February 23, 2016 Print

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The United States was founded on ideals of inclusion, equality, liberty, and individualism — although it took generations for those ideals to be applied to politically and culturally disfavored groups like African-Americans and women. Still, the ideological core of the United States has centered on the ideas of “equality before the law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and association, self-reliance, limited government, free-market economics, decentralized and devolved political authority,” explains renowned scholar Charles Murray, W.H. Brady scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and Atlas Network’s most recent Templeton Leadership Fellow, in a recent commentary. The current U.S. presidential campaign, however, has often centered around exclusionary rhetoric that seems to be supported by large swaths of the population. This is an unfortunate symptom, Murray argues, of legitimate anger at a broken system that has damaged the American character and is leaving lower classes behind.

“Many of the dynamics of the reversal can be found in developments across the whole of American society: in the emergence of a new upper class and a new lower class, and in the plight of the working class caught in between,” Murray explains in his analysis. “In my 2012 book ‘Coming Apart,’ I discussed these new classes at length. The new upper class consists of the people who shape the country’s economy, politics and culture. The new lower class consists of people who have dropped out of some of the most basic institutions of American civic culture, especially work and marriage. Both of these new classes have repudiated the American creed in practice, whatever lip service they may still pay to it.”

The country’s elite today routinely dismisses lower classes with condescending terms like “rednecks” and “flyover country,” Murray points out, and its culture and community experiences are largely foreign to the struggling working classes.

“The members of the new upper class are seldom attracted to the films, TV shows and music that are most popular in mainstream America,” Murray explains. “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.”

Working-class men in their 30s and 40s, on the other hand have had precipitous drops in recent decades in both labor force participation and stable cultural institutions as basic as marriage.

“These are stunning changes, and they are visible across the country,” Murray says. “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.”

Although Murray points out that large portions of the middle and upper-middle classes still remain rooted in principles of equality, liberty, and individualism, the sense of class alienation between both the upper and lower classes is driving the exclusionary populism that has exploded in presidential campaign rhetoric.

“Our vaunted liberty is now constrained by thousands of petty restrictions that touch almost anything we want to do, individualism is routinely ignored in favor of group rights, and we have acquired an arrogant upper class,” Murray concludes. “Operationally as well as ideologically, the American creed is shattered.”