Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, by Charles Murray, Crown Forum, 400 pages, $27

Unless you live in a cave, you know the controversial work and reputation of Charles Murray. Losing Ground, published in 1984, proposed eliminating welfare as we knew it and became the template for conservative welfare reform. The Bell Curve (1994) proposed that America is sorting itself relentlessly by IQ, and that race is an intractable part of the picture. The unjustly neglected In Our Hands (2006) proposed cashing out most federal subsidies and programs and focusing on making government less intrusive rather than just less expensive (a better plan than conservatives’ current one of wishing the New Deal out of existence). In between Murray found time for a libertarian manifesto, a history of the Apollo space program, and a survey of human creativity. Like him or not, he has written many original books.

Coming Apart, his latest, is not one of them. There is almost nothing original or new in it. And I mean that as a high compliment, because what is new is rarely true.

With the recent death of James Q. Wilson, the last titan of 20th-century political sociology has passed from the scene. Wilson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Aaron Wildavsky, Samuel Huntington, Mancur Olson, Edward Banfield, Seymour Martin Lipset: They and a handful of others reframed pressing national issues in ways that transcended ideology. Of today’s practitioners, only Murray has the same flair for the big idea at the right moment. But he is more eclectic than the previous generation: more eccentric, more contrarian, more ideological. He courts controversy and sometimes pushes too far. He and I are friendly acquaintances, and I recall a conversation years ago, when The Bell Curve was still on the drawing board. After he sketched the argument, I urged him to excise the material on race and IQ. If you include that, I told him, no one will notice anything else in the book. He replied that the element of race was too important to omit, and whether or not people wanted to hear about it, they should. When the book came out, I was not happy to be proved right.

Coming Apart is different. Very different. Now within sight of 70, Murray calls the book “my valedictory on the topic of happiness and public policy,” and possibly “my valedictory, period.” What he has done, this time, is to ditch the contrarian persona and stay squarely within the bounds of the conventional and the known. Still more surprising: Far from inflaming a sensitive debate, he has found a way to defuse one. By coloring so resolutely inside the lines, he has found, at last, a compelling, attention-getting way to tell a story about class in America.

What is that story? American culture and society are bifurcating, Murray argues. At the top, you have the Whole Foods people. These are what he calls “the new upper class” and what I think of as two-two-two-one people: households with two college degrees, two incomes, two parents, and just one marriage. A college-educated elite is nothing new, but until recently its members were few and sprinkled through the population. “A narrow elite existed in 1960 as in 2010,” writes Murray, “but it was not a group that had broadly shared backgrounds, tastes, preferences, or culture. They were powerful people, not a class.”

But then a few things happened. First, university degrees became de rigueur for elite status. Second, more people obtained them. Third, the selective-university elite became numerous enough to take over entire neighborhoods, intermarry, and develop its own subculture. In the last few decades, a tipping point arrived. The two-two-two-one people could, and now do, live in entire ZIP codes of their own. Culturally, they live in what Murray calls a bubble, rarely crossing class lines in their friendships, loves, and occupations. Their kids can’t even imagine scrubbing factory floors or reading water meters for a living.

(Article continues below video.)

At the other end of the spectrum, the screw turned the other way. As the economic premium on education and cognitive ability grew, opportunity for low-skilled men dwindled. They increasingly withdrew from the work force, becoming more dependent on women and public support, and less economically necessary and successful as fathers. As they became more isolated from work and fatherhood, their neighborhoods also became more isolated, and critical social indicators there—marriage, employment, religiosity, honesty—wobbled or collapsed. Their kids can’t even imagine practicing law or developing ad campaigns for a living.

Today, whereas Whole Foods people live in the 1950s of Ozzie and Harriet (only with much better food), many Walmart people live in conditions perilously approaching those of an underclass. So frayed is their social capital, and so isolated their culture, that Murray worries they are approaching a “point of no return” where their resources and mores can no longer support functioning communities. If the top looks like a bubble, the bottom looks like a tar pit.

Please note: Murray’s analysis speaks only of whites. Thus his subtitle: “The State of White America, 1960–2010.” Attending only to whites turns out to be a masterly move. Rhetorically, it lets him tell a story about class that does not devolve into a debate about race. (You could read his subtitle as a quiet acknowledgment that he has learned from the Bell Curve donnybrook.) Substantively, it produces an unpleasant jolt: In America, the rise of something like a permanent lower class is not a racial phenomenon. Exactly the same thing is happening to lower-class whites as to lower-class minorities. In that woeful respect, the country is coming together across racial lines.

Murray’s message will not be welcome to liberals who want to blame social problems on racism, or to conservatives who want to deny the reality of class, but it has an important virtue: It is true. I feel confident saying so because, in my world, policy wonks have been talking about all the elements of Murray’s story for a long time—to no public effect whatsoever. My world is the Brookings Institution, a prominent Washington think tank, where I have been in residence since 1996. I have been hearing pieces of Murray’s story in the hallways there for years.

In 1999 Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings economist and former Clinton administration official, co-authored (with Laura Chadwick) a paper concluding that the life prospects of children were diverging, with two distinct groups developing. One group had two parents with strong marriages, good jobs, and college degrees; another had single parents with poor schooling and lousy prospects. Ever fewer were in the middle. Especially disturbing, the effects were intergenerational: Both groups were passing along their prospects to their children. “There is a bifurcation in children’s life prospects that threatens to divide the U.S. into a society of haves and have-nots,” Sawhill wrote. Wow, I thought at the time, this is really important. As far as I know, her work got no attention at all.

