Book Review: Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Kyle Owenby

5 Stars

July 31, 2012

I recently finished reading Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which I received complimentary from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group. Coming Apart is the culmination of several decades of Murray's work as a political scientist who has studied modern American society and culture. Murray explains that he uses white Americas as the reference point for the book because white America is used by everyone else as the reference point for how minorities fair in the United States in ares such as education, disposable income and job possession. This gets to the heart of Coming Apart, the reference point used by everyone is changing, and that means America is changing. In Coming Apart Murray argues that American culture is facing a crisis of two classes that exist on opposite extremes of one another and their increasing isolation and lack of common ground for understanding one another threatens to divide the political and social unity of America.

Murray says that on the one hand there is emerging a new elite class of the well-educated and affluent who possess at least one college degree, dominate positions of finance, industry and government, and are the principle culture makers in American society. While on the other there is a large class of American families who do not possess any college degrees, are trapped in cycles of poverty and poor decision-making and occupy low wage jobs or dead end careers, or find themselves living off government assistance. Murray suggests that part of the reason for success of those who are a part of the upper classes is that greater numbers of their members have followed the American founding virtues. Murray acknowledges that there are several virtues that could be considered American virtues, but those he addresses are marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity. Along with these two classes that exist at the extremes of American society there is also the large middle class. This middle class is composed of an upper-middle, those who make their living in white collar pursuits that involve an education and managing information, and a lower-middle, those who are the working class in blue collar jobs. Coming Apart is about the extremes, what the extremes tell us about America and what they mean for America that there exist classes that cannot relate to one another along common frames of reference.

Murray argues very well that the increased prosperity encountered by those who received an education, excelled in the financial and legal sectors, and took careers in the government and the creative world they became isolated from the culture of other Americans. They had different tastes in material goods, in luxuries and in living arrangements, and because of the economic boom experienced by the US after the 1950s, in part facilitated by these new elites, there was enough "mass," that is, enough people to purchase these goods and choose a life that was set apart. These people did not necessarily want to leave the culture of the other Americans behind, it is simply what happened as they selected those around them and the goods they consumed, which were in part produced by what made them an elite class anyways. Their education had introduced them to foreign goods, entertainment and ideas, which other Americans were slower to adopt, while their interests were generated as a byproduct of their affluence: more expensive (often foreign) automobiles, bigger homes, and more exotic vacations as just a few examples.

However, it was not just the success of those who formed the upper class that has resulted in a divide between the classes. Amongst those who are the poor and the working class there has been a remarkable shift in their culture over the last fifty years. Murray defines this shift in culture as the loss of the practice of the American founding virtues amongst the working class, marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity. These four virtues, contends Murray, are not being practiced by those who are among the working class, instead they are facing a life beset with the problems produced by this cultural shift. This includes rampant sexuality but no responsiblity to marry or care for children fathered out of wedlock, a disregard for honest work, even if it is lowly regarded (such as fast food, which pays the bills but certainly isn't glamorous), the increase in criminal or unethical behavior as a result of diminished respect for honesty, and a loss of religious sympathy. While these other three are perhaps understandable, or expected, it is the lack of religious amongst the American poor and working class that is most surprising. Long considered a bastion of American religious conservatism, Murray argues that instead the many in the working poor of America no longer exercise religious values or moral, and as a result have lost some of the class unity and cohesion that are experienced by other Americans.

Murray offers an analysis of two communities, Belmont and Fishtown, that are taken to be representative of the lives of upper and lower class Americans. It is an interesting exercise, and one that provides insight into how Murray's theories are truly being played out. Certainly Murray's assertions do not apply to everyone, there are many in the working poor who are happily and faithfully married, work hard, live honestly and are devout in the faith they practice. Yet, Murray has observed a concerning trend that the number do not, and this puts them at odds with the culture of those in the upper classes, which values strong and happy family relationships, hard work and productivity, just law-abiding and sincerely following metaphysical moral guidelines (religion, or religions, and tolerance expressed for those who are of a different kind, so long as they are religious). These differences are putting the two classes at odds, and this could very well prove disastrous for American culture.

Murray does not argued that American is imperiled by impending decline, but he does argue that the existence of two classes in America that do not have a common basis for understanding one another, a shared set of those founding virtues, will cause all manner of social and political problems. He also does not argue that the upper classes need to give up any wealth to change the situation. Being a libertarian, he would be appalled by such a solution. Instead he calls upon those who are in the upper classes to work to understand the culture of their fellow citizens. What can be done to encourage the adoption of stronger and better virtues among the working poor, a respect for marriage, hard work, and honesty, held together by the framework of religiosity that builds a community? Murray suggests welfare reform is one such way, while those in communities of the working poor who maintain these virtues should be encouraged, by their faith communities, and by concerned citizens. Coming Apart is highly critical of the poor, that is true, and Murray addresses the creation of a systemic and entrenched elite that keeps outsiders form joining the ranks of the upper classes as a problem, however he does not address other problems associated with affluence, such as white collar crimes. A major problem I noted is that one is left with the impression that the upper classes are not facing problems with a loss of the founding virtues. I would certainly say that rampant greed and workaholic attitudes are problems that on some level must be addressed by the virtue claims that the upper classes are supposed to possess, and a follow-up volume, or a second edition, would be greatly enhanced by such an analysis.