The coming apart of America's civic culture.
The very creation of the United States was the product of an ideology--a view of the best political framework for human flourishing-- originated by British and Scottish intellectuals of the Enlightenment. The result is sometimes called the American project. The phrase refers to national life based on the founders' idea that the "sum of good government," as Jefferson (1801) put it in his first inaugural address, is a state that "shall restrain men from injuring one another [and] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement" (p. 2). Rephrased in contemporary language, the American project consists of the effort begun with the founding to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems. The polity based on this idea led to a civic culture that was seen as exceptional by all the world, a culture so widely shared among Americans that it amounted to a civil religion. To be an American was to be different from other nationalities, in ways that Americans treasured. We are witnessing the unraveling of that civic culture.
THE FOUNDING VIRTUES
America's historic civic culture is intimately bound up with the American character, and the place to start is with American character as the founders saw it in the 18th century and European observers saw it in the early part of the nineteenth century.
All agreed that the success of the American project depended on certain qualities in the people. Madison (1788) famously observed at the Virginia convention to ratify the Constitution, "No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure.... To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea" (p. 1).
It was chimerical because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation. Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action except the strictures of criminal law and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them. The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within. If American society was to remain free, self-government must refer first of all to individual citizens governing themselves.
What did the founders have in mind when they spoke of virtue in the people? There is no canonical list, but four aspects of American life were completely accepted as essential. Two of them are virtues in themselves--industriousness and honesty--and two of them refer to institutions through which right behavior is nurtured--marriage and religion. For convenience, I will refer to all four as the founding virtues. Some of the founders would have said my list is incomplete, with frugality being one candidate for addition, and philanthropy (or benevolence) another. The four I have decided upon meet this test: would any of those who shaped the American project and observed it in its first century say that it could succeed without industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity in the people? For these four, there is no doubt about the answer: no.
The founders talked about American "industry" constantly, signifying a cluster of the qualities that had motivated the American Revolution in the first place. From its earliest days, national life was based on a shared belief in the virtue of hard work and on the power of hard work to create better lives for oneself and one's children. I will use the more familiar modern term industriousness instead of industry, but I have the same broad sense of the word in mind.
American industriousness fascinated the rest of the world. No other American quality was so consistently seen as exceptional. Grund (1837) made industriousness the subject of the opening paragraph of Chapter VIII of his book:
Active occupation is not only the principal source of [the Americans] happiness, and the foundation of their natural greatness, but they are absolutely wretched without it ... [It] is the very soul of an American; he pursues it, not as a means of procuring for himself and his family the necessary comforts of life, but as the fountain of all human felicity. (p. 202)
Underlying the willingness to do the work was the abundance of opportunity that America offered as a lure, and it affected people in every class.
Adams (1889) argued that opportunity and industriousness affected those on bottom of American society more powerfully than those on top. Adams (1889) stated,
Reversing the old-world system, the American stimulant increased in energy as it reached the lowest and most ignorant class, dragging and whirling them upward as in the blast of a furnace. The penniless and homeless Scotch or Irish immigrant was caught and consumed by it; for every stroke of the axe and the hoe made him a capitalist, and made gentlemen of his children.. The instinct of activity, once created, seemed heritable and permanent in the race. (p. 160)
If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, industriousness is probably it.
The importance of honesty in making a limited government work is self-evident--nothing short of a police state will force people to refrain from crime if they are predisposed otherwise, and an assumption that people will follow the rules is indispensable for making a free market work. The founders could see that as easily as we. Speaking metaphorically, Jefferson (1801) stated that honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom. George Washington was himself legendarily honest (as in the cherry tree tale), and twice he included honesty in lists of virtues necessary in the American people (Allen, 1988). Along with the importance of honesty went the belief that Americans were more honest than the Europeans, who were believed to be corrupt.
As far as historians have been able to reconstruct crime statistics from the founding, Americans were right to be proud of their honesty--crime levels were extraordinarily low (Nelson, 1967). Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville (1835) commented on how few magistrates and public officers America were employed for apprehending crime:
I believe that in no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is that every one conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the crime and in seizing the delinquent.... In America, [the criminal] is looked upon as an enemy of the human race, and the whole of mankind is against him. (p. 82)
Grand (1837) agreed that Americans have a great respect for the law: "There exists in the United States an universal submission to the law, and a prompt obedience to the magistrates, which, with the exception of Great Britain, is not to be found in any other country" (p. 312).
