If you would like to read something that really grapples with the current state of affairs in the United States, forget the empty campaign speech masquerading as a SOTU delivered before Congress last night.
Instead this piece by Charles Murray, who has a new book just out, reveals some sobering truths about the current civic culture of the U.S. The speech last night was concerned with income inequality, or stirring up envy against people who have been unusually successful.
Well, people have always been able to get rich in the U.S. (at least until recently) and that is a good thing. Murray is concerned with a real and harmful divide in our society:
America is coming apart. For most of our nation's history, whatever the inequality in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens, we maintained a cultural equality known nowhere else in the world—for whites, anyway. "The more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of American democracy, in the 1830s. "On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: They listen to them, they speak to them every day."
Americans love to see themselves this way. But there's a problem: It's not true anymore, and it has been progressively less true since the 1960s. …
When Americans used to brag about "the American way of life"—a phrase still in common use in 1960—they were talking about a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace. It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.
When President Obama talks about class divisions in the U.S., he speaks of income inequality and rails against millionaires and billionaires who are presented as the old plutocrat in the Monopoly game. He never mentions the real class division in America:
We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions.
Murray’s book is entitled “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” The title may be unfortunate, introducing racial themes that distract us from some of the hard truths about the fracturing of our culture that the book apparently delivers.
Murray develops his thesis by comparing two fictional communities: Belmont, named after an archetypal upper-middle-class suburb near Boston, and Fishtown, after a Philadelphia neighborhood that has been a working class community since the American Revolution.
The denizens of the two communities used to be more alike than different, despite economic discrepancies.
In 1960, most folks in both communities got married—94 percent in Belmont and 84 percent in Fishtown. Marriage in Belmont is now around 83 percent, while it is less than half—48 percent—in Fishtown. In 1960, only 2 percent of white births were to mothers who weren’t married. By 2008, 40 percent of births were to unmarried mothers, but with college educated women, the sort who would inhabit Belmont, illegitimacy (I am not sure this term is still used?) was still at 6 percent. The increase in out of wedlock births, then, comes more from communities such as Fishtown. This means that, because children raised in single-parent homes often fare less well than those from two-parent households, there will be less upward mobility. Upward mobility is the essence of the American Dream (or it was before political leaders realized that they could make hay by using the basic human flaw of a propensity to envy to promote the notion that eradicating income inequality is a legitimate concern of government).
Other facets compared: industriousness, crime, and religiosity in the two communities. In all three categories the distance has grown, much to the disadvantage of Fishtown. Unlike in the past, when Belmont might have been more affluent but shared civic values with Fishtown, the two communities now are isolated from each other.
So John Edwards was right—we do have two Americas. Just not the two he preached. Cultural inequality, which is what we have developed, according to Murray, is a real problem. It isolates us from each other, and, though Murray doesn’t say this, it really does mean that the rich get richer, while the less culturally capable are stuck in Fishtowns. What can be done?
It is not something for government to address, Murray says. Rather, if we are to once again have a shared culture, we must become…judgmental. Murray writes:
The "something" that I have in mind has to be defined in terms of individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children. Doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside. There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold.
The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending "nonjudgmentalism." Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn't hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.