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Charles Murray
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Charles Murray

American abyss

Q&A | The country, says author Charles Murray, has big problems regardless of who wins the presidential election

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray writes books that create intellectual tsunamis, from Losing Ground in 1984 (which eviscerated the U.S. welfare system) to Real Education four years ago (which proposed alternatives to bachelor’s degrees; see “College crush,” Feb. 14, 2009). This year’s Murray blockbuster argues that the United States is Coming Apart.

Ernest Hemingway said F. Scott Fitzgerald once told him, “The rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway said he responded, “Yes, they have more money.” Do you say they also have a different culture? In the old days the people who ran corporations or were in politics overwhelmingly grew up in farm homes or in homes where their fathers were factory workers or ran small stores or the rest of it. When they came to power they got more money than other people, but their culture was the same. Now the elites are different in kind. It’s not just that they have more money. They have a separate culture.

When did that change begin? In the 1960s America’s colleges started to get really efficient at finding the best talent everywhere in the country. In an elite neighborhood in 1960, about three-quarters of the couples in that neighborhood would have no college degrees, or only one. In the majority of couples, one was socialized through high school and only one was socialized through college, and probably not one of the elite colleges. Jump to 2010 and it’s different. Everyone in those elite neighborhoods is socialized through college in general, and elite colleges in particular. 

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How are the two cultures different? Members of the new upper class these days get married in their late 20s or beyond, and don’t have kids until later. They read different books—in reading books at all they are apart from a great deal of the rest of the country. A lot of American popular culture is transmitted through TV, but if the elite have one at all they use it to watch DVDs of movies, or Downton Abbey, or Mad Men

Are evangelicals divided in that way? My sense is that evangelicals don’t have many of the problems I’m talking about—and I’m not saying that because I’m in front of a Patrick Henry College audience. There are, in being a devout evangelical, all sorts of things that will lead you to be engaged with people of all classes. Caring for the less fortunate is a fundamental tenet of Christian morality. People who are imbued with that are going to spend a lot of time, effort, and money, and personal attention trying to deal with the human problems around them. 

In general, though, we don’t know how the other half lives? If you grew up in the upper middle class in an affluent neighborhood, you are especially isolated from that world. You really don’t have a good idea of what it’s like to be the son or daughter of a truck driver.

Marriage is one of the key divides? Fifty years ago we were pretty much one nation across classes and the classic example of that is marriage. Divorce in the upper middle class has been going down since the 1980s, so those in the upper middle class are increasingly on their first marriage. Meanwhile, among 30- to 49-year-olds in the white working class, we’re down to 48 percent married. 

That has big implications. Single dads don’t really coach Little League teams very often. Single moms don’t have much time to go to PTA meetings. The community functions very differently, and the whole culture starts to collapse and change. We now have two cultures.

How many people see that as a problem? What’s scary to me is that a lot of upper-class members now are perfectly happy thinking of themselves as being in an upper class. A senior executive at a major New York ad agency lived in a modest house in 1960. Americans denied they were in the upper class, or in the lower class: We all wanted to be middle class. Now some people really don’t see why they should want to associate with Americans who aren’t as rich and well-educated as they are. They’re very happy being members of the upper class—that scares me.

Which comes first, the decline in church involvement or the decline in marriage? I can’t give you a simple answer. The fact of getting married often concentrates people’s attention on spiritual and religious matters—but religious belief is a big prompter for getting married. A loss of religiosity will be associated with lower marriage rates. It’s a feedback loop.

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