The founders took for granted that marriage was the bedrock institution of society. The question for the founders and for commentators in the 19th century was not whether marriage itself was essential to the functioning of society--of course it was--but about behavior within marriage--indeed, when the founders used the word morality, as they did frequently, it was usually a synonym for fidelity within marriage and the permanence of marriage.
Were the Americans in fact more faithful to the marriage vows than the Europeans? Every one thought so, Americans and foreigners alike. Even Harriet Martineau (1837), an Englishwoman who resided in Cincinnati for several years and was a radical feminist long before the phrase was invented, thought that "marriage is in America more nearly universal, more safe, more tranquil, more fortunate than in England" (p. 236), and that "the outward requisites to happiness are nearly complete, and the institution is purified from the grossest of the scandals which degrade it in the Old World" (p. 237).
American exceptionalism with regard to marriage went beyond simple fidelity, however. Marriage in the United States was seen as a different kind of union than marriage in Europe. Part of the difference arose from America's rejection of arranged marriages. Men courted, but the women accepted or rejected, and the knowledge that a little girl would eventually have the responsibility for evaluating prospective mates affected her upbringing. Tocqueville (1835) wrote, "If democratic nations leave a woman at liberty to choose her husband, they take care to give her mind sufficient knowledge, and her will sufficient strength, to make so important a choice" (p. 125).
American marriages were also different from European ones (or so both Americans and foreign observers seemed to agree) in the solemnity of the marital bond. In Tocqueville's (1835) words, Americans "consider marriage as a covenant which is often onerous, but every condition of which the parties are strictly bound to fulfill, because they knew all those conditions beforehand, and were perfectly free not to have contracted them" (p. 125). For Grand (1837),
domestic virtue [was] the principal source of all their [Americans'] other qualities ... [it] does more for the preservation of peace and good order than all the laws enacted for that purpose; and is a better guarantee for the permanency of the American government, than any written instrument, the Constitution itself not excepted. (pp. 306-307)
When it came to religion, the founders were products of the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson was openly a Deist. Benjamin Franklin frequently invoked the language of religion, but rarely attended church and did not believe in the divinity of Christ, nor did John Adams, a practicing Unitarian. Washington was evasive about his views on traditional Christian doctrine. Hamilton and Madison were Anglicans who were also suspected to be less than orthodox about the details. And yet all were united in this: religion was essential to the health of the new nation. Washington (1796) put it explicitly in his Farewell Address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable" (p. 2). Adams (1856) made the same argument more pungently:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. (p. 229)
Even Jefferson agreed, which accounts for his own church attendance as president. According to Novak (2002), a diary of the era records an encounter in which Jefferson is chided for hypocrisy as he walks to church one Sunday, prayer book under his arm. Jefferson reportedly responded that,
No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good day sir. (Novak, 2002, p. 31)
The relationship between religiosity and a functioning limited government was asserted by observers of American life, including secular ones, for the next century. As on so many other topics, Tocqueville (1835) summed it up best of all, and I have nothing to add to his appraisal:
Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust. Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion--for who can search the human heart?--but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.... The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other. (p. 344)
THE EMERGENCE OF TWO NEW AMERICAN SOCIAL CLASSES
The unraveling of the civic culture has been driven by events at both the bottom and top of American society. The period from 1960 to 2010 saw the emergence of both a new sort of lower class and a new sort of upper class.
The New Lower Class
As of 1960, the founding virtues remained vital, shared across socioeconomic classes. This is not to say that the founding virtues were spread equally across socioeconomic classes, but they prevailed as the national norms and the basis for the civic culture remained intact. Then, over the next 50 years, a divergence occurred on all four founding virtues between the upper middle class and the working class (Murray, 2012). I will use marriage to illustrate the theme of the other specific findings, restricting the analysis to non-Latino Whites so that there is no confusion about the breadth of the phenomena I discuss. The emerging class differences are not an indirect reflection of ethnic differences in indicators regarding marriage, industriousness, honesty, or religiosity.
