The American scene has become a forbidding place for professional culture scolds on the right. Amid a sluggish recovery, the traditional memes of conservative Kulturkampf—the runaway excesses of political correctness, the snobbery of coastal elites, the home truths of NASCAR—all come across as elite indulgences of their own. Who but Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly or some other high-priced mercenary in the culture struggle still has the energy to inveigh against, say, the war on Christmas, or the lax work ethic of the dependent welfare class?
Why, Charles Murray, that’s who! Mr. Murray, who’s best known for cowriting The Bell Curve, the 1994 tract on allegedly bedrock racial gaps in cognitive learning, now delivers a glum sermon on class polarization among white American communities, arguing in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, that the cultural gap poses something of an existential peril to democratic civil society. With a new cognitive elite increasingly calling the shots, Mr. Murray writes, “the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.” Along the way, Mr. Murray makes a clumsy attempt at pathologizing the terminal out-of-touchness of our brave new elite, via clunky, quasi-satirical diagnoses such as “Over-Educated Snob Syndrome” (a weakness for elite cultural preferences) and the “Europe Syndrome” (the liberal elite’s romance with the welfare state).
Mr. Murray has a point here. Any casual weekend tour of Tribeca or Soho can turn up no end of culture arbiters and tastemakers comically adrift in a privileged, high-toned world of their own. And to the extent that such characters exert influence over America’s power structure, there is some cause for general alarm.
But rather than examining the remorseless ways that privilege, or the lack thereof, shapes our lives, Mr. Murray dotes on the battery of taste preferences that allegedly prove that members of one class—the snobbish uppers—view their social inferiors invidiously. “It is a problem,” Mr. Murray intones, “if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers.”
One might well counter that, the overall complexion of our transportation economy being what it is, such empathy is cheap. And truck driving furnishes a revealing case in point. After Jimmy Carter initiated the rampant deregulation of the industry in 1980, wages for truckers fellbysome 30 percentin 20 years, while working hours increased and benefits plummeted. Among nonunion owner-operators, less than 30 percent had health insurance, and less than 10 percent had any retirement savings, according to a 2008 survey.
But when Mr. Murray invokes “the priorities of truck drivers,” he is talking only about their own alleged culture preferences. The economic disparity is less meaningful to him than the distressing news that “the new upper class is selective in its radio listening,” and that “the new upper class does not often frequent bars with pool tables in them, bars that allow smoking, or bars with many wide screens showing professional sports.”
This species of Mad Lib-style social analysis is wearily familiar to readers of the impressionistic works of diehard haute-bourgeois apologists such as David Brooks and Richard Florida. (Indeed, in an exasperating note on his “qualitative” assessment of upper-class mores, Mr. Murray owns that he leans heavily on the “generalizations” that Mr. Brooks and Mr. Florida “draw about the tastes and preferences of their Bobos and Creative Class, respectively,” and that “my generalizations are consistent with theirs,” as though these lazy exercises in catalog-based taste-spotting are somehow primary empirical texts in their own right.)
But where Coming Apart becomes actively offensive is in its account of cultural decline amid the American working class. In Mr. Murray’s account, the harmless downmarket pastime of drinking in a smoke-filled, pool table-equipped saloon conceals a far more troubling pathology roiling beneath the surface of white working-class life. Because, left to their own devices without the guiding hand of a morally confident elite, working-class Americans have parted ways with the core founding virtues of the republic: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. The result, Mr. Murray darkly warns, is a body of cultural differences “that affect the ability of people to live satisfying lives, the ability of communities to function as communities, and the ability of America to survive as America.”