Down the hall from Sawhill works Gary Burtless, a labor economist. Almost 20 years ago he noticed a disturbing trend: Men were withdrawing from participation in the work force. More and more men were depending on women’s earnings and public support to get by. One reason seemed to be a relentless decline in the earning power of low-skilled men, but even in the 1990s, when wages stabilized for a while, the proportion of men holding jobs declined. “This,” says Burtless, “is not news.” He has talked about it at conferences for years. You probably have never heard of him.

Sawhill, among others, pointed out years ago that marriage and family structure have surpassed race in determining socioeconomic standing. (If you are an unborn baby choosing parents and you want to avoid poverty, you should pick married black parents over unmarried white ones.) Robert Reich (who back in 1991 coined the phrase “secession of the successful”) and the journalist Bill Bishop (author of the book The Big Sort) have explored cultural and economic segregation. Journalists David Brooks and Don Peck, among others, have explored the emergence of a distinctive and separate elite culture. Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist, has sounded the alarm about the decline of marriage in the working class. Murray himself first warned of “the coming white underclass” in The Wall Street Journal as long ago as 1993. 

Nonetheless (and despite acknowledging many of his predecessors), Murray is getting a ton of press for his book. Well, good for him! By splitting class off from race, by pulling many pieces together into a coherent story, and by salting his book with telling examples from popular culture and everyday life, he has used his valedictory, if such it be, to find a way to tell a story that race-obsessed liberals and class-denying conservatives need to hear and confront. America is bifurcating.

The book is not without peculiarities. This is Charles Murray, after all. It seems odd, if not churlish, for Murray to blame working-class men’s withdrawal from the work force on welfare and indolence rather than on declining wages. “If their job prospects are objectively worse,” says Burtless, “I don’t know why we would be surprised if they work less.” My own guess is that values, economics, welfare, and wages are all in play, and that Murray’s readiness to blame the government and working-class mores says more about his predispositions than it does about the world.

The same goes for his disdain for Europe, which he sees as a kind of social-welfare antipode to America. In my view (shaped by living and working in Britain), the overriding fact about Europe’s social systems and norms is their similarity to America’s, not their differentness; Europhobia, in my view, is one of modern conservatism’s more curious and unattractive tics. Also a stretch is Murray’s notion that the only hope of turning around the behavior of the lower class is for elites to regain their self-confidence and “preach what they practice.” Good luck with that. In Tocquevillean America, it is mass opinion, not elite finger wagging, that primarily legitimizes cultural mores.

Helpfully, however, Murray saves his hobbyhorses for the final chapter, where readers can easily ignore them. Also to his credit, he is half-hearted about his remedies, because he knows they probably won’t work. Here he commits an act of integrity. Book editors always insist on a last chapter that lists things “we” (whoever that is) can do to solve the problem. Coming Apart does not include that chapter. No bromides about cutting the capital gains tax rate or revitalizing manufacturing.

The vectors driving American class bifurcation are fundamental: the decline in demand for low-skilled labor, the rise in earning power and independence of women, the desire of people with talent and education to marry each other and socialize together. None of these things is likely to change, or even necessarily should change. Unless we abolish farm machinery and factory automation, good low-skilled jobs are never coming back. Women are not going to renounce their economic and social freedom. Yale-educated moms are not often going to marry high-school-educated dads.

Notice, too, how the vectors intersect with and reinforce each other. Low earnings and poor job prospects make men less marriageable, so women enter the work force without marrying, making work more optional for men and men more optional for women. More kids are thus born to single moms, who tend to wind up poor, disadvantaging the kids. Meanwhile, the very fact of not marrying reduces men’s earnings, so the less men marry the less they earn, and the less they earn the less they marry. As all the little gears and wheels turn, lower-class neighborhoods grow more disorganized and isolated. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

Murray is not very persuasive in arguing that the emergence of a culturally distinctive new upper class is in itself a danger to the country’s social cohesion, although the point bears thinking about. Much more worrisome is the story at the bottom, which suggests a future in which America will have a harder and harder time making a happy, productive place for the working-class people who only a few decades ago were the country’s economic and moral backbone. 

Yet there is a possible bright side that Murray overlooks. In focusing on the college-educated, managerial, and technocratic top 20 percent and the blue-collar, high-school-educated bottom 30 percent, Coming Apart omits something like half the population: the white-collar middle. These folks include, for example, owners of small businesses, teachers, police officers, insurance agents, salesmen, social workers, technicians, real estate brokers, nurses, and managers without college degrees. “I omit them not because they are unimportant,” Murray says, “but because…on every indicator this group was in the middle,” and excluding them makes the story “easier to follow.”

Perhaps so, but it also leaves out the 50 percent or so of the population that may in fact be the country’s connective tissue and social glue: people who shop comfortably at both Walmart and Target, who follow football and like imported beer. Murray notes, in passing, that the pathologies of the blue-collar lower class are spreading to many individuals in the white-collar middle class, so there is some rot in the middle. This, again, is not news. But the white-collar middle is less isolated than the blue-collar bottom and has brighter prospects, offering an upward path for those beneath. As in politics, so with sociology: The middle is quieter and less exciting than the extremes, but in the end it generally matters more, and it deserves a textured examination that Murray has not provided here.

But never mind. Murray, in Coming Apart, has done more than enough for one book. He has shown us how to think meaningfully and talk manageably about class in America. In doing so, he has performed a feat worthy of James Q. Wilson. Pray for more works of social science as unoriginal as this one. 

Jonathan Rauch is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and author, most recently, of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (Times Books).