“Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence; and, from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
. . . insatiate to pursue
Vain war with Heaven . . . ”
In his most recent book Charles Murray argues that over the course of more than five decades American society has undergone an evolution of social classes “different in kind and degree than [sic] anything the nation has ever known.” More specifically, Murray focuses on white America at the upper and lower ends of the class spectrum. Much of his argument is familiar. As Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein first argued in The Bell Curve, increasing stratification in the college-admissions process—beginning in the late 1950’s—has created an unprecedented “cognitive elite” in American society. Of course, despite our egalitarian illusions, America has always been ruled by elites—albeit not hereditary elites, or at least not exclusively or permanently hereditary. And those elites have often obtained their success by “merit,” in the broadest sense of the term—talent, organizational skill, political acumen, intelligence, and sheer hard work—as well as by family connections and marital alliances. But in recent decades, merit has increasingly been defined as cognitive ability and has become the rationale for an academic sorting system that, in Murray’s view, is leading toward a profoundly undemocratic result. Today, those who hold key positions of power and influence in America are far more likely than in the past to be the beneficiaries of an Ivy League education and the possessors of an IQ well in excess of the norm.
As recently as the early 1950’s this was not the case. Though the average Harvard student of, say, 1953 was likely to have higher than average admissions test scores, those scores were not notably higher than the mean at the better state universities. Additionally, he was generally recruited from a select pool of New England, or at least East Coast, prep schools. Intelligence was taken into account, certainly, but several other factors were of equal, if not greater, importance. Then, the democratization of higher education changed everything. As ever-greater numbers of upwardly mobile young Americans sought higher degrees, expanding the supply of applicants, elite colleges were able to maintain their status only by raising standards and by recruiting the “best and the brightest” from every region of the country.
As a self-described libertarian Murray cannot with any consistency object to the meritocratic foundations of the cognitive sorting system, but he takes great pains to show (aided by his trademark charts and graphs) that the emergence of the cognitive elite, or what he calls the new upper class, is producing politically dangerous results. The first and most important of these is that the new elites have become progressively more isolated from the rest of America. They follow a separate educational track; they are far more likely to marry within their own ranks; they live in protected enclaves in areas that Murray terms “superzips”; and in their patterns of consumption, their parenting styles, their tastes in art and music, their moral codes, their religious affiliations—indeed, in just about everything of importance—there is a world of difference between the new upper class and the rest of us. Another, related, concern is that after several generations of homologous breeding, the meritocratic elite is rapidly transforming itself into a genetic elite. This is a controversial point, but Murray presents it with full awareness that genetic sorting doesn’t always produce consistent results. Smart people don’t always produce smart children, but the genetic odds, he argues, are still working in their favor.
In economic terms the new upper class consists of the top-five percentiles of the American population. They are a subset of the broader upper-middle class, and are generally at the very top of the managerial and professional world. If spouses are included, this new upper class consists of approximately 2.4 million individuals. Most of them live on the East and West coasts, but a fair number of “superzips” can be found in places like Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta. Murray stresses that their isolation is compounded by the fact that their neighborhoods rarely abut those of the middle or lower classes, but are frequently buffered by enclaves only slightly less affluent. Thus, the new upper class works, lives, socializes, and travels almost exclusively among other high achievers. They rarely have prolonged contact with Americans who lack college degrees, who work in blue-collar occupations, who worship at evangelical churches, who attend NASCAR events, who eat at Outback Steakhouse, who belong to the Elks Lodge, who participate in patriotic parades, who take vacations in Branson, Missouri, or who have served in the enlisted ranks of the military. On the other hand, argues Murray, the members of the new upper class rank very high as exemplars of what he identifies as the “founding virtues” of America: industriousness, honesty, marital fidelity, and religiosity.
Indeed, much of Murray’s book is devoted to a statistical comparison of the new upper class and what he terms the new lower class, assessing their relative degrees of adherence to the founding virtues. But the identity of the new lower class needs some explaining. Until roughly 1960, over 80 percent of Americans could fairly be described as working class. In those days the “poor” or “lower class” was generally regarded as a fringe of the working class “who didn’t make much money” but who were nonetheless expected to work and to participate in civic life just like the rest of us. “But in the years after 1960, America developed something new: a white lower class that did not consist of a fringe, but of a substantial part of what was formerly the working class population.” One of the key indicators Murray employs to define this new lower class is “men who aren’t making a living.” By “not making a living” he means not making enough to keep a household of two above the poverty line, which in practice means working very little. Between 1959 and 2009 the number of working-class men who failed to make an adequate living rose from below 15 percent to over 30 percent, and continues to climb. To flesh out his comparison of the new upper and lower classes, Murray created two partly fictitious places: Belmont and Fishtown. Both are real American communities, but for statistical purposes Murray restricts his Belmont to whites who fulfill the profile of the new upper class and his Fishtown to working-class whites who belong to the new lower class. He additionally omits all those in both classes who do not belong to the “prime age population.” The result is dramatic. Measured against the new upper class, the new lower class achieves abysmally low scores in each category of the founding virtues.
