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‘Coming Apart’ (Nearly) a Decade Later

To bring us back together in the 21st century calls for a richer, more materially attuned analysis of our problems.

Remember the alienated working class?

If my memory serves, the U.S. establishment took an interest in MAGA Land’s discontents for about nine months, beginning in mid-2016 and ending a month or two after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a period that roughly coincided with Hillbilly Elegy’s climb atop the best-seller charts. Thereafter, the media and talking heads went back to ignoring or demonizing the social bloc that had propelled the Orange Man to the White House, an approach that persists to this day.

But before Trump’s rise was anything more than a gleam in the reality-TV star’s own eye, one thinker saw trouble brewing among the lower orders and tried to warn the nation. I’m speaking of Charles Murray, whose prophecy came in the form of the 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. It was a work of meticulous research that should have prompted a drastic rethink on social and economic policy, not least on the right.

Except, it didn’t. The Republican Party carried on as before, largely indifferent to working-class misery, of which deaths of despair and the opioid epidemic were only the most glaring symptoms. Most conservatives and libertarians—lawmakers and intellectuals alike—were therefore surprised and baffled by the Trump phenomenon, though I suspect Murray himself escaped this deer-in-headlights effect.

Why was this? It is true that only a very few books truly change history. But some blame lies also with the author. Reading Coming Apart nearly a decade later, it is clear that Murray reinforced, rather than challenged, elites’ conventional wisdom: namely, that to the extent working-class alienation is real, it is primarily a cultural problem, rather than one having to do with law and political economy. This, in turn, rendered his commination ultimately harmless to U.S. elites.

The trends Murray had highlighted were alarming, but, the author reassured elites, there was little about our neoliberal social and economic arrangements that could or should be altered to reverse these trends. The best the overclass could do was to “preach what they practice,” as he famously wrote, exhorting the underclass to the “Founding virtues” of marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity.

By now, Murray’s main findings are well-known, and I have no reason to challenge them, still less to present some alternative dataset. Indeed, Coming Apart remains a masterclass in the selection, compilation, and presentation of complex social data, and Murray deserves our thanks for having undertaken this labor. What I take issue with, rather, are the libertarian assumptions that sometimes distort the author’s analysis of his own findings, as well as the near complete absence from the book of class conflict and compromise, which lends his view of the American past a strangely rosy, ahistorical quality, making it harder to contextualize the more recent developments he would have us examine.

For those who still haven’t read the book—though you really should—allow me to briefly summarize its core contention. America, Murray shows, has since the mid-1960s been undergoing a dramatic process of social sorting. The members of a new upper class, enjoying the fruits of cognitive advantage and an economy that increasingly rewards them, have separated themselves from the rest of the country, clustering together conjugally, culturally, and geographically in “Belmont” (both an upscale Boston suburb, as well as a carefully constructed statistical representative of white, upper-class America).

Belmont, Murray demonstrates, still largely practices the aforementioned Founding virtues. Belmont children grow up in intact biological families, with mothers and fathers locked in stable marriages. As professionals, Belmonters work very hard. They form an honest community, at least as measured by rates of criminality and incarceration. And notwithstanding all the talk about elite secularization, they are still surprisingly churchgoing and actively involved in civic institutions.

But for much of the rest of America, particularly the new lower class, things aren’t going so well. In Fishtown (again, both a real working-class Philly neighborhood, as well as a carefully constructed statistical stand-in for the lower class), marriage rates have dropped since the 1960s, and many children grow up in unstable family environments headed by single mothers. A large share of workers, including prime-age men, have exited the labor force. Crime is spiking. And religiosity and civic engagement are down—way down.

Murray focuses his analysis on white Americans, on the ground that white-versus-minority comparisons risk obscuring the shifts taking place within white America, as the reference point against which other groups’ well-being is judged. If other ethnic groups were factored into his analysis, the author speculates, the class divergence documented in Coming Apart would only appear wider and more terrifying. It’s a sound decision. Again, I have no reason to criticize Murray’s empirical methods. It is his libertarian commitments and assumptions that give me pause. Often, Murray reveals these assumptions in passing—just enough to discount class conflict as a potential causal factor or to rule out solutions rooted in political economy.

For example, almost immediately after explaining his decision to limit his analysis to whites, Murray writes, “Don’t kid yourselves that we are looking at stresses that can be remedied…by restricting immigration.” Come again? Why would excluding minorities from an analysis of white-against-white decline rule out immigration’s role in the same phenomenon? We know that boosting the aggregate supply of unskilled and low-skilled labor by importing immigrants (of whatever ethnicity) adversely affects the wages, bargaining power, and social-services access of native workers (of all ethnicities).

It follows that restricting some forms of immigration could improve the material condition of underclass Americans, including the white underclass vis-à-vis the white overclass. This is why immigration restrictionism has been a working-class political demand going back at least to the Populist and Progressive eras, when the nation’s ethnic composition was far more homogenous than it is today. Now, if Murray holds the view that immigration doesn’t, in fact, undercut workers at or near the bottom of the labor ladder, then that is a belief we might have expected him to justify with as much statistical rigor as he deployed in making his other observations.

Or take work-force participation. Again, there is no denying the bare finding that in Fishtown, “a substantial number of prime-age, white, working-age men dropped out of the labor force” in the period under consideration (1960-2010), as Murray notes. Nor that the prime-age, white, male jobless rate jumped during the same period, even when taking into account “underlying trends in unemployment.” Yet in explaining these developments, Murray flatly concludes that “white males of the 2000s were less industrious than they had been 20, 30 or 50 years ago, and that the decay in industriousness occurred overwhelmingly in Fishtown.”

