Two political thinkers, a liberal and a conservative, believe America is headed toward inexorable decline. There are good reasons to believe they’re both wrong.
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
by Charles Murray
Crown Forum, 402 pp.
The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
by Thomas Byrne Edsall
Doubleday, 256 pp.
What do liberal journalist Thomas Edsall and conservative scholar Charles Murray have in common? They both think that America is going from bad to worse and that prospects for the future look remarkably bleak. Call this view “Amero-pessimism,” a rising trend that includes broad sectors of both the left and the right.
Of course, these two writers embrace their Amero-pessimism for quite different reasons. For Murray, as he writes in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, it all started in the 1960s. In fact, Murray supplies us with an exact date when things started going wrong: November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot and the first day, according to Murray, of the cultural transformation of the decade. It’s been all downhill since then.
Before this date, everybody did what they were supposed to do: they worked hard, got married, and, over time, prospered. Class divisions weren’t much of a big deal. Rich and poor tended to eat the same food and watch the same TV shows. So what if some people had a bit more money than others? We were all bound together in a common culture with common values.
Since that fateful November day, however, American society has been coming apart. Under the baleful influence of a relativistic, anything goes, sixties morality, America’s work ethic and honesty have been destroyed; the commitment to religion and the institution of marriage has been all but lost. As a result, the less-educated bottom 30 percent of whites have seen their economic and social fates diverge radically from the well-educated top 20 percent of whites. (Weirdly, Murray dubs the former group “Fishtown,” in honor of a white working-class Philly neighborhood on the banks of the Delaware River; the latter group is named “Belmont,” after a tony Boston suburb.)
It is a segment of Belmont whites—comprising perhaps 5 percent of the U.S. population— who make up what Murray believes is the new upper class. These are the folks who hold the most powerful managerial and professional jobs in our social institutions and really run the country. Unlike in the good old days, they live in a culture that is separate and distinct from the rest of America (think upscale coffeehouses and restaurants, gourmet food stores, “green” consumer goods, National Public Radio, “serious” movies and TV), and they even live together in the same places, huddled together in what Murray calls “SuperZips,” where they can escape the unrefined masses, send their kids to good schools, and marry each other. Oddly, it is this very same new upper class that most fervently embraces the values of the 1960s—and yet they are doing very, very well.
And why are they doing so well? Simple: they’re smarter! According to Murray, the sorting mechanisms in our technologically advanced society have become ever more efficient at ferreting out the cognitively gifted among us (elite colleges play a big role) and slotting them into positions where they can reap the market’s increasing return for high-level skills. So the cognitively advanced Belmont whites pull even farther away from the cognitively challenged Fishtown whites, who, you will remember, no longer have even their sturdy values of honesty, hard work, marriage, and traditional religion to rely upon. (As for the problems of blacks and Hispanics, Murray appears to stand by his earlier work in The Bell Curve, where he argued that they’re just not as smart as whites and hence do more poorly in a society that increasingly rewards cognitive ability.)
Thomas Edsall, in The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, takes quite a different approach. Interestingly enough, his origin story takes himback to the 1960s as well. Back in his good old days, the economy was expanding nicely, and right and left could afford to compromise on taxes vis-Ă -vis social programs, keeping a “resource war” at bay. The struggle was underpinned by “values of self-sacrifice, virtue, courage, honor and a host of traits associated with the ideal of selflessness,” as Edsall put it a recent interview with the American Prospect.
But, as with Murray, it’s been downhill ever since. The sixties culture of self-expression and self-fulfillment began to undercut those old values of selflessness. Competition intensified for “jobs, college admissions and promotions as well as for such less tangible benefits as status, deference and authority.” Then economic growth slowed and businesses put the squeeze on workers’ wages, benefits, and unions. And that polarization between left and right began to destroy what was left of the culture of bipartisanship.
Fast forward to the present day. We’re now in meltdown mode. Edsall appears to buy into the most negative possible interpretations of a wide range of contemporary problems, regardless of the source or level of empirical support. The deficit situation is as bad as the Concord Coalition says it is. Inequality is as bad as Occupy Wall Street says it is. Political polarization is as bad as No Labels and other centrist pundits say it is. Republicans are toxic brutes and the Democrats are spineless sellouts who will let the poor be eviscerated. No one speaks the truth. There is no way out, anything good is not possible, and anything possible is not good. Indeed, Edsall darkly hints that the apocalyptic events of the 1930s and World War II could well be repeated in our current “Age of Austerity.”
I’m not sure if Edsall sees any way to break the current downward spiral other than with a big shock to the system like war or global climate catastrophe, which might ruin things completely or maybe, just maybe, jolt us back to sanity. Murray too sees little prospect for improvement and projects a continued degeneration of the American project as the cognitive elite becomes ever more divorced from the great unwashed—sort of like the Morlocks and the Eloi in The Time Machine. He allows as how a mysterious Fourth Great Awakening might somehow reinvigorate American values and rescue both Morlocks and Eloi, but I don’t know how seriously even he takes this possibility.
So what are we to make of this Amero-pessimism, articulated for us by both
left and right? Are things really as nasty as they say, and likely to get nastier? I think there are grounds for considerable doubt.
Start with Murray. His reading of American history is breathtakingly shallow. He ascribes pretty much all of America’s success and economic dynamism over the years to the “founding virtues” of industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion. His sources for this claim: quotes from John Adams, Henry Adams, and, inevitably, Alexis de Tocqueville. He seems not to have read, or not to care about, the extensive work by actual historians and social scientists analyzing our past, perhaps because their work would not fit so neatly into his template.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.