Among adults in the prime of life, ages 30-49, 94% of Whites in the upper middle class were married in 1960, compared to 84% of Whites in the working class (Murray, 2012). There was a difference, but marriage was the overwhelming norm around which families and communities were organized. Among adults ages 30-49 in 2010, 84% of Whites in the upper middle class were married. A reduction had occurred since 1960, but marriage remained the overwhelming basis for raising children and organizing community life. Furthermore, that 84% figure in 2010 had remained effectively flat for a quarter of a century. The contrast with the working class is stark. Among Whites in the working class, the 84% figure for 1960 had plunged to only 48% by 2010, nor were there any signs that the downward trend was flattening (Murray, 2012). It is hard to think of another example of such a large class divergence on such a basic institution in so short a period of time.
Similar divergences occurred with regard to industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. When a substantial portion of the working class is no longer married, a substantial portion of working-class males are no longer in the labor force, violent crime among the working class is about six times its rate in 1960 (even after the reductions in crime during the last two decades), and religiosity among the working class has fallen to a small percentage of the working class, social capital plummets (Murray, 2012). According to Putnam (2001), who first documented the phenomenon, the collapse of American community has been concentrated in the working class. In short, we have new kind of lower class--not distinguished from other citizens by their poverty or racial oppression, but by their separation from the norms of mainstream American society, with a high proportion of children raised in fragmented families where the father has been replaced by serial live-in boyfriends, large numbers of able-bodied males in the prime of life who are neither working nor looking for work, and high levels of drug use, alcoholism, and criminal behavior. The communities of the working class are increasingly beset by the dysfunctions that are inevitable when the neighborhood's most flexible resources for dealing with human needs--relatives, neighbors, coworkers, the church--no longer play anything approaching the roles they once played.
The New Upper Class
At the same time the new lower class was taking shape, a new upper class was forming as well, consisting of the cognitively talented who over the last 50 years have been efficiently identified in their youth and shipped off not just to colleges, but to the best colleges, and who have entered a job market in which the dollar value of brains has grown phenomenally (Murray, 2012). By now, the process has gone on long enough that a distinctive new upper class culture has developed, brilliantly described by Brooks (2000) in Bobos in Paradise. In the books they read, the television and movies they watch, the radio they listen to, their diets and fitness, the vacations they take, their avocations, the ages at which they marry and have children, the way they raise their children, and the nature of their workplaces, the new upper class increasingly lives in a world distinct from the rest of the country. The difference is not primarily a function of money. The distinctive culture of the new upper class is actually most conspicuously on display in the faculty neighborhoods of university towns where wealth is unusual.
Affluence does play into a collateral aspect of the new upper class, however: their residential segregation. Over the last half century, the nation has seen a dramatic increase in what Reich (1991) called "the secession of the successful," as they have clustered together in neighborhoods that are increasingly homogeneous, populated by people who share their culture. This is new. The rich have always lived in the best part of town, but in the past "the best part of town" was much more heterogeneous than it is now. Consider 14 neighborhoods that in 1960 were famous for being the home of the elite--the Upper East Side of New York, Philadelphia's Main Line, Northwest Washington, Chicago's North Shore, Beverly Hills, and the like. All 14 of these elite neighborhoods tell the same story. In 1960, college graduates were still a small minority--26% of adults. The great majority of married couples in those 14 neighborhoods consisted either of one college graduate and a high school graduate or of two high school graduates. The median family income in the 14 neighborhoods was $84,000 dollars in 2010 dollars (as are all of the dollar figures that follow). Eighty-four thousand dollars is not even affluence, let alone wealth. Over the next 40 years, these 14 neighborhoods, already fashionable in 1960, were infused with new cultural resources in the form of college graduates, disproportionately from elite schools, with more and more money to pay for the tastes and preferences of an upper class. These infusions were not a matter of a few percentage points or a few thousand dollars. The median income in these 14 elite neighborhoods went from $84,000 to $163,000--it almost doubled. The median percentage of college graduates went from 26% to 67%--it much more than doubled (Murray, 2012).
That phenomenon occurred throughout the country, as the new upper class not only came to dominate the "best part of town" but to inhabit clusters of contiguous zip codes that were similarly affluent and well-educated. Consider the zip codes that are in the top five percent on an index of education and income, something I have previously termed SuperZips (Murray, 2012). The largest of these bubbles now stretches from downtown Washington, DC, westward and north into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, and consists of 93 contiguous SuperZips with a population of 1.7 million people (Murray, 2012). The bubbles that have grown in the nation's other major cities have populations at least in the hundreds of thousands. Manhattan has seen perhaps the greatest transformation. In 1960, Manhattan was a working-class and middle-class borough with small islands of wealthy blocks, mostly east of Central Park. But even on the Upper East Side, the median family income was just $55,400-- not even a middle-class income. In 2010, all of Manhattan south of 96th street effectively consisted of SuperZips except for one small island in the theatre district and another near the Brooklyn Bridge (Murray, 2012).
