It appears that, come November, Americans will elect as president either a wealthy member of a narrow elite or … another wealthy member of that narrow elite.
Of course, I mean the prospect of Barack “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?” Obama facing Mitt “[My wife] drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually” Romney, in a contest to seem more in tune with Americans who gravitate toward iceberg lettuce and Fords.
This would be true even if Charles Murray hadn’t just published “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” And while Murray does not discuss presidential politics in his treatise on the growing gap between the New Upper Class and the New Lower Class, his book’s arrival is timely — and ought to inform the 2012 debate.
“Coming Apart” has been one of the most talked-about books in the commentariat in the past couple of months. But in case you have not come across any reviews of it yet: Murray focuses on “white America” to control for divisions rooted in America’s cruel history of race. “Don’t kid yourself,” he warns, “that we are looking at stresses that can be remedied by attacking the legacy of racism or by restricting immigration.”
That admonition alone would improve our political dialogue. But the trends Murray describes go much further.
He argues that, while our nation has always had disparities of wealth, for almost 200 years Americans shared common cultural experiences. In part, this was because the rich, the middle and the poor interacted. They were not isolated by religious practices or educational attainment; they consumed similar culture in terms of music, television and cinema; they had similar tastes in food and bought different models from the same auto makers.
Over the past 50 years, he says, this has changed. A critical mass formed of highly educated, well-to-do people with jobs of great cultural and/or political influence. There were enough of them, and they were sufficiently mobile and connected, for businesses to cater to their tastes. Think craft beer, espresso, sushi (and arugula).
By and large this New Upper Class is, Murray notes, politically liberal. Yet, in their private lives they behave more traditionally. For example, they marry before having children, and most of them stay married, even as out-of-wedlock births and divorce have risen among all white Americans. Perhaps surprisingly, they are more likely than members of the New Lower Class to attend religious worship services regularly.
Religion and marriage aren’t the only social institutions weakening among the New Lower Class. Its members are less likely to participate in sports clubs, the Elks Lodge, scout troops, elections.
Murray devotes little of “Coming Apart” to identifying the causes of this stratification. But he suggests one reason is the crowding out of social roles by government programs. Another is the New Upper Class does not preach what it practices. Lest they seem judgmental, our elites stay mum about behaviors they deem essential in their own lives. Murray calls them the “founding virtues”: marriage, industriousness, honesty, religiosity.
The reference to the founders is instructive. The people who practice these virtues — increasingly, the elites but not the lower class — are more likely to say they are happy. That is, they are succeeding in “the pursuit of happiness.”
A presidential election that explores this malign neglect of virtue would be worthwhile. Certainly moreso than a contest to see whose theme songs make them most “authentic.”
– By Kyle Wingfield