In an extended essay in this month’s New Criterion , Charles Murray examines the growing divide in American society. The emerging rift, he contends, isn’t between a cabal of greedy bankers and disenfranchised students, nor really between constitutionalists and collectivists, but rather a new upper class and a new lower class that confounds simplistic diagnosis. It is a rift rooted not in income inequality (although that’s there to some extent), educational attainment (a partial cause) or the old signifiers of regional or ethnic identity, but a division that is fundamentally social and cultural. Two national paradigms are emerging in place of one, he argues:
America has never been a classless society. From the beginning, rich and poor have usually lived in different parts of town, gone to different churches, and had somewhat different manners and mores. It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and valuesclasses that barely recognize their underlying American kinship.
As recently as half a century ago, Americans across all classes showed only minor differences on the Founding virtues. When Americans resisted the idea of being thought part of an upper class or lower class, they were responding to a reality: there really was such a thing as a civic culture that embraced all of them. Today, that is no longer true. Americans have formed a new lower class and a new upper class that have no precedent in our history. American exceptionalism is deteriorating in tandem with this development.
Examining the realms of marriage, employment, religiosity, sociability, and personal ethics, Murray concludes that groups which used to be materially impoverished have now become spiritually destitute, as well. Against those who believe phenomena like religious practice to be vestiges clung to by the poor, Murray argues that, in reality, the poor are the most secular, while phenomena like single-parent households and out-of-wedlock births are now rather taboo among America’s elite. But it’s not just an unraveling of the lower class:
Worst of all, a growing proportion of the people who run the institutions of our country have never known any other culture. They are the children of upper-middle-class parents, have always lived in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and gone to upper-middle-class schools. Many have never worked at a job that caused a body part to hurt at the end of the day, never had a conversation with an evangelical Christian, never seen a factory floor, never had a friend who didnt have a college degree, never hunted or fished. They are likely to know that Garrison Keillors monologue on Prairie Home Companion is the source of the phrase all of the children are above average, but they have never walked on a prairie and never known someone well whose IQ actually was below average.
It’s a long read, but quite a provocative one. You can see the essay in its entirety here .