In terms of the founding virtues, the new upper class is doing reasonably well. They are much more secular than the broader upper middle class, but their marks for marriage, honesty, and industriousness are good. The problem lies in their increasing physical segregation and cultural alienation from the rest of America, and the threat this poses to the American project.
CHARACTER AND THE SURVIVAL OF THE AMERICAN PROJECT
On one side of the socioeconomic spectrum, a significant and growing number of Americans are losing the virtues required to be functioning members of a free society. On the other side of the spectrum, the people who run the country are doing just fine, relatively unaffected by the forces that are enfeebling family, work, community, and faith elsewhere in society. In fact, they have become so isolated that they are often oblivious to the nature of the problems that exist elsewhere.
The forces that have led to the formation of the new lower class continue as I write. In the absence of some outside intervention, the new lower class will continue to grow. Agitation for that outside intervention can come from many levels of society--that much is still true in America--but eventually the new upper class must mobilize its convictions and passion on behalf of traditional civic culture, or it is doomed.
The chances for that mobilization are slight, and the reasons they are slight go to the character of the new upper class. The new upper class has vast resources, both in wealth and in human capital. The modern economy is ideally suited to its members' strengths. They are doing an excellent job of co-opting the new intellectual talent in each generation, much as classical China co-opted the new intellectual talent in each generation through its examination system. But the new upper class is showing signs of becoming an elite that is hollow at the core.
In 2001, while working on a book about the history of human accomplishment, I decided that I should take a look at Toynbee and Somervell's (1946) A Study of History. Eventually I reached the chapter entitled "Schism in the Soul," and experienced a shock of recognition. In that chapter, Toynbee and Somervell took up the processes that lead to the disintegration of civilizations. Their argument went like this: the growth phase of a civilization is led by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue, and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along. Then, at some point in every civilization's journey, the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority. Its members still run the show, but they are no longer confident and no longer set the example. Among other reactions are a "lapse into truancy"--a rejection of the obligations of citizenship--and "surrender to a sense of promiscuity"--vulgarization of manners, the arts, and language--that "are apt to appear first in the ranks of the proletariat and to spread from there to the ranks of the dominant minority, which usually succumbs to the sickness of 'proletarianization'" (Toynbee & Somervell, 1946, p. 439).
The shock of recognition that I experienced in 2001 came because of the adoption by the middle class and upper middle class of behaviors that used to be distinctly lower class. Why, when Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore, attacked the incontestable violence and misogyny of rap lyrics in the 1980s, was she so roundly scolded by so many of her social and
political peers? Why were four-letter words, formerly seen by the upper-middle class as declasse, appearing in glossy upscale magazines? How had "the hooker look" become a fashion trend among nice girls from the suburbs and the gangsta look among their male peers? How had tattoos, which a few decades ago had been proof positive that one was a member of the proletariat, become chic? Toynbee would have shrugged and said that's what happens when civilizations are headed downhill--America's creative minority has degenerated into a dominant minority, and we are witnessing the universal next step, the proletarianization of the dominant minority. I characterize this instead in terms of a collapse of character.
The Collapse of a Sturdy Elite Code
In 1940 film The Philadelphia Story, Tracey (Katharine Hepburn) is unable to recall what happened between her and Mike (Jimmy Stewart) the night before, because she had been so drunk that she passed out. She is relieved to learn that Mike had carried her to her bedroom, deposited her on her bed, and departed, but worries about why he had been so gallant. Mike was observing the code. Codes of behavior exist in every nook of society, and they are powerful determinants of the social order within that nook. Doctors have a code and cops have a code. Teenagers have a code. Prisoners have a code. The elite has a code. The difference between the elite's code and the others is the breadth of its influence. The history of England in the last half of the 19th century can be seen as the Victorian elite's success in propagandizing the entire English population into accepting its code of morals (Himmelfarb, 1984). A code existed that was energetically propagated by the people who ran America and it was taken seriously. The code of the American gentleman has collapsed, just as the parallel code of the American lady has collapsed.