While I do not have the space here to examine the results in each of the four categories, a look at the state of marriage in the two sample populations will suffice to indicate the severity of the problem. Marriage is not in itself a virtue, but it may be described as the incubator of many of the most fundamental virtues necessary for civic life. With regard to the most important of Murray’s indicators, the prevalence of marriage, Belmont remains fairly consistent from 1960 to 2010, dropping only four percentage points, from 94 to 90 percent. Fishtown, on the other hand, has suffered a catastrophic decline in this category, dropping from 84 percent to below 50. Significantly, this decline may be accounted for in large part by a steep increase in the number of adults who have never married—some 25 percent. This, in turn, is “driven mostly by the retreat of men from the marriage market.” If we expand the frame to include households with children in which the adults were either divorced or never married, Belmont looks even more impressively traditional, with only 3 percent of households answering this description, by contrast with Fishtown, where over 22 percent of households include children raised by divorced or never-married adults. This discrepancy can mostly be accounted for by the steep increase in cohabitation among Fishtown couples, but Murray is quick to note that the children of cohabiting couples fare no better than the children of single parents. In general, divorce rates in Belmont haven’t changed much over the last half-century. In 1960 over 95 percent of children of white upper-middle-class households were reared by married, biological parents; this figure dropped to 85 percent by 2010. In Fishtown during the same period, the number of children raised by both biological parents has dropped from 95 percent to below 35 percent and is still dropping. Appositely, Murray comments, “The absolute level [of children raised by biological parents] in Fishtown is so low that it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.” Clearly, Murray has a gift for understatement.
Much of Murray’s analysis of the new upper class is certainly open to question. One might ask, for example, whether its “industriousness” is much more than a frenzied quest for recognition, driven by social envy and fear of loss of status. Or, with respect to its supposed religiosity, I wonder whether closer scrutiny might reveal that, in many cases, it is a rather hollow adherence to a deeply secularized social gospel, one closely allied to the rise of what the late Philip Rieff deemed the “therapeutic society.” In any event, what most disturbs Murray is that as the founding virtues wane, so also does “social capital.” He echoes writers like Robert Putnam, who, in Bowling Alone (1995), argues forcefully that the erosion of social capital has become a serious problem in American life—one transcending class boundaries. But Murray demonstrates that, relatively speaking, the new upper class remains civically engaged, while the new lower class has become increasingly dysfunctional and distrustful of others. Indeed, in Fishtown social trust, the core ingredient of social capital, is virtually nonexistent. Though Murray’s purpose is not to argue solutions to the problems he exposes, he does suggest that the moral, social, and economic implosion unfolding in Fishtown is primarily the result of two factors. The first is growing dependence on the welfare state, which has sapped much of the working class of its sense of personal and communal responsibility. The second involves the refusal of the cognitive elite to “preach what they practice”—that is, to follow the example of all successful elites (and here Murray singles out the Victorian elite as a model) and impose its own moral standards upon the rest of the population. In the language of Arnold Toynbee, our cognitive elite is no longer a “creative” but merely a “dominant” minority, one lacking confidence in its role, prone to “niceness” and nonjudgmentalism.
No doubt both of these explanations are true as far as they go, but they do not go very far, which brings me to the chief weaknesses of Murray’s analysis. As a Ph.D. in political science, Murray is no doubt familiar with the Neo-Machiavellian intellectual tradition that, beginning especially with Vilfredo Pareto, has stressed the importance of class conflict (from a non-Marxist perspective) in the formation of elites. In America this tradition has been developed by the likes of James Burnham, C. Wright Mills, and Sam Francis, among others. None of the trenchant analyses produced by these men is mentioned by Murray, though Mills, for example, in The Power Elite (1956), offers a much more historically informed account of the rise of the cognitive elite. Indeed, according to Mills (whose work is once again the object of well-deserved attention), the rise of the cognitive or “managerial” elite, and the ensuing disconnection between the elite and the rest of America, had been well under way for at least two decades by the mid-1950’s. Moreover, the rise of the managerial class was, in Mills’ perspective, merely the most recent phase of a long political struggle that began with Mr. Lincoln’s War, and which was characterized above all by an ever-increasing centralization of power and a gradual fusion of the governmental and corporate sectors. The result, argued Mills, was “a virtually new political economy at the apex of which” were the corporate elite and their political operatives in Washington. Another relevant thinker in this context is the late Christopher Lasch, whose last book, The Revolt of the Elites (1995), anticipates virtually all of the arguments proffered by Murray and other recent critics of the cognitive elite, but with far greater perspicuity. Murray’s unwillingness to acknowledge any debt to Lasch (who doesn’t even rate a footnote in Coming Apart) is astonishing, but perhaps understandable. For Lasch, the irresponsibility of the new upper class is part of a larger pattern of betrayal. As Murray would have it, the insidious policies of the welfare state appear to have been simply the misguided efforts of otherwise well-intended liberals. What Lasch reveals, instead, is a decades-long and quite deliberate attack by the new elite on the moral, social, and religious underpinnings of the middle and working classes. Lasch claims, convincingly, that the academic sorting system is rigged to absorb the brightest minds of the working class, leaving their communities bereft of leadership and, therefore, unable to organize any effective popular resistance against an elite whose loyalties—insofar as they have them—are now global rather than national, and who look upon the values of middle- and working-class America with barely disguised contempt. Surely it is ludicrous to imagine that such an elite might somehow be cajoled into assuming the mantle of responsibility for the welfare of a class that it has sought systematically to destroy, whose jobs it has outsourced, whose wages it has decimated through an immigration policy that favors cheap Mexican labor (legal or otherwise), whose children it has brainwashed with a noxious stream of multiculturalist and feminist propaganda, and whose women it has forced to enter the corporate workplace to make ends meet.
[Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray (New York: Crown Forum) 407 pp., $27.00]