen much more than had it done when I compiled my data (in 2010) for Coming Apart. So have things gotten a lot worse over the past six years? Not a lot, but they have gotten worse. The thing that I did not pick up on in Coming Apart was the decline in working-class women’s labour-force participation, which is quite pronounced. I did look at women’s labour participation while writing Coming Apart, but my breakdowns did not trigger the recognition of how large that reduction was. So, it’s not just demoralisation among men any more; it’s demoralisation among women as well, and that’s been going on since the early 2000s. That’s one thing which I think has probably gotten worse.
Also, I should add, that there was a confirmation of the radical change that’s going on, in the work of the Nobel Prize-winner Angus Deaton and his co-author, Anne Case, who documented an astonishing rise in death rates among lower-class whites, from diseases related to addiction, substance abuse, and so on. This trend is also an indirect indicator of a huge cultural change for the worse in working-class America.
Collins: Do you see the culture divides and trends you identified in Coming Apart as contributing to the rise of Donald Trump?
Murray: Yes, I do. There are two developments. First, if you look at those people who are out of the labour force – what I call the ‘new lower class’ – they are no longer participating in the major institutions of American society. To put it crudely, I think they look upon Trump as sticking it to the man in a way they find gratifying. But I think they also look upon this as entertainment. I’m exaggerating to some extent, but there’s a sentiment of ‘well, this is a really interesting reality show, look at what this guy is getting away with, with all his outrageous stuff – let’s see what happens next’.
Then you have other people in the white working class who are getting married, holding jobs, playing by the rules – and they are pissed as hell. They see all of these shenanigans among the elites, the Wall Street types, for instance, with their 20,000-square-foot mansions. And most aggravating of all, they have to suffer the cognitive elite’s incredible smugness and condescension. The elites don’t even bother to hide this condescension towards the white working class. They are constantly making fun of rednecks, of evangelical Christians. And they talk about ‘flyover country’, as if nothing between the East Coast and West Coast really makes any difference. Indeed, cognitive elites are contemptuous of the working class. At the same time, working-class people, trying hard to makes ends meet, are being faced with an awful lot of competition for work from an influx of low-skilled, immigrant labour – an influx that the elites have encouraged and done nothing to stop. So, are they angry? Yeah. And is Trump a vehicle for expressing that anger? Absolutely.
Collins: In your latest book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, you describe how the government is experienced by many people as an obstacle to getting on with their lives, whether in business, raising kids or pursuing their religious beliefs. You also note that often these government interventions are justified by officials on the grounds that they ‘know better’ than ordinary Americans. Do you see a link between the elite culture you describe in Coming Apart and the types of government actions and attitudes you describe in By the People?
Murray: For people in the labour market holding jobs, especially if they are small-business people or otherwise independent contractors, these increased regulations, these increased ways of controlling their lives, drive them nuts. If you are a long-distance truck driver, the regulations that you have to put up with often make your life a lot more difficult. You’re constantly saying to yourself: ‘I am wasting my time doing X; I am forced to do something that is needless because of Y; why is the government making me do this?’ And if you’re trying to run a small business, or start a small business, it can be nightmarish, because of all the regulations, the bureaucracy and all of the hoops you have to jump through. And if you’re trying to send your kids to schools that are safe and nurturing, you have to put up with a public-education system that is completely unresponsive to the kinds of changes that you think need to be made to schools.
There are all sorts of ways in which the things I discuss in By the People – an overweening government, experts who say ‘we know better’, who will tell you how you ought to live your life, and so on – have an enormous day-to-day impact on people’s lives. If we assume that Hillary Clinton is going to win, which I think is quite likely, everything that she says about what she wants to do indicates that all of these problems are going to get worse – in terms of regulation, in terms of interfering in people’s lives. I think By the People is going to become more important three or four years from now, just as Coming Apart has become more relevant over time.
Collins: I was thinking about how, in Coming Apart, you explore how the elites seek to distance themselves from the working class. They eat so-called healthier foods, they have different child-rearing practices, and so on. Then, from afar, they preach their preferred ways to the working class, as if they know better. The elites may no longer preach traditional civic virtues, as you note in Coming Apart, but they are still preaching, in a way. Only now they’re preaching about health, parenting and other things.
Murray: They are preaching. They are legislating. They are creating policies. The elites (on both the right and the left) do not get excited about low-skill immigration. Let’s face it, if you are members of the elite, immigration provides you with cheap nannies, cheap lawn care, and so on. There are a variety of ways in which it is a case of ‘hey, it’s no skin off my back’ to have all of these new workers. The elites are promulgating policies for which they do not pay the price. That’s true of immigration, that’s true of education. When they support the teachers’ unions in all sorts of practices that are terrible for kids, they don’t pay that price. Either they send their kids to private schools, or they send their kids to schools in affluent suburbs in which they, the parents, really do have a lot of de facto influence over how the school is run.