In today's new upper class--what Toynbee would surely see as a dominant minority--the code that has taken its place is a set of mushy injunctions to be nice. Call it the code of ecumenical niceness. Children are supposed to share their toys, not hit each other, take turns-- to be nice. And, by and large, the children of the new upper class grow up to be nice. But they are also taught that they should respect everyone else's way of doing things, regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, cultural practices, or national origin, which leads to the crucial flaw in ecumenical niceness. The code of the dominant minority is supposed to set the standard for the society, but ecumenical niceness has a hold only on the people whom the dominant minority is willing to judge-- namely, one another. This is what I mean by loss of self-confidence. The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.
Nonjudgmentalism is one of the more baffling features of the new upper-class culture. The members of the new upper class are industrious to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for adults who are not industrious. The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for nonmarital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals. When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone except fundamentalist Christians and rural working-class Whites.
If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself. The new upper class knows the secret to maximizing the chances of leading a happy life, but it refuses to let anyone else in on the secret. Conspiratorial explanations are unnecessary, however. Nonjudgmentalism ceases to be baffling if you think of it as a symptom of Toynbee's loss of self-confidence among the dominant minority. The new upper class does not want to push its way of living onto the less fortunate, for who are they to say that their way of living is really better? It works for them, but who is to say that it will work for others? Who are they to say that their way of behaving is virtuous and others' ways of behaving are not?
Toynbee and Somervell (1946) entitled their discussion "schism in the soul" because the disintegration of a civilization is not a monolithic process. While part of the dominant minority begins to mimic the culture of the proletariat, remnants of it become utopians, or ascetics, or try to invoke old norms (as I am doing here). To recognize a disintegrating civilization, Toynbee says, look for a riven culture--riven as our culture is today. For every example of violence and moral obtuseness coming out of Hollywood, one can cite films, often faithful renderings of classic novels, expressing an exquisite moral sensibility. On television, the worst-of-times, best-of-times paradox can be encompassed within the same television series--wonderful moral insights in one plot line, moral obtuseness in another, sometimes occurring within the same episode. Some parents of the new upper class are responsible for producing and distributing the content that represents the worst of contemporary culture, while others are going to great lengths to protect their children from what they see as a violent and decadent culture. Sometimes those parents are one and the same people. The only common thread that I claim in all of this is an unwillingness on the part of any significant portion of the new upper class to preach what they practice.
The Rise of Unseemliness
The collapse of a sturdy code (ecumenical niceness is not sturdy) also means that certain concepts lose their power to constrain behavior. One of those concepts is unseemliness. The opposite of seemly is on a continuum. At the extreme, unseemliness is television producer Aaron Spelling building a house of 56,500 square feet and 123 rooms (Stein, 1988). Unseemliness is Henry McKinnel, chief executive officer of Pfizer, getting a $99 mil lion golden parachute and an $82 million pension after a tenure that saw Pfizer's share price plunge (The Economist, 2010). They did nothing illegal. Spelling had the money to build his dream house, just as millions of others would like to do, and got zoning approval for his plans. McKinnel's separation package was paid strictly according to the contract he had signed with Pfizer when he became chief executive officer. But the outcomes were inappropriate for time or place, not suited to the circumstances. They were unbecoming and unfitting. They were unseemly.
Consider the broader example of the salaries of corporate chief executive officers. In 1970, the average chief executive officer made about a million dollars in 2010 dollars. That figure had doubled to $2 million by 1987, doubled again to $4 million by 1992, doubled to $8 million by 1998 and doubled to $16 million by 2006, all in constant dollars. I am not asking whether the increases were economically rational. The technical literature hotly debates this issue, but it does not reach the question I am asking. Is it seemly? To what extent are boards of directors handing out these compensation packages because, like it or not, that's what it takes to get the kind of person they need to run the company? Or to what extent have the boards of directors of corporate America--and nonprofit American, and foundation America --become cozy extended families, scratching each others' backs, happily going along with a market that has become lucrative for all of them, taking advantage of their privileged positions--rigging the game, but within the law (Bizjak, Lemmon, & Nguyen, 2011). Crony capitalism is the recently coined term for it. It is of course not altogether new, but it appears to be different in kind from the corruption that occasionally occurred in earlier years. Its practitioners seem to lack any sense that some activities can be legal yet unseemly and to self-limit their behavior accordingly.
