Sunday, April 29, 2012

Coming Apart by Charles Murray


If you think the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are getting poorer, according to Murray, you're right. His thesis: “Our nation is coming apart at the seams – not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.” (269)
Murray identifies November 21, 1963 as a turning point in American history. This book is about the evolution of American society since that date, “leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known.” (11) He is convinced that if this divergence into separate classes continues, it will end what has made America America. His primary goal is to recognize the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams. He focuses on white America so this coming apart will be understood as not an issue of race or immigration.
There is a new upper class that is different from anything the country has seen. They are the people who run the nation's economic, political, and cultural institutions. Murray designates the top 5 percent working in managerial positions, in the professions, and in content-production jobs in the media as the “new upper class.” (20) They have become increasingly isolated and that has been accompanied by a growing ignorance about the country over which they have great power.
Murray looks at the millionaires in 1963 and notes that there was not that much difference in their clothing, cars, houses, etc. from the middle class. Now the wealthy lifestyle is quite different from the middle class. He looks at the role of education in the emergence of the new upper class.
He notes that the new upper class consists of people born into upper-middle-class families and have never lived outside that experience. (100-1) The danger is that the people who have so much influence in the course of the nation have little experience with ordinary Americans. They make decisions based on their own lives, so much unlike that of the vast majority of Americans.
And everybody else? “In the years after 1960, America developed something new: a white lower class that did not consist of a fringe, but of a substantial part of what was formally the working class population.” (125) The size of this new lower class is increasing.
He investigates what he calls the “founding virtues.” He covers the changes in marriage and the breakdown of the family in the (white) working class. He notes the weakening of the work ethic. He reports on the changes in honesty, integrity, and increasing crime. He looks at the role of religion in society and the increase of nonbelievers.
In the final part of the book, Murray tells us why all this matters, reporting on the case for the ongoing collapse of American community, particularly in lower class white America. He relates this to deep satisfaction in life. (He is quick to point out the complexity of this issue.)
Murray also relates that adding in nonwhite information does not change the result. White America is not heading in one direction and nonwhite America in another. “The coming apart at the seams has not been confined to whites, not will its evil effects been confined to whites.” (277) He ends by pondering the future of America, looking at the current state of Europe along the way.
He includes many charts and statistical results, as well as several appendices with supplemental material on several of his conclusions.

Being in my mid-sixties, I've lived through this period Murray has investigated. I knew that America today was not the America of my teens. Murray has helped me understand the change and what it might mean for the future. If you are at all interested in the current state of America, how we got here, and what it might mean for the future, you need to read this book.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.  He is the author of several books.  He and his wife live in Burkittsville, Maryland.  Read more about Murray here.

Crown Forum, 407 pages.  Publisher information.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.
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