Is America Coming Apart?

Best-selling author and controversial social scientist Charles Murray is back in the news. This time it’s because of his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.

In “Coming Apart,” Murray deftly wields both statistical data and anecdotal evidence to document the wholesale abandonment of the ideals that for two centuries defined the American project. In Murray’s estimation, barring a dramatic and unlikely reversal, “all is lost.” While Murray does not claim that the United States is in imminent danger of losing its military or economic dominance, Murray does assert America has almost completely lost her identity (and secrets for true success) by abandoning her vigorous founding virtues for the soft, relativistic ones of Europe.

The primary goal of Murray’s book is to describe a newly emergent, great divide between a geographically concentrated American ruling class—of enormous wealth, prestige, intellect and power—and a growing underclass that is increasingly disinterested in behavior healthy for a nation, community, family, or individual. Murray maintains, “the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America.”

The bulk of Murray’s book is divided into two parts, each describing one of these two emergent classes. Part I explains the new American upper class “that is qualitatively different from any that the country has ever known” due to its complete isolation from American mainstream culture. Murray shows how “the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.”

Part II focuses on the “new lower class.” Murray looks again at isolation, but this time, it is isolation from the founding virtues of America and human happiness: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. As Murray explains, by abandoning these core traits, America’s new lower class has adopted lifestyles that “compromise the ability of people to live satisfying lives, the ability of communities to function as communities and the ability of America to survive as America.”

Obviously, Murray pulls no punches in his analysis and is quite aware of the vitriol he will be subject to for even printing his collected data, much less drawing logical conclusions from it. Self-righteous dismissals of Murray for intolerance and supposedly attacking the poor will reflexively flood in, but Murray merely desires to produce healthy communities and satisfying lives. He thereby refuses to join with “overeducated elitist snobs” and this new morally flaccid select who know “the secret to maximizing the chances of  leading a happy life, but … refuses to let anyone else in on the secret.”

Murray perhaps gleefully pricks the politically correct reader’s ear with his subtitle, but he correctly focuses on the “State of White America” because his “primary goal is to induce recognition of the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams—not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” And though Murray will conclude that his account is ultimately America’s story, by focusing on whites, he shows the problems cannot be solved by old shibboleths of “attacking the legacy of racism or by restricting immigration.”

Murray concludes his book by explaining why these harsh facts need to be known and offers some suggestions as to what might be done. Here, Murray argues that the route to human happiness is not as malleable as post-moderns wish. True satisfaction in life requires diligent effort and personal responsibility in legitimately important tasks. He writes, “If we ask what are the domains through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life—achieve happiness—the answer is that there are just four: family, vocation, community and faith.” Tragically, as Murray’s statistics prove, America’s new elites have rhetorically abandoned all four and America’s new lower class has listened.

Furthermore, according to Murray, while Europeans’ life goal is to enlist government support “to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible,” Americans of all economic classes used to know better. Murray calls for reinvigoration of the American way which holds “that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things—raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and a good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can.”

Murray’s book is a depressing one, as essentially all his statistics on America’s social and political trends point to a worsening of conditions. However, Murray finds some reasons to hope as he calls for a fourth Great Awakening (in a civil sense) to reverse the tide. “Coming Apart” marks the culmination of Murray’s over 40 years of thinking and publishing on the topic of human happiness and public policy. His sobering valedictory words deserve to be heard and heeded.

2012 The Center for Vision and Values


Dr. Jason R. Edwards is a research fellow with The Center for Vision & Values and an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Rousseau gave a salutary warning of this

    “I have already defined civil liberty; by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself: which implies, on the part of the great, moderation in goods and position, and, on the side of the common sort, moderation in avarice and covetousness.”

    And  he further notes, “If the object is to give the State consistency, bring the two extremes as near to each other as possible; allow neither rich men nor beggars. These two estates, which are naturally inseparable, are equally fatal to the common good; from the one come the friends of tyranny, and from the other tyrants. It is always between them that public liberty is put up to auction; the one buys, and the other sells.”

