• U.S.

Return Of The Radical

13 minute read
Ben Wallace-Wells

The conservative social scientist Charles Murray has spent much of the past two decades occupying a peculiar place in American public life: having suffered a broad shunning, he has been living in the aftermath of disgrace. Ever since the furious reaction to his 1994 book The Bell Curve left him branded, as Murray says ruefully, “a pseudoscientist and a racist,” he has been living out a form of partial exile in Burkittsville, Md. That book, which he wrote with Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, surveyed an array of social data and argued that the old, fluid American hierarchies had been replaced by a new structure with a rising cognitive elite at the top. In the single chapter that caused the controversy, Murray and Herrnstein discussed intelligence differences not only between individuals but also between groups, and in particular between racial groups. The specter of a permanent elite and underclass arranged in part along racial lines was both abhorrent and–many academics felt–statistically dubious, and soon Murray’s name was mostly a signifier of how vicious and divisive the ’90s culture wars had been. He kept his post at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, but he was otherwise forgotten. “I will get, and I’m not exaggerating, maybe one phone call a week, at most, from anybody,” Murray says. “I am really a hermit.”

But Burkittsville (pop. 176), the scene of his isolation, turned out to hold insights of its own. In the nearby swath of rural Maryland, Murray noticed a once distant form of listlessness creeping in. Local tradesmen could no longer find suitable assistants, workers who would reliably show up on time and stay through the working day. Families that had been stable for decades saw their unmarried daughters having babies, and young men with no obvious means of support fathered children with several different women. Murray believed that the culprit wasn’t drugs, exactly, or some local economic collapse but something more subtle and profound. For years, he had argued that the cause of poverty in the black inner city was not simply economic, that the ghetto’s culture had helped cleave it off from the American mainstream. Now he saw the same habits taking root in communities that are rural and virtually all white. “All of those things,” he says, “have been going on out there.” It occurred to him that he might be seeing the creation of a white underclass.

Murray’s heartfelt, idiosyncratic new book examining the phenomenon, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, was released in January. The book represents something of a swan song for one of America’s most controversial thinkers, and it has had a heated reaction. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently declared that he would be “shocked” if any other book this year more “compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.” For a decade, liberals and social scientists have been warning of crevices opening in the middle class, causing a dramatic inequality of income and threatening to split the country economically into two separate Americas. Republican political campaigns, though they often amplified voters’ resentment of elites, had not focused on the widening gap between rich and poor, sticking instead to themes of less government and lower taxes. But since the start of the current presidential campaign, a more distinctly populist tone has seeped into the GOP conversation, emerging most visibly in the rhetoric of underdog Rick Santorum. Murray has given this sentiment intellectual substance and grounding and a thesis–that the wedge driving America apart isn’t its economy but its culture.

“Until very recently, as late as the mid-2000s, the conservative position on the economic changes coming to America was to deny they were happening at all,” says David Frum, a writer and former George W. Bush speechwriter. “The next move, more recently, was to say, Yes, it’s true, but this is the price we pay for dynamism and upward mobility. That also turns out not to be true. Here is a book for the first time from the heart of the conservative world that lets us accept these new trends in our society as true. That’s welcome.”

To Murray, it was as if he had been exiled so that he might more clearly hear an alarm. “America,” he writes, “is coming apart at the seams. Not ethnic seams, but those of class.”

Fishtown and Belmont

Both his rise to prominence and his conversion to libertarianism have, in Murray’s telling, the same roots: his mid-1960s post-Harvard experience in the Peace Corps in the villages of northern Thailand and his work a few years later in the impoverished neighborhoods of South Side Chicago. In both cases, he saw “government coming into communities and screwing things up,” he says. In 1984 he consolidated these views in his first book, Losing Ground, which argued that welfare had created a culture of dependency, and which helped provide the intellectual foundation for welfare reform. Three decades later, Murray is still gleeful about the outraged reaction the book drew from the left. “I violated the liberal moral monopoly on caring about the poor,” he says.

