Since Alexis de Tocqueville first alluded to it in the 1840s, American exceptionalism has defined us as a nation that is unique not for its wealth or its form of government but for its distinct civic culture. Unlike the rigidly stratified societies of Europe and Asia, Americans see class as something much more malleable, something which can be bridged by common experience and background. Yet if scholars such as Charles Murray are correct, this unique culture is rapidly coming to an end.
One need only look at the divisiveness of modern politics to see that Americans are much more conflicted than they were in decades past. But Murray--the author of The Bell Curve and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute--claims that this divide goes beyond ideological or religious beliefs and stems from a fundamental inability of two groups of Americans to understand one another: upper class and working class whites.
In a lecture Murray delivered this past Monday entitled Coming Apart at the Seams: America’s New Cultural Divide, he spoke about the rise of a “new upper class” and “new lower class” in white America which have developed two exclusive cultures out of the ashes of a once unified American culture. While the America of fifty years ago saw a much deeper understanding between the upper and working classes, Murray says that today’s classes have grown so far apart that they risk undermining the idea of class mobility that is so fundamental to the American identity.
When looking at the new lower class, Murray points to four main factors which have driven the radical shift towards a new culture which is incongruent with the working class of the 20th century. First, he notes that the decline in marriage rates, while applicable to people from every social class, have a much more pronounced effect on the composition of working class families due to the higher incidence of single parenthood and the loss of community involvement inherent in raising a family. Second, the new work ethic of the American working class--where one in eight working age men are not even in the labor force--undermines the ethos of productivity and industriousness which once defined the working class of America. Third, the steady erosion of religion in America--though again a phenomenon seen throughout all classes--affects the working class disproportionately because the civic commitment and charity which religion promotes has disappeared with very little to replace it. Finally, the simple erosion of trust amongst neighbors, co-workers, and peers brought on by civic disengagement has culminated in the loss of inspiration and aspiration for a higher quality of life.
While liberal single-parent apologists celebrate these turns of events and applaud the destruction of the old, “outdated” social codes of conduct and behavior, Murray correctly identifies these same norms as an essential component in the building and maintaining of social capital in our society. Without the moral compass which once encouraged industriousness, civic engagement, and community involvement, the working class has lost much of its mobility and guidance towards a higher standard of living. In essence, the new lower class is defined by the belief that the American Dream is dead, and while many will pay lip service to the notion, few will have the drive or the belief that it can be attained.
Murray then turned to the new upper class, saying that its emergence was the result of the rapidly transforming economy of the mid-to-late 20th century. Noting that colleges have become more focused on recruiting the smartest people possible, Murray said that the “brains [became] worth more in the marketplace…”. Sociability and general social skills, once an essential component of attaining a prestigious job or college degree, became less important as firms began to seek out those with high intelligence to the exclusion of all others. Over time, this created an environment which was “screened for IQ," as Murray put it, and people in these prestigious positions interacted with one another much more exclusively. Prior to the 1960s, the culture of the upper and lower classes was much more symbiotic. The growth of this high IQ “bubble” has led to a distinctive culture which is divorced from the influence of the working class.
Today, the ramifications have spread into everything from politics to popular culture to demographics, with much of the upper class now physically as well as culturally isolating themselves in what Murray calls “SuperZips”: zip codes in which the highly wealthy are concentrated and the lower classes are financially barred from joining. Murray was quick to point out that while the rise of a new upper class culture is not in and of itself a bad thing, the fact that those in this class are ignorant of the quandaries of the working class--especially given that they are the leaders and policymakers--is very troubling.
Murray then directed his attention to the audience: a group of highly-educated people with elite credentials unlike anything that would ever be seen amongst the lower classes. After thinly qualifying his thoughts by saying that modern prerequisites for an Ivy League institution entail some form of civic engagement, Murray was rather clear in his belief that the majority of Cornellians are inculcated with the worldviews of the upper class bubble. In a quiz entitled “How Thick is Your Bubble”, Murray implied that many of us are so isolated from the working class culture that we can’t even say that we’ve seen, let alone experienced, the rigor of such a lifestyle.
Many of us like to think of America as a meritocratic society wherein one’s class is determined more by one’s dedication to work and perseverance than by chance of birth. But as the cultural divide between classes continues to grow, we face the very real possibility of an America where even the richest man from a blue-collar background has no hope of propelling himself into the world of the upper class. Murray hopes that a cultural shift can eventually bridge the divide, but such a change can only start when the two groups stop growing apart and begin to find common ground again.
Christopher Slijk is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org