Plumbline Author: Timothy Sherratt
Date: February 13, 2012
Topic: Founding Virtues, Social Disintegration and the 2012 Elections
Losing Ground (1984). Coming Apart (2012). Whoever said economics was the dismal science? In the first of these works, sociologist Charles Murray documented the devastating effects of Great Society social welfare programs on the working poor and the African-American family. In his latest work, he tells a disturbing tale of segregation by income and intellect. A new American elite, coalescing since the 1980s in SuperZips, Ivy League colleges and the tax code’s stratosphere, have separated from their fellow Americans to a degree not experienced even in the heady days of the nineteenth century’s robber barons.
Whereas the highest earners of the past always had much in common with their less wealthy neighbors, from not very different habits of consumption, to similar work experiences, and an IQ range their private universities shared with public ones, now they have little in common with those who are, emphatically, no longer their neighbors.
In paradoxical ways, however, the new elites have become the new paragons of traditional virtue. Since the heady 1960s, Murray documents, they have swapped bohemia for relatively stable marriages, sound—if overly supervisory—parenting practices, impressive work habits, low crime rates and at least modest levels of religious observance.
Not so their former neighbors. The “founding virtues” —marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity as Murray has them—have all but disappeared from the bottom 30 percent on the income scale. The situation, he warns, is so dire that “it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”
Murray’s findings may not resonate in isolation. However, the Occupy movement, the “Ninety-nine,” the subprime mortgage crisis and the recession bring them into sharp contemporary focus. Sociological disintegration should lend added sobriety to economic angst and deadlocked politics.
The electoral challenge is twofold: how to redirect campaign rhetoric away from protestations of loyalty to the party line or short-term fixes to the economic crisis and towards an informed debate about how to address a social disaster that has unfolded over several decades. The norms of democratic discourse call for such a debate, but the candidates may not be able to deliver.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney seems, on the one hand, hesitant about offering a dispassionate explanation of the role of venture capitalists, let alone of the contribution they can make to the public good. On the other, while his family values are literally on display at every victory rally, Romney seems to have no gift for articulating them as policy.
Of the remaining candidates, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum may be uniquely positioned to do Murray’s findings justice. Catholic teaching on human dignity and social norms underwrite his perspective. Alone among the candidates he appears capable of articulating the seriousness of society’s fraying because his religious tradition appreciates the importance of the social fabric that is so badly torn. Senator Santorum can name the administration’s shabby treatment of religious liberty and the family for what it is.
To appeal beyond the social conservative base of his support, however, Santorum will have to do more than protest the Administration’s requirement that Catholic healthcare plans provide free contraception or its refusal to support the Defense of Marriage Act in court. Deplorable though both actions are, they will remain narrow issues of intense concern to a particular demographic unless the candidates can connect them to the slow-motion social disaster that is the subject of Coming Apart.
Extensive reliance on Losing Ground was evident in the reform of the welfare system in the 1990s. The patterns of disintegration Murray documents in Coming Apart, notably the segregation of the new elite from the rest of society and the collapse of the founding virtues among the working-class population, deserve the best efforts of those committed to human dignity and biblical justice.
—Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.