But that fight was nothing compared with what would come with the publication of The Bell Curve. Knowing that their material was potentially explosive, Murray and Herrnstein had constructed their chapter on race with “the care of a haiku,” having their wives read it to ensure it would not be taken out of context. Murray believes that The Bell Curve’s critics willfully misread the book. Still, many academics denounced its conclusions, and Donna Shalala, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, called it “almost surreal.” It didn’t help when the New York Times revealed that Murray, while in high school, had once burned a cross outside his town’s police station. The experience left Murray “extremely depressed” for a year or two, he says.

The exile of the post–Bell Curve years does not suit Murray. Sixty-nine years old, bearded and avuncular, he has an easy sociability and a natural curiosity; he is ripe for awe. Midway through an account of the frustrations of the time, Murray hesitates, with self-awareness dawning. “Please convey,” he says, “that I don’t feel as if I’m a damaged human being.”

Because Murray kept some powerful friends–conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, think-tank pioneer Christopher DeMuth–his life was divided between the two poles of the class spectrum, one in Washington and the other in Burkittsville, and he began to think these cultures were increasingly isolated from each other. In Murray’s memories of his own Iowa boyhood, Maytag executives and blue collar workers had socialized together. During the past few years, he has come to believe that those worlds no longer physically intersect. “The spatial element is very important,” he says. Murray was very taken by the work of journalist Bill Bishop, who documented the increasing isolation of the elite in a few small geographic pockets (Murray calls them the “SuperZIPs”) where they interact only with those who went to elite schools, as they did, and hold influential jobs like theirs. Searching for a way to describe that isolation to his elite readers, he came up with a quiz: Have you ever purchased Avon products? Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian? Each answer carries a score. “What score did you get?” he asks me gleefully.

Murray’s intuition was that the opposite trajectories of these two increasingly isolated white worlds could be described statistically over time, and in the midst of a brainstorm, he called the elite one Belmont, after a rich suburb of Boston, and the poor one Fishtown, after a white working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia. (He initially had a Middletown, which would trace the arc of the middle class, but discarded it because it made the graphs too complicated.) As he traced these two cultures over time, Murray found an arresting set of patterns. The 1970s destabilized both Belmont and Fishtown: divorce became more common, churchgoing declined, and Americans’ interest in working seemed to diminish. But by the mid-1980s, these indicators seemed to stabilize in Belmont; meanwhile, the bottom fell out in Fishtown. In 1969, less than 10% of men in Fishtown were not making a living; now the figure was roughly 30%. Fifty years ago, 95% of Fishtown’s children were living with both biological parents; now it is only 1 in 3. Murray came to think of the difference between Belmont and Fishtown in terms of what he calls “the founding virtues”: marriage, honesty, industriousness and churchgoing. These, he says, were to the Founding Fathers the underpinnings of an informed citizenry and a successful democracy. In Belmont they were flourishing; in Fishtown, disappearing.

Fishtown, as it happens, is a real place on the Delaware River, just a few minutes north of downtown Philadelphia, a neighborhood that for much of the 20th century had never been rich but always remained cohesive. But visiting the present-day Fishtown, Murray found stories of three teenage sisters, all pregnant at the same time; of small-factory owners who could not find willing workers in a neighborhood filled with the unemployed; of schoolteachers who noted that most of their students’ parents had no job. “These are not communities that can solve their own problems anymore,” he says. “They are becoming communities that require a welfare state. And that’s real sad.”

Murray believes that the “fierce pride” that once characterized Fishtown has faded. “Insofar as you have the women of Fishtown looking at the men around them and saying they’re feckless. And insofar as you do have the women of Fishtown subsisting off of sort-of jobs beneath the table and certain kinds of public assistance, it’s hard to have that fierce pride.”

For Murray, the problems of Belmont’s isolation and Fishtown’s decline are connected. To the elite, he says, Fishtown might as well be a foreign country–to many, it may actually be less interesting than foreign countries–and so its problems remain unknown and neglected. “The fact is, I’m pretty pessimistic,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong. But I’m probably not.”

