Every so often a “must read” book comes along. Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray is one of those books.
I have been delaying this post for a long time simply because there is so very much to discuss in Coming Apart. Like Murray’s other works this one is provocative and like the others it will anger many. I agree that Murray makes some statements that offend. However, Murray only makes statements that are supported by data and that is why he cannot be ignored.
Here is the embarrassingly simplified point Murray makes. America is rapidly dividing into two classes, the elites and the masses. This is no proletariat vs. bourgeoisie class struggle, it is not red states vs. blue states, black vs. white, or rich vs. poor. As Murray demonstrates, America is coming apart along a line of cognitive ability.
To be clear, the intellectually gifted often become wealthy, particularly in our information driven age. The tastes and manners of the cognitive elite do tend toward the bourgeoisie and are becoming increasingly liberal. All this is true, but it is not at the heart of the matter. Of course, money does not denote smarts, and plenty of smart people live well without Ivy League credentials, they are increasingly becoming outliers to the singular trend.
Through a process of self-segregation and accidental eugenics, the elite are attending the best schools, living in cloistered communities, and otherwise removing themselves from mainstream America. The elite meet and marry other elites and give rise to second-generation elites, and so on. Murray’s data is stunning in describing how wealth and ability are aggregating in tight, homogeneous communities.
Not too long ago in America in a random small suburban town a white collar professional lived next door to a blue collar worker who lived next door to an immigrant laborer and on and on. Our communities and professions featured a mix of all sorts of people who interacted and formed a shared culture. They saw the same movies, drank the same beer, and attended the same Church.
Not so anymore. America is being torn into two cultures that do not understand each other, and increasingly, are ignorant of each other. Take this one fact: 92 percent of Americans live in zip codes where the majority of adults do not have college degrees. In the elite zip codes (see Murray) nearly 100 percent of adults have college degrees, many have graduate or professional degrees too.
During the campaign Barack Obama had two moments that perfectly illuminate this division. Trying to appeal to the middle class, Obama remarked, in colloquial syntax, “anyone gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” Then, famously, while tucked into one of the elite enclaves, Obama said, “You go into these small towns … and it’s not surprising they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Mitt Romney recently revealed his own culture when trying to bond with average Joes. He remarked “I have some friends who are NASCAR Team owners.”
Of course this does not make Obama or Romney a bad guy, it just demonstrates that they are not like most of the country they seek to govern.
The implications of all this are rather unclear. Murray himself points out that the segregation of the elites has actually made our national economy much more efficient, but this should not obscure the problems division presents to a democratic society.
William F. Buckley pithily – as if he had any other way – said “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” I could not agree more, but it has been a long time since we had a leader, or class of leaders, that did not come out of Harvard or Yale.