The State of White America

A look back at Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010 by Charles Murray

 A few years ago, in 2012, the divisive author Charles Murray wrote Coming Apart ( A New York Times best-seller), to tell the story of white America. The book sees an America of two halves: on one side there is a new upper class of ‘cognitive elites’ and on the other, a problematic, under-educated lower class. Throughout the text Murray refers back to the central tenet of the Pledge of Allegiance – that the United States is “one nation, indivisible” – and argues that this cornerstone of American national identity is ‘coming apart’ at the seams. In fact, it is a land of increasing division and, rather than race and ethnicity, the dividing line is being drawn by class.

In light of recent events in the USA, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the text five years later, and to question whether Murray got things right or wrong.

First of all, who is Charles Murray?

Student protesters disrupt speaker Charles Murray at Middlebury College, Vermont in March 2017.

Murray is a figure who likes to court controversy. On his Twitter account, he wryly describes himself as a “Husband, father, social scientist, writer, libertarian. Or maybe right-wing ideologue, pseudoscientist, evil. Opinions differ.” Although he has authored numerous texts on social and political science, his lasting legacy will undoubtedly be his incendiary best-seller The Bell Curve (1994, co-authored with Richard J. Herrnstein), which argued that IQ was the most dominant factor shaping America’s class structure at that time. The incredibly controversial basis for this claim was a belief in the cognitive inferiority of African Americans and Latinos. This hypothesis has followed him around ever since: in March 2017, a violent protest broke out a lecture he was due to give at Middlebury College, Vermont. The incident sparked a heated debate in the American press about freedom of speech on university campuses.

What is the book about?

Using reams of data and focusing on the case studies of two fictional neighbourhoods, Belmont (populated by affluent establishment types aged 30-49) and Fishtown (populated by working class, single-parent families aged 30-49), Murray traces how these new upper and lower classes have developed over the past five decades and argues that their divergence will end “what has made America America”. As this concept suggests, there is an unequivocal nationalism at the core of the book – it still reads as a love letter to the values of the ‘founding fathers’ and their dream of what the nation should be.

The Founding Fathers

While it has always been the case that some people had more money than others, previous generations were united in their shared dedication to the bedrocks of American life: marriage, industriousness, honesty and religion. For Murray, these core threads of American society were unravelling when he wrote the book in 2012: the white citizenry no longer knew or understand each other, nor did they invest in a shared civic culture. Thus, he calls for a “great awakening” amongst the upper class to restore the ideals of the American project.

What is it like five years later?

This book was written before the ‘annus horribilis’ that was 2016, before echo-chambers became a recognised phenomenon and before populism took to the global stage. It is hard not to read it retrospectively, especially when the division of white America has become so widely acknowledged in the past number of years, as has the focus on class tension, perhaps even to the detriment of racial tension.

If anything, Coming Apart heralded the beginning of a now ever-growing canon of contemporary writing that looks at the world in binary terms, whether that is the bifurcation discussed in Yuval Levin’s The Fractured State (2016) or more recently in David Goodhart’s much promoted The Road to Somewhere (2017). In the latter, Goodhart divides British society into ‘anywhere’ people and ‘somewhere’ people, or in other words, those with mobile, ‘achieved’ identities from ‘anywhere’ and those with marginalised, root-based identities linked to ‘somewhere’ specific. At times I wonder what happens to all the people in the middle, or to those that cannot be neatly labelled and analysed accordingly. Perhaps this trend in sociological literature is merely reflecting human nature’s need to sort and order chaos?

Of course, there is much to criticise in Murray’s text – for one thing, Murray’s views on Europe (a foreshadowing of things to come?!) are downright xenophobic – but somehow that is not really the point. In fact, I was very pleased indeed to have re- visited this book: it provides real insight into the mind-set of Americans who want to “Make America Great Again” – people who believe things were better fifty years ago when hard-working alpha-males provided for their families, when all the kids went to Sunday school and when everyone watched the same news. Maybe Murray’s book retains some merit in 2017 then – it forces the liberal reader (like me) to leave their bubble and open their eyes to a worldview they were perhaps previously unfamiliar with: those hard-core conservatives, now affectionately known as Trump’s ‘base’.

As well as this, the text remains particularly revelatory about a key problem that continues to face Murray and his type: illusion versus reality. The entire thesis of the book is invalidated by the fact that the America of nationalistic dreams died long ago – something that is only highlighted by Murray anachronistically using eighteenth-century values to fix the present. For many citizens, the founding fathers were also just a group of privileged, land-owning, white men. If anything this has become even more apparent in the past five years. The United States is now a melting pot of racial, religious and cultural diversity, filled with the potential for a new, twenty-first century ‘American project’. Thus, it is abundantly clear that the only way of halting the ‘coming apart’ of the nation remains to embrace its unchartered future rather than scrambling for the best route to its past.

Of course, in the summer of 2017, I felt a chill as I finished this book (and not because it was a unusually chilly summer): there is something incredibly eerie about Murray’s closing question, in which he asks the people of America what they are willing to do to preserve the virtuous nation of the founding fathers.

On the 8th of November 2016, 63 million of them answered.

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