It isn’t often that a provocative writer in this era of polarization can capture the attention of both the left and the right and possibly get some agreement from both sides. Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” is worth reading no matter where you stand in the political spectrum. Writers in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal say this book shouldn’t be ignored.
Murray has long been associated with a conservative viewpoint that reached its most divisive level with his book “The Bell Curve,” which argues that intelligence is more influenced by environmental and inherited factors than by education levels. When I was president of Lilly Endowment, I invited Murray to speak in Indianapolis. Some of my liberal colleagues were incensed and suggested a boycott. Since I was their boss, they relented and did attend but still did not agree with him.
“Coming Apart” is about the gradual slip of the American Dream from possibility to impossibility. It is also about a cultural divide in white America that Murray believes is so deep and so wide that the common beliefs that were almost universally accepted in the past are no longer a part of America’s psyche. Without these common virtues, the dream has died and appears unreachable to many of our citizens.
It is significant that this book is supported by research on white citizens who are on both sides of the cultural divide, so race or ethnic differences are not an issue. And based on decades of research, income inequality doesn’t matter much, either.
According to Murray, the powerful upper class lives in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, with little knowledge of mainstream America. The lower class suffering from an erosion of family and community life feel little hope for their future or achieving the American dream.
Confirmation of Murray’s thesis was described in a recent National Journal front-page article on Muncie headlined, “In Nothing We Trust.” This is a depressing account of the city’s economic struggle and the general belief that the community’s institutions (government, churches, businesses, not-for-profits, etc.) generally don’t work and often are not trustworthy. Muncie was chosen for the review because it was the subject of the well-regarded “Middle Town” sociological study in the early 20th century.
“The McGuffey Reader,” a standard textbook for teaching reading in the country’s schools from 1853 to the 1940s, promoted the virtues the Founding Fathers felt were necessary for the country to succeed. Everyone—regardless of class, income level, or ethnic or racial background—was taught the same principles for living a productive life.
Murray believes these virtues were industriousness, honesty, religiosity and the importance of marriage as the bedrock institution of society. These virtues were also accepted by the children of immigrants.
Today, according to Murray, few institutions promote these ideas, which at one time could be considered a “national civil religion.” Murray says the upper class today still generally believes and practices these virtues. However, this group of citizens who serve in leadership capacity in government, the press, in philanthropy, in education and in business seldom speak up about their beliefs. He believes they are so committed to not being judgmental that it has become politically incorrect to do so.
In “Coming Apart,” Murray spends 277 pages describing the conditions in white America and only 28 pages with possible ideas on how to bridge or end the cultural divide. He mentions the unseemliness of high CEO salaries, the possibility of a negative income tax, the need for a civic awakening, the failure of the social welfare state in Europe, the need for a public service system.
But what he wants most is for America’s new upper class to “once again fall in love with what makes America different.” To see this country as an exceptional way to live together, unique among nations, and immeasurably precious.
That means government probably can’t do it, but the kind of men and women who read IBJ could.•
• Mutz has held leadership positions including lieutenant governor and president of Lilly Endowment and PSI Energy. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.