Alongside crony capitalism, look at the collusive capitalism that characterizes contemporary American government. It is not new. The crafting of legislation by the Congress has always been like the making of sausage. But when the federal government did not have much to sell except contracts for road building and military equipment, the amount of energy devoted to scrambling for government spoils was commensurate with the size of the pot. The pot has grown, with hundreds of billions of dollars of goodies now up for grabs for whomever knows the right people, can convince the right committee chairman to insert a clause in the legislation, convince the right regulatory bureaucrat to word a ruling in a certain way, or secure the right appointment to a key government panel. Perhaps unseemliness per unit of government has not increased in the last half century, but the number and size of those units has increased by orders of magnitude, and the magnitude of unseemliness has increased along with them. Washington is in a new Gilded Age of influence peddling that dwarfs anything that has come before.
Unseemliness is a symptom of the collapse of codes of behavior that depend not on laws and regulations, but upon shared understandings regarding the fitness of things, and upon an allegiance to behave in accordance with those shared understandings. Unseemliness is another symptom of hollowness at the core.
My proposition is that the hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally, and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards. The most powerful and successful members of their class increasingly trade on the perks of their privileged positions without regard to the seemliness of that behavior. The members of the new upper class are active politically, but when it comes to using their positions to help sustain the republic in day-to-day life, they are conspicuously absent.
THE NEED FOR A CIVIC GREAT AWAKENING
I reach the end of this account of the unraveling of America's civic culture without a happy ending and without a 5-point policy agenda for making everything come out right. Five-point policy agendas are notoriously ineffectual in trying to stage-manage such changes. But we have historical evidence that, in America, such cultural resurgences are possible.
I am thinking of the religious Great Awakenings. American history has seen three religious revivals known as Great Awakenings, although some argue that there have been four (Fogel, 2000). They were not dispassionate, polite reconsiderations of opinions. They were renewals of faith, felt in the gut. The first began in the mid-1720s and reached its apex in the late 1730s. It set the stage for the American Revolution. The second began around 1800 and lasted until 1840. It was instrumental in the spread of the temperance movement, compulsory elementary education, abolitionism, and the beginning of the women's suffrage movement. The beginning of the third Great Awakening is dated variously from the 1860s to 1890 and continued into the early 1900s. It laid the ethical basis for the reforms of the New Deal and, later, the Civil Rights Movement (Fogel, 2000).
Can we muster a civic Great Awakening on behalf of America's historic civic culture? We are not limited by partisan divisions. The kinds of problems I have discussed transcend political differences. My evidence for that belief is anecdotal. I have friends of various political persuasions who are part of the new upper class. When we discuss issues such as the increasing isolation of our children from the rest of America, I hear from all sides that this has already been worrying them. When I talk about these issues with students in elite colleges who are the offspring of families affluent for two or three generations, the charge that they are disconnected from the rest of America is something they are willing to take seriously.
On the other side of the class divide, my family has lived for more than 20 years in a blue-collar and agricultural region of Maryland where all the problems of Fishtown, a White working-class neighborhood I described in Coming Apart (2012), have been visibly increasing. Politically, our neighbors span the range. But there remains a core of civic virtue and involvement that could make headway against those problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need--not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold.
It is my impression--I do not claim more systematic evidence--that people across the political spectrum are ready to respond quickly and positively as soon as the issues I have raised are acknowledged. A large part of the problem consists of nothing more complicated than our current unwillingness to say out loud what we believe. A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice.
And so I am hoping for a civic Great Awakening among the members of the new upper class. It will require them to take a close look at the way they are living their lives, ask whether those lives are lacking something-- lacking engagement with ordinary Americans--and then think about ways to change. I am not suggesting that people in the new upper class should sacrifice their self-interest. I just want to accelerate a rediscovery of what that self-interest is. Age-old human wisdom has understood that a life well lived requires engagement with those around us. A civic Great Awakening among the new upper class can arise in part from the renewed understanding that while it can be pleasant to lead a comfortable, glossy life, it is ultimately more rewarding--and more fun--to lead a textured life, and to be in the midst of others who are leading textured lives.
What it comes down to is that America's new upper class must once again fall in love with what makes America different. The drift away from those qualities can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation or victories on specific Supreme Court cases, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America's historic civic culture has been unique and wonderful, and when we feel in our hearts why it is so important to restore it.
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American Enterprise Institute
Charles Murray, PhD, is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. He can be reached through his assistant, Ms. Caroline Kitchens at Caroline.Kitchens@aei.org. This article is adapted from his 20012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.
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|Publication:||Journal of Character Education|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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