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.
For example, economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz show in their book, The Race Between Education and Technology, how critical the development of open, free, relatively gender-neutral public schooling was to our economic growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, allowing us to surge past our European competitors. For Murray, the only thing about public schooling of that era that deserves a mention is the heavy-handed McGuffey Readers—not so much because they taught kids to read (an ancillary benefit, apparently) but because they inculcated the proper virtues into America’s polyglot population.
More risible still is Murray’s depiction of 1950s America as some sort of classless utopia. He treats problems like rural poverty, urban ghettos, racism, the subordinate position of blacks, women, and gays, and so on as just minor footnotes to an almost perfectly functioning society. And he certainly doesn’t believe class divisions were much of an issue back then— after all, the fabulously rich heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post may have lived in a somewhat bigger house than most Americans, but (at least according to Murray) she ate the same chow and read the same best sellers. Clearly Murray is seeing what he wants to see in fifties society, and only what he wants to see.
But his view of society since the 1950s is radically different. He throws away his rose-colored spectacles and now can see nothing but class and inequality. Indeed, his relentless focus on this problem and some of the economic trends he documents would not be out of place coming from a liberal think tank or academic. Yet that overlap has not led him to pay the slightest attention to the careful work these think tanks and academics have done analyzing the growth in inequality. Murray dismisses out of hand explanations rooted in structural shifts in the economy, slower growth in educational attainment, changes in labor market institutions (unions, the minimum wage), or really anything other than increasing rewards for smart people and declining morals for dumb people. This is no more believable than his Panglossian view of 1950s America.
Perhaps he senses that his analysis is a bit less than completely convincing once he strays from documentation (for example, the top 20 percent are growing away from the bottom 30 percent—hardly big news) to explanation. He admits that some of his cultural claims are necessarily anecdotal, relying on the work of social commentators like David Brooks, whose generalizations, he says, are consistent with his own. If that doesn’t provide sufficient comfort to readers, he urges them to reject or accept his account based on their own experience. In other words, if it seems right, it must be right. Murray even provides a pseudoscientific questionnaire so readers can assess their own “class” position, as defined by Murray. As we used to say back in graduate school: Garbage in, garbage out.
Wrong diagnosis inevitably leads to wrong prognosis, and so it is with Murray. If an unfolding process of concentrated cognitive ability at the top and declining morals at the bottom is not the origin story of today’s inequality, then the inevitable future decline of American society seems less obvious. Better policy might actually make a difference. Government might actually have a role to play. People might actually benefit from having more education and opportunities to get ahead. (Murray believes we’ve already soaked up all the smart people, so more education would be like trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.) In short, Murray’s variant on Amero-pessimism is not justified.
Nor is Edsall’s—though, again, for different reasons. Edsall’s analysis is generally more closely connected to Planet Earth, and he correctly emphasizes the political dimension to today’s unequal economic outcomes. Where he goes off the rails is his blanket acceptance of the most pessimistic assessments of today’s trends coming from different and usually contradictory quarters. He fully accepts the negative verdict on economic trends promulgated by the Economic Policy Institute and other left-leaning groups. But then he tacks to the center and completely embraces the themes of centrist pundits like Thomas Friedman who see both parties as completely incapable of compromise and meaningful policy reforms (though Edsall is especially hard on the Republicans). Perhaps most damaging, however, he repeats, in the gloomiest possible tones, the predictions of various deficit hawks on the coming debt crisis that will bring America to its knees—predictions that the EPI and Paul Krugman, among others, have done their best to debunk.
Call it the austerity assumption: America will grow slowly. America will have high structural unemployment. America’s ratio of debt to GDP will spiral out of control. America will be forced to cut lots of stuff. The parties will fight over what stuff to cut. Not enough stuff will be cut and things will get worse, necessitating more cuts and more fighting. You get the picture. No way out!
But what if the austerity assumption is incorrect? What if America’s fiscal situation is difficult but not intractable? What if slow growth is not locked in and high unemployment is not structural? What if, in short, the extraordinary depth of our current problems is driven in large part by cyclical factors that are likely to improve?
If so, the extraordinary “brutality”— Edsall’s term—of current politics might subside as well. He implicitly admits this when discussing Arizona and some other cases where the rise in political brutality tracks very closely with the deterioration of the economy. It follows logically that if the economy improves, brutality will subside.
But Edsall doesn’t seem to believe that more growth is possible, that the current expansion could get stronger, or that better policies could make much difference. Looked at in, say, a six-month time frame, these beliefs might appear reasonable. Looked at in broad historical context, however, they seem excessively pessimistic. There have been other periods of American history with high inequality, and they have been followed by periods of compressed inequality; other periods of slow growth have been followed by periods of faster growth. And during some of these periods— notably in the late 1800s—visions of America’s deteriorating, bitterly divided future were even more apocalyptic than that predicted by Edsall (though he gives them a run for their money). Those visions were proved wrong; Edsall’s is likely to be proved wrong as well.
The same can be said for his vision of an ever more coarse and brutal politics that accomplishes nothing. Sure, again, over six months that may sound plausible. Stretched out over the long term, however, it is less so, and not just because the economy is likely to improve. As Edsall observes several times in his book, the demographic underpinning of the Republican coalition—the chief perpetrators, in his view, of political brutality—are eroding, while that of the Democratic coalition is growing. He seems to assume that these changes will be neutralized by the ongoing resource war and the ability of Republicans to squeeze more votes out of affluent whites. But that is far more compelling as a short-term analysis than a long-term one. Change is coming, and it is not always for the worse.
There are certainly many reasons to worry about America’s long-term future, and you’ll find plenty of them in these two disparate Amero-pessimist works. But there are reasons for optimism as well, and you’ll find none of them in these two books. On some level, both authors are deeply upset about the modernizing changes we have seen in society since the 1960s and think American society has been irrevocably damaged. The reality is more complicated, a mix of positive (we are richer and freer) and negative (we are more unequal). Their failure to see this has led both authors into an intellectual cul-de-sac where only changes for the worse can be seen, both past and future. This Amero-pessimism is not justified. On both the right and the left, America needs, and deserves, to start looking ahead with optimism.
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