On Political Books

March/April 2012 The Rise of the Amero-pessimists

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.

By Ruy Teixeira

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.


  • Daryl McCullough on April 02, 2012 12:30 PM:

    I think whether the future is bright or dismal will ultimately be determined by politics: IF there is a supermajority (which is what seems to be required, these days) in support of progressive policies, I think that we can work toward solving our problems. If there is gridlock in Washington for the foreseeable future, then we will be hamstrung in our ability to address the problems facing us.

    It would be nice to think that demographics alone will make the difference---once we are a majority non-white country, a coalition of non-whites and liberal whites can work on making things better. But it might be that the new non-white majority splits into the same Republican/Democratic blocs that make progress impossible today.

  • samg on April 02, 2012 1:05 PM:

    I'm with Edsall. I don't remember the last time Teixiera, who wrote this review, was right about anything. I do remember that back in the closing days of the 2004 presidential election race, every post he and his blog partner made pointed to a Kerry victory over GW Bush. Which didn't happen. Earlier that year he co-authored a book entitled "The Emerging Democratic Majority," which finally happened in 2008 when Bush's record of failing to stop or punish those responsible for the worst terrorist attack in American history, killing tens of thousands of people in a war based on lies, increasing the national debt by 85 per cent, and topping it all off with a Depression meant that Donald Duck could have beaten the Republican candidate that year. Let's hope Obama can squeeze through again this time. But one of Teixeira's earlier books, about the importance of the white working class vote, says it is critical to which party wins. Well, all the polls show that in 2012 the white working class vote is solidly Republican. So if Teix is right, we're doomed.

  • Texas Aggie on April 02, 2012 1:09 PM:

    "cyclical factors that are likely to improve"

    When you have to invoke "cyclical factors" to make a point, you have just lost your argument. It's the moral equivalent of deus ex machina and doesn't explain anything. Things don't just happen without some reason and to claim that there is a cycle explains nothing. There has to be some cause, some feedback mechanism.

    The author glosses over the major factor that turned the increasingly stratified pre1929 society into the less stratified post1950 society which was WWII. When it takes a major calamity such as that to change the direction of society, you have to give more credence to the idea that things will keep deteriorating until a major catastrophe occurs.

    It would be nice if the author could have listed some reasons to contradict the theses of the two book authors instead of vague generalities. It's difficult to make fun of "Inequality is as bad as Occupy Wall Street says it is. Political polarization is as bad as No Labels ... say it is" when the data shows that indeed inequality is enormous and rapidly getting worse and when the data show that religious style morality has taken over the right wing and that they absolutely refuse to give in on anything preferring to bite off their noses to spite their faces rather than budge on any of their multitude of moral issues.

    While the author is trying to give us hope for the future, the fact that he fails so badly only adds to the despair and to the certainty that things will continue to get worse.

  • cwolf on April 02, 2012 3:10 PM:

    I think we have reached the point where the only thing that may stop the inevitable end of humanity is the abandonment or collapse of industrialization, whichever inevitably, comes first. But with over 400 nukes that need to be decommissioned before that can happen, it must be timed perfectly.

    The "smart" people already know that we are nearing and may have already hit any of a number of "tipping points"; any one of which can make human life, if not most mammalian life, impossible or almost impossible.

    Some of the "solutions" to the problems are ridiculous. A proposal to dump atomized sulfur compounds in the stratosphere to bounce sunlight back into space sounds like a Marvel Comic book plan. Such an idea would do wonders for the oceans which already increasingly resemble battery acid. Don't even get me started on Tundra Fires... but I believe they have a glowing future. http://tinyurl.com/76j3r2a

    More "growth" seems to be THE answer to everything. but what that means in the US and most of the world is more fossil fuel gathering, more mining, more logging, more trawling, more nuclear materials refining, more pollution, less drinkable water, less breathable air, less usable land... more wars over all the above.

    In a short while no one will be alive who can read the danger signs that would warn them off exclusion zones like Fukushima, Chernobyl and the inevitable coming additions to these inevitably overlapping zones of radioactive wasteland.

    No combination of scientific parlor tricks is going to stop the cancer from spreading.

    I believe, in a word, that "Growth" is the not a solution, it is rather THE problem. It's like a cancer and no combination of scientific parlor tricks is going to stop it from spreading... except the death of industry as we know it.

    Of course this all is just speculation, but it would be irresponsible of me not to.

    Maybe R. Malthus was right.

  • Morgan on April 11, 2013 1:21 AM:

    "But what if the austerity assumption is incorrect? What if America’s fiscal situation is difficult but not intractable? What if...in short, the extraordinary depth of our current problems is driven in large part by cyclical factors that are likely to improve?"

    And what if the Cubs win the World Series and the Moon IS made of green cheese?

    It's about the economics. When a technology advances to a point where it's economically feasible to go mainstream, it does. It doesn't matter if it's internal combustion engines fueling explosive growth in manufacturing and fossil fuels production or microchips creating a booming economy in personal data retention and targeted marketing or ship building and sailing technology opening new hemispheres to colonization and exploitation.

    These economic factors drive societies, cultures, and history. And right now tele-technological globalism is the economic engine driving all the changes we see. Some good (ecological awareness) and some not (loss of privacy) . It's a smaller world with more intense competition and a VERY unequal playing field. Transnational corporations in every field from agri-business to financial sectors influencing governments to rewrite tax codes and leverage labor.

    All forcing societal changes that ask schools to be babysitters because one parent households can't keep up; and financial institutions to increase the quarterly profits at the cost of sound public and fiscal policy. Meanwhile the 1st World is economically exploiting the 3rd World - exporting 'crisis capitalism' and arms & munitions...while trying to militarily maintain a hammerlock on oil supplies; all the while simultaneously moving to a more socialist state style safety net (trying to forestall the inevitable democratic decay caused by a dwindling middle-class) .

    The OP is right. The current global economic paradigm of perpetual growth cannot be sustained without a NEW technology. One cleaner than fossil fuels but with at least as much energy output. Cold fusion or Z point energy are the only possibilities that come to mind and both are decades to centuries away.

    So a MAJOR shakeup will occur. Just when and how? And what happens after? One thing is certain, the American Century is over.