To reach that conclusion, Murray quickly rules out wage shrinkage and private-economy labor unionism’s long-term funk. Yes, he concedes, “high-paying unionized jobs have become scarce, and real wages for all kinds of blue-collar jobs have been stagnant or falling since the 1970s.” But, he goes on, these realities lack explanatory power, since “insofar as men need work to survive…falling hourly income does not discourage work.” In the “very bad” economic year 2009, he goes on, these men could have toiled as, say, building cleaners for $12.63 an hour, or $505 weekly, assuming a 40-hour week—not a “great” wage, yes, but “enough to be able to live a decent existence.”

Here, Murray reveals the moral and psychological limitations of a certain kind of econometric libertarianism. While one hopes that any working-age man will pick up work wherever it might be found, it is important to note the historical shift hovering in the background: “High-paying unionized jobs have become scarce”—a reminder that such jobs were not so scarce for earlier generations of Fishtown men. Could it be that while a statistical abstraction might be happy to work an insecure, wage-stagnant job for $12.63 an hour, a man who remembers that his father and grandfather had secure, well-paying working-class jobs might be less enthusiastic?

Murray fails to account, in other words, for the lost promise, so foundational to the American project, that “there is no fixed condition of labor” for the worker’s whole life, as Lincoln put it, that he can get ahead reasonably well and escape wage-drudgery and achieve a measure of secure and equal ownership, if not vast wealth. By the latter third of the 20th century, the Fishtown man wasn’t even secure in the fixed-if-decent condition of his unionized father and grandfather. The wages and opportunities on offer to him represented a dramatic retraction from the condition of his forebears.

What I’m getting at are the shortcomings of an interpretive frame that leaves out inter-class competition, conflict, and compromise—the workings of a class system—in attempting to analyze the admittedly troubling conduct of the white underclass. Murray, it seems to me, exhibits Michael Lind’s characterization of neoliberal and libertarian thought as a whole in attributing “the problems of the white working class not to the class system, but rather to personal shortcomings” of millions of Americans, who all seem to be making the same or similarly wrong choices in their lives as individuals. The process, as Murray would have it, just began in the 1960s, in a manner divorced from historical forces, from political economy, from the material substrate that makes it possible for people to build virtuous lives (or not).

When it comes to the period under consideration—as well as our history as a whole—Murray’s is finally a romantically individualized account of American life. To his credit, the author does recognize that there have always been distinct classes in America, which is more than can be said for many mainstream conservatives and libertarians. But he writes of an “underlying American kinship” between classes that strikes me as altogether airbrushed and ideologized: His lost Eden is an America where bosses and their workers lived not too far apart, and not too differently, both groups striving for the Founding virtues and sharing roughly the same aspirations.

Far be it from me to claim that such inter-class harmony has never reigned in American social life. It has, from time to time, especially in the two to three decades immediately following World War II. But the historical norm has been one of intense, violent class conflict. This other United States has been described by one eminent American as a place where “the fortunes realized by our manufacturers are no longer solely the reward of sturdy industry and enlightened foresight, but . . . result from the discriminating favor of the government and are largely built upon undue extractions from the masses of our people”; where the gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich, while in another are found the toiling poor; where dominate “trusts, combinations and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel”; where “corporations, which ought to be carefully constrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

That eminent American was President Grover Cleveland, lamenting the social state of the republic in his fourth annual message to Congress. This was the America that witnessed furious railroad and coal strikes, the America of proletarian squalor set against plutocratic opulence, of farmers who still considered themselves frontier yeomen but who were, in fact, the near-slaves of creditors and the “money power.” It was an era as “honest” and as virtuous as a figure like Sen. James Blaine, the Gilded Age’s master of graft.

That era of class turbulence, stretching from the Civil War to World War II, came to a close thanks to pro-labor reforms enacted across the Populist, Progressive, and New Deal eras. What followed was the age of convergence whose loss Murray eulogizes. Which class set off divergence? Well, undermining private-sector unionism, shipping jobs offshore, promoting relatively open borders and generally deregulating economic life—these were concrete policies pursued by Murray’s virtuous overclass, beginning roughly at the outset of his timeframe (the 1960s). The result: The overclass did very well for itself in the decades that followed, while the underclass seems to have declined as insecure working classes tend to do.

None of this is to suggest that virtue and cultural factors more generally are unimportant, far from it. But culture and virtue, too, have a material, political dimension. The cultural changes of the 1960s—above all, sexual liberalization—were imposed by “libertarians in robes” (Lind’s term for the judiciary), and very soon, the hitherto unthinkable became thinkable and then doable. It would seem, then, that the mere exhortation to virtue that the libertarian Murray limits himself to won’t suffice to reverse the changes he laments. Something more is needed: law.

Murray, in his typically and admirably genial style, allows that the data presented in Coming Apart will likely reinforce Americans’ ideological priors—including his. Most of the author’s own explicitly libertarian prescriptions come only toward the end of the book, although, as I have tried to show, the libertarian commitments are also baked into some of his analysis and assumptions. Nevertheless, Coming Apart remains a signal achievement of American social and political science. To bring us back together in the 21st century, however, calls for a richer, more materially attuned analysis.



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