    • Adam_Baum

       Paul Johnson gave a salutary warning of Rousseau- “an interesting madman”

  • Matthew Arnold

    Wonderful review.   Re “overeducated elitist snobs,” I would love to read more.  What did I notice in my years at Harvard as a student and dean?  A rush to consulting and investment bank internships and jobs, as if these were the one and only routes to respectability and with huge bragging rights, crazed obsession with pre-professional goals, public service fast and always put down on a résumé, the same students applying both to medical and to law school, grade grubbing on a colossal scale, masses of undergraduates in counseling and on Prozac…  Now the “overeducated elitist snobs” responsible for our disunited America were a generation older than the sad types I mention, and what this means is we have perhaps worse to look forward to from places that produce such people.  What they appear to have in common is a kind of education that is no education, for they are or aspire to be technocrats.  They lack the reading and the learning in the liberal arts–I wonder if Murray notices that their rise to power goes hand in hand with a near total decline, over decades, in college standards and performance and a collapse in majors in the humanities–that characterized the education that, indeed, “made America America.”

  • Pingback: Is America Coming Apart? | Catholic Canada()

  • Clement_W

    Isn’t America coming apart exactly what has been happening when the Lord dealt with the Tower of Babel? The “overeducated elitist snobs,” are the ones who will end up being scattered among the hoi polloi who won’t understand what these snobs are trying to say.

    In Psalm 90:12, the psalmist asks ‘Teach us to count our days aright that we may gain wisdom of heart’.

    Not just America but all humanity coming apart is probably a good thing, we will end up starting to rebuild our Tower of Babel again and be working together until God will intervene again repeat the cycle till we truly become humble. How many repetitions and how many millennia will it take for us to become worthy of being the real Homo sapiens made in His OWN Image?

  • J17ghs

    Bush should have delayed the 2008 elections, given the gravity at that time of the (George Soros-enabled) financial disaster and ongoing and massive ACORN voter fraud and Obama’s connection to both. But Bush and Rove are like Romney today — they put up legislation or candidates and then just let things happen in a near vacuum for Republicans. You can bet Obama will jump at the chance to create more 1930s dictatorships, as the concept is coming back into vogue around the world, with his administration’s help.

    • It’s not a Democratic dictatorship I fear, it is a Republican dictatorship of the Wealthy!   With the Supreme Court’s decision that “Corporations are People”, it is now legal to buy Congress’ votes for any of their causes!  If Romney wins in November, the Middle Class are on their way to SERFDOOM!  The Rich want it ALL!  ALL for themselves!  They will destroy all so-called entitelment for the Middle Class-because THEY do not need them!  GREED<GREED<GREED!

  • Sibyl

    May I also recommend Murray’s previous book, “Real Learning”? A fascinating, and I thought spot-on, analysis of higher education and what positive things could be done to improve it.

    • Matthew Arnold


  • Pingback: Is America Coming Apart? | Foundation Life()

  • crakpot

    “happiness … family, vocation, community and faith”

    I quite agree.   There are four basic realities to life:
       1. Without nourishment, protection, and guidance, no child can survive or live well.   Family is a right.
       2. This is not paradise.   Man has to work to live.   That work requires resources and has a product.   These things are property, every individual’s right to equitably acquire and responsibly use.
       3. There is evil in the world, as well as misfortune.   It is right that we band together voluntarily for common protection and effective charity.
       4. Every single living thing on this planet will die someday.   It is right that we seek meaning and afterlife.

    “Happiness” was well defined by Aquinas as the conscious possession of that which is good.   It is right that we be free from unjust power to pursue family, the ability to live and work, common protection and charity, and faith.   Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, was correct that by consent of the governed we should empower government to help secure this right to pursue not only property, but happiness.

  • elcer

    I agree that a more liberal arts approach to education with more critical thinking and and analysis of the past and present should be the crux of a good education and more beneficial to society.  But who was it  during the 1960s who wanted to trash the traditional university curriculum by doing away with the requirement for all to study Western Civilization, Shakespeare, philosophy and other course requirements in favor of inane electives that could replace them such as women’s studies?  For the most part, students are no longer exposed to the “wisdom of the ages” but to some professor’s ideology and anyone who disagrees is penalized. Therein lies a problem in so many universities” programs especially arts and humanities.