People are starting to notice the great divide. The tea party sees the aloofness in a political elite that thinks it knows best and orders the rest of America to fall in line. The Occupy movement sees it in an economic elite that lives in mansions and flies on private jets. Each is right about an aspect of the problem, but that problem is more pervasive than either political or economic inequality. What we now face is a problem of cultural inequality.
When Americans used to brag about “the American way of life”—a phrase still in common use in 1960—they were talking about a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace. It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.
Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.
This is a long post, so I’m putting most of it below the jump. Read on.
Murray then takes a tour through the various ways that elite white American culture has diverged from working-class white American culture. He does this by comparing the white elite Boston suburb of Belmont with the white working-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown. Here is an especially notable point of comparison:
Religiosity: Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that Fishtown has become much more secular than Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.
For example, suppose we define “de facto secular” as someone who either professes no religion at all or who attends a worship service no more than once a year. For the early GSS surveys conducted from 1972 to 1976, 29% of Belmont and 38% of Fishtown fell into that category. Over the next three decades, secularization did indeed grow in Belmont, from 29% in the 1970s to 40% in the GSS surveys taken from 2006 to 2010. But it grew even more in Fishtown, from 38% to 59%.
Murray says that the cultural difference between the uppers and the rest of America was not nearly as marked as recently as 1960. There were differences, obviously, but there was still recognizably a common culture. Now, the elites have clustered around what he calls “SuperZIPs” — towns and areas where the elites live in isolation:
Similarly large clusters of SuperZIPs can be found around New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco-San Jose corridor, Boston and a few of the nation’s other largest cities. Because running major institutions in this country usually means living near one of these cities, it works out that the nation’s power elite does in fact live in a world that is far more culturally rarefied and isolated than the world of the power elite in 1960.
And the isolation is only going to get worse. Increasingly, the people who run the country were born into that world. Unlike the typical member of the elite in 1960, they have never known anything but the new upper-class culture. We are now seeing more and more third-generation members of the elite. Not even their grandparents have been able to give them a window into life in the rest of America.
Murray says that purely economic explanations for this state of affairs are insufficient. The breakdown of social norms is a more plausible explanation. Plus, economically successful people will always marry within their own class, he says. Yet he clearly sees that there’s something troubling about a broadly democratic America turning into a Third World model, where a superrich cultural elite rules the teeming masses from behind gated communities.
So, what’s his solution? For elites to start moving to Fishtown, pretty much. That’s it. Seriously:
Changing life in the SuperZIPs requires that members of the new upper class rethink their priorities. Here are some propositions that might guide them: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting. Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile. America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.
Such priorities can be expressed in any number of familiar decisions: the neighborhood where you buy your next home, the next school that you choose for your children, what you tell them about the value and virtues of physical labor and military service, whether you become an active member of a religious congregation (and what kind you choose) and whether you become involved in the life of your community at a more meaningful level than charity events.
I get what he’s saying here, but Daniel Larison has put his finger on what is so naive about this:
So Murray’s solution appears to be telling members of the “new upper class” to change quite a few of the cultural habits that he has just described as part of what distinguishes them from everyone else. If he explained why they should or would do this, I must have missed it. … Murray clearly believes that the “new upper class” ought to engage “in the rest of America” to reduce cultural inequality, and he wants it to be strictly voluntary, but he gives no clear reason why anyone should volunteer.
Exactly right. Why should Mr. and Mrs. Belmont send their kids to school at Fishtown High, which is likely to be a place where the education won’t be nearly as good as what’s on offer at Belmont Prep, and — more crucially to Murray’s main point — the mainstream culture is likely to be inimical to the values that they prize. There may be a moral case for doing this, but Murray doesn’t make it. Moreover, he doesn’t stop to think that the working-class people of Fishtown may not particularly want to adopt the moral and cultural values of the Belmontese. There is a certain sense of noblesse oblige informing Murray’s prescription. What if the people of Fishtown don’t give a rat’s ass about the cultural preferences and values of the elites who deign to live among them? Where is the guarantee that the Fishtownians will be improved by the presence of the Belmontese? The assumption is that if people have a better example set for them, particularly an example of people who prosper by living according to a certain set of bourgeois norms, then they will all want to be like the bourgeois. How do we know that’s true, especially in a popular culture that constantly and powerfully agitates against bourgeois values of self-discipline and stability? If you’re a Belmontese, you’re being asked to risk your kids losing the values that are likely to advance their economic condition, and maintain their social stability, for the sake of … what, exactly?
Understand, I’m not saying that Murray is wrong to diagnose a problem for our country in this cultural divergence. I’m simply agreeing with Larison that his solution is no solution at all. If you’re going to ask people of means to take that kind of risk, you’re going to have to appeal to something a lot more potent than telling them that life in the upper-class suburbs is sterile, and that they’re vaguely missing out if they only stay around their own kind.
This state of affairs is a lot more complicated than most people prefer to think. For one thing, it’s normal for people to want to live around those who share their values. The kind of people who bang on about the value of “diversity” are usually left-wing cultural egalitarians who also — Sailerbait! — extol the “vibrancy” of “diverse” neighborhoods. As the liberal political scientist Bob Putnam found, neighborhood diversity actually diminishes social capital. Why? Look:
But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”
“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes.
In documenting that hunkering down, Putnam challenged the two dominant schools of thought on ethnic and racial diversity, the “contact” theory and the “conflict” theory. Under the contact theory, more time spent with those of other backgrounds leads to greater understanding and harmony between groups. Under the conflict theory, that proximity produces tension and discord.
Putnam’s findings reject both theories. In more diverse communities, he says, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise. And in perhaps the most surprising result of all, levels of trust were not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group.
“Diversity, at least in the short run,” he writes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.”
My guess is that this has as much to do with different cultural values, which include moral values, as it does with ethnic and racial differences. As Murray points out in his essay, cultural differences among whites — that is, people who share the same race — have become far more distinct and divergent in the past 50 years, as we have become a society in which consumer and lifestyle choices have become not only more available, but more prized. Indeed, it is the libertarian instinct, in both its left-wing and right-wing versions, that has brought about the state of affairs that the libertarian Charles Murray finds so problematic. If maximizing and exercising freedom of choice is the telos of American life, as libertarianism in both its forms holds, then why should any American choose to live among people who don’t share the moral beliefs and practices he valorizes? And if an upper-middle class family did decide to leave Belmont for Fishtown, why should the blue-collar people of Fishtown choose to risk the scorn and rejection of their tribe by choosing to live by the values of the outsiders? The cultural pressure brought to bear upon black students who study hard and make good grades — Stuart Buck’s great book “Acting White” is the thing to read on this topic — as well as the persistence of poverty and dysfunction among black folks who reject bourgeois values, undermines the idea that all we need to change the behavior of increasingly dysfunctional working-class whites is for well-off white people to live among them and teach them a thing or two about how to live.
To refresh: the problem Charles Murray diagnoses is real. He offers no real solution. I can’t see that its possible within libertarian philosophy to come up with an effective solution. Murray needs to read Alasdair MacIntyre, who doesn’t have much of a solution either, but who at least understands the profundity of our cultural brokenness. This cultural Third World to which America is descending — by which I mean a society in which the ultrarich live radically segregated from the masses — seems to me to be an outworking of ideas and trends that have been at work for a very long time.