Regardless of whether you think that Donald Trump is the problem or the solution, his political ascent shows that something is wrong with America.
Knowing what it is might not tell us how to fix it, but at least it will be a place to start.
Yesterday, Charles Murray offered his analysis in the Wall Street Journal. The past several decades, he wrote, have been very bad for the white working class. For reasons yet to be specified, working class white males in particular have suffered from what I would call a grand social experiment. The nation seems to have chosen them to live out the terms of a countercultural revolution.
For his part Murray believes that we have lost touch with the American creed, with our beliefs in the ideals of equality, freedom and individualism. In his words:
Its three core values may be summarized as egalitarianism, liberty and individualism. From these flow other familiar aspects of the national creed that observers have long identified: equality before the law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and association, self-reliance, limited government, free-market economics, decentralized and devolved political authority.
But, he also suggests that our cultural revolution came about because people were overly zealous in their commitment to these ideals.
Nations are founded, less on ideals, and more on common rituals and ceremonies. The French Revolution brought forth the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. But worshiping at the altar of ideals, the Revolutionaries demonstrated, does not produce national unity and comity.
Societies cohere when their members share common practices. Multiculturalism disparages these practices as bigoted. More importantly, the American cultural revolution has attacked the social order, has attacked the traditional family and has consistently derided patriotism. We are citizens of the world, members of the human species or, at best, hyphenated Americans. This means that loyalty to country and pride in its achievements have been major casualties of our cultural experiment.
It was done in the name of ideals. We pretend that everyone is equal and we conclude that all outcomes must be equal too. If they are not, it’s a sign of bigotry. We might have lost faith in free markets and individual choice, but we extol the individualism that tells everyone to do his own thing and to let it all hang out. We believe in individual self-expression and even in the right of each individual to define himself and even to decide on his own gender. If you disagree you are a bigot and are unfit for our brave new world.
Today’s culture warriors denounce the 1950s as the bad old days. Way back then, America was on a winning streak and they could not allow that.
And yet, those days saw far more income equality than there is today. Murray presents the statistics:
In the 1960 census, the median income along Philadelphia’s Main Line was just $90,000 in today’s dollars. In Boston’s Brookline, it was $75,000; on New York’s Upper East Side, just $60,000. At a typical dinner party in those neighborhoods, many guests would have had no more than a high-school diploma.
Such is no longer the case. Murray continues:
In 2016, a dinner party in those same elite neighborhoods consists almost wholly of people with college degrees, even advanced degrees. They are much more uniformly affluent. The current median family incomes for the Main Line, Brookline and the Upper East Side are about $150,000, $151,000 and $203,000, respectively.
The divide is not just a matter of geography. People in the upper classes, Murray continues, have a separate culture and separate cultural interests. They are isolated in their gated communities and feel limitless contempt for the less fortunate:
The members of the new upper class are seldom attracted to the films, TV shows and music that are most popular in mainstream America. They have a distinctive culture in the food they eat, the way they take care of their health, their child-rearing practices, the vacations they take, the books they read, the websites they visit and their taste in beer. You name it, the new upper class has its own way of doing it.
For its part, mainstream America is fully aware of this condescension and contempt and is understandably irritated by it.
These observations provoke a few thoughts. Take them for what they are worth.
First, this type of social stratification reminds one of the class structure in South American nations. Many of those countries are run by oligarchies of the rich and the privileged. They are divided between the rich and the rest, with a relatively small middle class.
Second, beginning with the 1960 presidential election a culture that respected the military and hard work was replaced by a culture that extolled celebrity and inherited (that is, unearned) wealth.
1960 America more closely resembled the military, where generals did not make hundreds of time the pay of sergeants. Society looked up to soldiers and to the efficiencies and effectiveness of military-style organizations.
Today’s America resembles the Kennedy administration. When JFK took over, he inaugurated a cultural revolution in which a ruling elite, a guardian class, “the best and the brightest” made the decisions. Its leaders were rarely from the military and often held the military in contempt. The guardians knew what was best for everyone and they helped produce a culture where their ideals, their view of what was best for everyone, would be imposed on the nation, whether the nation liked it or voted for it. The guardians were intellectuals and they used legislation and especially the courts to reconfigure the world as they wanted it to be.
As I have suggested, a martyred charismatic celebrity president cast an enormous shadow over American culture. The nation began its descent when it chose to emulate its fallen, martyred leader
Military and corporate leaders know that they should take responsibility for failure. If D-Day had failed Gen. Eisenhower was ready to accept full personal responsibility. The people who ran the Kennedy-Johnson administration, the architects of the Vietnam War, were so persuaded of their righteousness that they did not believe they could fail. If the war went wrong, it could not be their fault. They never apologized for their failure and produced a culture of arrogance.
“Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Thus, they happily shifted the blame to soldiers and to military culture.
They decided that the fault lay with traditional American culture, the one that enslaved and oppressed peoples. They did not want to reform the culture; they wanted to overturn it, to expunge all evidence of the evil past and do penance for America’s sins. In Vietnam America was punished for its sins.
Thus was launched a grand social experiment. The culture would need to be re-engineered to foster racial integration and gender equity. And yet, the elites continued to send their children to private schools. They were happy to use the children of the rest of the nation is lab rats for their experiment, but they used their influence and privilege and wealth to shield their own children.
Similarly, the feminist war on men, launched in the name of equality, has had its greatest effect on working class white males. In part, Murray notes, the decline of white working class males derives from the fact that manufacturing jobs have left the country. One ought to ask how much of the responsibility lies with labor unions and the politicians who support them. Now that working class white males cannot compete in the new economy, the elites feel justified in treating them with contempt.
Upper class families have not suffered the effects of the feminist revolution as much as lower class families. In fact, the new sexual politics has decimated lower class families. One might blame it on economics, but one suspects that family structure was not destroyed by the far harsher Great Depression.
Murray describes the problem:
Work and marriage have been central to American civic culture since the founding, and this held true for the white working class into the 1960s. Almost all of the adult men were working or looking for work, and almost all of them were married.
Then things started to change. For white working-class men in their 30s and 40s—what should be the prime decades for working and raising a family—participation in the labor force dropped from 96% in 1968 to 79% in 2015. Over that same period, the portion of these men who were married dropped from 86% to 52%. (The numbers for nonwhite working-class males show declines as well, though not as steep and not as continuous.)
In today’s average white working-class neighborhood, about one out of five men in the prime of life isn’t even looking for work; they are living off girlfriends, siblings or parents, on disability, or else subsisting on off-the-books or criminal income. Almost half aren’t married, with all the collateral social problems that go with large numbers of unattached males.
In these communities, about half the children are born to unmarried women, with all the problems that go with growing up without fathers, especially for boys. Drugs also have become a major problem, in small towns as well as in urban areas.
The different currents of the counterculture have converged in political correctness. Through it, in schools, in news reporting, in television shows, people are being told what to think. They are being barraged with politically correct opinions. They are being told that if they do not think the way the elites want them to think they are bigots or worse.
Then, their children go to school and are told what to think. If they do not toe the party line they receive lesser grades. Since everyone wants to belong to the intelligentsia and the moneyed oligarchs, they go along.
When it comes to controversial social issues, voting no longer counts. If your state votes against same-sex marriage, the courts will simply dismiss you as a bunch of bigots. If citizens feel disenfranchised, their voices silenced, they have good reason not to trust the system.
Often enough the courts do not decide cases based on the law. They decide based on the pressure from the media and from the intellectual elites. When they have to choose between the law and ideals, they tend to choose the latter.