“A Brutal Disregard”

There are signs of this white cultural isolation and drift everywhere in the current recession–in reality shows about the meth-ravaged heartlands, films like Winter’s Bone and documentaries like The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. But is there really a special crisis in the white working class, or are communities like Fishtown simply vivid examples of the broader economic distress?

There is scholarly consensus on several important particulars. Since the 1970s, the gains from the economy have increasingly gone to the very few Americans at the high end of the economic spectrum. It is harder to ascend the class ladder in the U.S. than it is in other advanced industrialized nations, social scientists have found. Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution has argued that this may be due to the comparatively low quality of U.S. public education–a high school diploma simply doesn’t give Americans enough to lift them out of the working class. But Sawhill says these trends affect lower-middle-class people of all races: “I don’t see any evidence that there is something special happening to white people.”

Though he has a Ph.D. from MIT, Murray has never had an academic’s instinct for the careful, modest insight. Lawrence Mishel, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, showed me two graphs from Murray’s book. One, consistent with Murray’s argument, shows that the portion of Fishtown suffering from social problems grew alarmingly from the 1970s on. But the other shows that the portion of white Americans who lived in Fishtown dropped precipitously during the same period. Mishel ran the numbers and concluded that the portion of white Americans suffering from the social problems that have Murray panicked has grown very modestly since 1980–from 8% to 10%. “How big a deal is that?” Mishel asks. “Not really a very big deal.”

To Mishel and other liberals, the cause of the class crisis in the U.S. is fundamentally economic, not cultural. By focusing on a small core of lazy, uninterested members of the lower class, they say, Murray is drawing attention away from the far broader population of virtuous Americans who cannot support themselves economically. “Do you know how many native-born Americans don’t have a high school degree or a GED?” Mishel asks. “It’s 5%. We’re not talking about a population that is unwilling to educate itself.”

Some conservatives have also taken issue with Murray’s new book. Frum says the “literary” qualities that led him to admire Murray’s work in the past have in Coming Apart displaced serious analysis. “What is really striking in Coming Apart is the adamant shutting of eyes to the most obvious explanation,” Frum says. The unambitious culture Murray identifies is, in Frum’s view, the product rather than the cause of economic dislocation: “At every point where the questions get hard, the book becomes uncurious. And while it’s true that the job of the conservative in the debate is to be less sentimental, this goes beyond unsentimentality. There’s a brutal disregard.”

When I relay Frum’s and Mishel’s critiques, Murray says he wishes he’d emphasized the middle class (Middletown) in his book after all. “In Middletown, which is 50% of the population, all these things are getting worse–guys out of the workforce, single-parent homes,” he says. “The signs of decay are also present in the middle class. They are not minor. They are substantial.”

Though Murray’s think-tank position ought to give him ready access to Republican politicians, he has found that his ideas have not interested many officials on Capitol Hill. “I really, truly believe that the United States surprises people and that if you underestimate the capacity of the United States to correct course, you do so at your peril,” Murray says. “But I also do believe that the larger probability is that we will be indistinguishable from an advanced welfare state in Europe and the class system that prevails there. And as you probably gathered, I really treasure the American civic culture, and I really love these things that make the United States unique.”

Murray is a poker enthusiast–each year, he gives a talk in Las Vegas and spends the honorarium at the tables–and when he finished Coming Apart, he went to a casino in Charles Town, W.Va., to celebrate. Having just finished a book documenting the collapse of a common, democratic, middle-class culture, he saw at the poker table a place where it seemed to stubbornly survive. “Poker rooms are democratic places, but Charles Town, W.Va., is even more democratic,” he says. “So you have a typical table–you have a couple of other white guys, maybe one of them has huge arms and tattoos and the other is a 70-year-old retired pharmacist, but you’ll also have a couple of black guys, and one of them may be an accountant and one of them a gangbanger, and you’ll almost always have three or four Asian guys at the table. That is the melting pot, and that kind of thing I just love.” He pauses. “It’s not just nostalgia. I love the reality of it,” Murray says. He considers. “Or what has been the reality.”


More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com