So they don’t pay the price for policy after policy. Perhaps the most irritating to me – and here we are talking about preaching – is how they are constantly criticising the working class for being racist, for seeking to live in neighbourhoods in which whites are the majority. The elites live in zipcodes that are overwhelmingly white, with very few blacks and Latinos. The only significant minorities in elite zipcodes are East and South Asians. And, as the American sociologist Andrew Hacker has said, Asians are ‘honorary whites’. The integration that you have in elite neighbourhoods is only for the model minority, not for other minorities. That’s a kind of hypocrisy, to call working-class whites ‘racist’ for doing exactly the same thing that the elites do. It’s terrible.
Collins: You are a self-described libertarian, and your latest book is robust defence of freedom. Do you believe that Enlightenment values such as liberty are enough to stand up to the strong, often tribal, cultural forces at work today? Can they serve as a counter to those divisive forces?
Murray: A year ago, I would have given you a much more optimistic answer than I’d give you today. The thing about the Trump campaign that has been most disheartening has been the realisation that the electorate on the right, voting for Republicans, has many more people in it than I ever realised who don’t give a damn about freedom. They are motivated by the kinds of tribal instincts that you describe, and they are also populist in an authoritarian sense, in that they don’t want to limit government, they just want to use the powers of government for their own ends. In the short-term, then, I’m very pessimistic. I am very undecided about what will happen, but I suspect the Republican Party is going to go into serious decline. And, insofar as it does not go into decline, it is not going to represent policies that foster limited government and freedom. It will be a party that fosters a different kind of authoritarianism than the left does. The only difference will be in the type, not the authoritarian nature of the policies.
Collins: Where would you expect to see any potential positive change come from? Do you see a role for the elite, or do you think that change is more likely to be bottom-up, driven by ordinary people taking certain steps? In By the People, you seem to emphasise resistance on the local level.
Murray: There are centripetal forces that are making opposition to the federal government more likely than it used to be, by people among the left as well as the right. The passage of the marijuana laws in the states of Washington and Colorado is an example of that. Those laws are in direct conflict with federal law. If there is one thing that is valid in the Constitution and enforced by the courts, it is that federal law trumps state law in all cases. And yet the Department of Justice announced that it would not enforce federal law in Colorado and Washington. That is both a kind of feistiness on the part of the states, and a kind of diffidence on the part of the federal government, which is quite new.
There are a variety of other ways in which, I think, elite neighbourhoods are wanting to be left alone in the way that working-class neighbourhoods want to be left alone. The regulatory state is irritating to everybody. All of these things, I think, offer some promise of localities taking matters into their own hands more than they have in the past.
I’ll add in one more thing. There are several ways in which technology is fostering this kind of decentralisation. There are all sorts of way in which we used to need the federal government to do things because we did not have the access to information that we would need to do them for ourselves. For example, judging products. Protecting the consumer through the use of federal regulations made more sense in the past than it does in the age of the internet, when you can go online and in five minutes get much better evaluations of products, their safety and their problems, than you could get from the federal government.
So there are forces at work that are positive. Working against those is the fact that the elites don’t have any direct incentives to try to stitch back together the traditional common bonds that we used to have in America. It is a statement of fact, not nostalgia, that, in the past, American elites did not like to think of themselves as elites. They would insist that they’re just one of the guys: ‘Yeah, I made a lot of money, but I’m still just like anybody else.’ Or, for that matter, people who got college degrees did not see themselves as elites, and always tried to emphasise the degree to which they were still good Americans. That has changed. Members of the elite in America today are very comfortable saying to themselves: we are an elite; we are smarter than these other people; and we do not respect their values and their lives. And as long as the elites are comfortable with that image of themselves, the American project, as we historically knew it, cannot exist.
Collins: In Coming Apart, you describe the upper class as doing quite well – not only economically, but also in terms of having stable marriages, and so on. In some respects, it has never been better for the elites. But there is a kind of hollowness to them that you convey. They are confused about their values, what they stand for. The denigration of the working class is very different. The elite no longer wants to live in mixed communities and provide leadership. Instead, its members seek to differentiate themselves from the working class, geographically as well as culturally. In fact, they rely on that differentiation as their source of self-worth, as a means to define who they are.
Murray: What I tried to do in the last chapter of Coming Apart was to ask members of the new upper class: is this what you really want to do with your lives? I did not try to say you ought to go live in the slums or sacrifice yourselves for others. I said, look: is it really true that life is more fun if you segregate yourselves into communities of people exactly like you in their political beliefs, in their socio-economic status, and all the rest of it? Or, is there more to life in terms of texture, and also in terms of raising your kids, if you get out a little bit, if you live in a real community, where you’re dealing with neighbours and problems that won’t get solved unless the community solves them? So, I posed that question, and probably the answer is: no, actually we like it in McLean, Virginia and the Upper East Side and Scarsdale and Portola Valley. We like it in our little islands. And in so far as that’s the case, it’s not going to be America any more, as we have traditionally understood America.
Charles Murray is a political scientist and columnist. He is the author of many books, including: Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980 (1984); and, most recently, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission (2015).
Picture by: Gage Skidmore, published under a creative commons license.