Crumbling Apart

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In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, eminent American social scientist Charles Murray depicts a United States on the precipice of a substantive and enduring cleavage along the lines of class.  Murray is hardly a subscriber to Marxian interpretations of history, but the breadth and depth of his research persuasively makes the case that the once sturdy egalitarian foundation of the American Republic is succumbing to class-based fissures.  In brief, the vanguard of modern America, a “cognitive elite” has emerged and have apparently begun to concentrate in select zip codes around the country.  After years of cultivating shared intellectual pursuits and cultural appetites (and mating preferences), its kinship with the rest of America has become nominal.  Moreover, while the cognitive elite no longer upholds the civic virtues with the same rigor as previous elites, Murray shows how this segment of the American population continues to marry, raise children, work, live honestly, forsake vice, and attend church at rates far greater than the rest of the population. Accordingly, the fear American society will come apart stems not from what the cognitive elite practices, but that it fails to preach it -- or worse, has surrendered the prerogative to preach it.  Murray writes, “The belief that being a good American involved behaving in certain kinds of ways, and that the nation itself relied upon a certain kind of people in order to succeed, had begun to fade and has not revived.”  

How did the American project come to this juncture?  

Every Civilization Succumbs...

Murray answers this question by citing the work of British historian Arnold Toynbee, who attributed previous civilizations’ decline to a “schism in the soul”, the juncture at which an uncreative minority assumes dominance and reject the virtues that enabled its civilization’s rise.  Abandoning the obligations of citizenship, the dominant minority instead experiments -- and then adopts -- the very lapses it should condemn in the broader majority.

Toynbee’s conclusion seems to capture the state of contemporary American culture (see John Edwards, Bravo Housewives’ series, Jersey Shore), but how exactly does a collection of individuals simply decide to act in contravention of historical norms?  What prompts a random network of politically, economically, and culturally influential individuals to first question and then renounce the responsibility to set an example for the rest of society?

Interestingly, Toynbee submitted his conclusion before the event Murray employs to mark the beginning of the period he examines:  the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.  Is Murray implying the JFK assassination was that catalyst?  That JFK’s murder provided the basis for the elite to forsake its predecessors’ virtues?

In April 2012, Murray responded to such a question by speculating the contemporary elite’s abdication -- “change in consciousness” -- began amidst the civil rights era in the 1960s.  The guilt acknowledged on behalf of predecessor elites led the current elite to refrain from exhorting newly liberated segments of the population to adhere to prevailing social mores, such as upholding marriage vows, not having children out of wedlock, or honoring work commitments.

Assassinations, changes in consciousness, collective acceptance of guilt... where is the underlying thread of contemporary American history culminates in a republic- threatening schism in the soul?

America, 1955 to 1968

On December 1, 1955, Ms. Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger and, as African-American activist Eldridge Cleaver aptly wrote, “somewhere in the universe a gear in the machinery shifted.”

One year after the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation decision on Brown v. Board of Education, Ms. Parks’ refusal and the ensuing Montgomery bus boycott introduced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the nation and inaugurated the long struggle to overturn desegregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement in America.  In its time, the African American civil rights movement transformed the nation by dismantling American apartheid, securing major legislative reforms, and inspiring successor social reform movements.

Nearly a century after the Civil War, the country’s white majority finally acknowledged the Republic’s defects did not end with the abolition of slavery.  The broader white majority recognized its complicity in sustaining, actively or passively, a racist society.  How (and when) the white majority population would atone for this collective guilt, however, was unclear.  

While whites variously called for immediate rectification, moderate approaches, massive resistance, and outright violent opposition, the broad consensus was for a gradual course.  For an America at peace and prosperity for the first time since the onset of the Great Depression, both major political parties nominally supported civil rights, but neither party was prepared to risk a divisive fight to achieve civil rights.

The very next presidential election in 1956 was to be a rematch between Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson.  Eisenhower was heavily favored and, while not pro-segregation, he inexplicably failed to use his immense prestige and popularity on behalf of civil rights.  Stevenson was an ardent liberal in support of civil rights and his New America agenda presaged subsequent Kennedy and Johnson Administration initiatives.  Eisenhower won in a landslide and the next year, Congress passed the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction.  The bill’s passage through committees dominated by southern pro-segregation legislators, however, diluted its effectiveness.

In 1960, Eisenhower’s Vice-President Richard M. Nixon faced off against Senator John F. Kennedy.  To win the nomination, the latter had defeated Stevenson, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the powerful majority leader and FDR protégé, and Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a widely respected liberal who had demonstrated his commitment to civil rights as early as 1948.  Apparently, after eight years of Republican rule, the Democratic Party opted for Kennedy on the basis of his electability and not necessarily his liberalism.  Indeed, Kennedy had voted against the 1957 act to preserve his presidential prospects.

During the campaign, national security and economics were the dominant issues and not civil rights.  In the end, Kennedy defeated Nixon in the closest presidential election to date, and despite the narrow margin, the combined vote for the two nearly indistinguishable young cold warriors (99.2%) meant voters had inadvertently ensured the pace of civil rights reform would be modest.

Few voters realized the 1960 election was also be the last time such unanimity would be evident.

President Kennedy eventually committed comprehensive support on June 11, 1963, declaring the matter of civil rights was a moral cause in the wake of a confrontation at the University of Alabama between African American students and pro-segregation Governor George Wallace earlier in the day.  As before, civil rights legislation encountered the same hurdle -- obstruction from powerful southern legislators.

The opposition yielded only in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination.  In 1964, his successor Lyndon Johnson achieved passage Kennedy’s civil rights legislation by calling for its enactment as a tribute to him.  One year later, President Johnson also secured passage of the Voting Rights Act, ensuring the re-enfranchisement of black voters.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s successes did not satisfy an increasingly restless segment of the civil rights movement.  Dissatisfied leaders called for greater militancy and a departure from earlier peaceful civil disobedience approaches.  Riots in numerous cities punctuated the growing frustration and exacerbated racial polarization in the late 1960s.  In the wake of seemingly persistent riots, Johnson appointed a commission to investigate the cause of the urban unrest.  

In 1968, the commission issued its conclusions, asserting that white racism was to blame and recommending extensive investment in welfare programs.  One month later, a white supremacist assassinated Dr. King, leaving the civil rights movement leaderless as the nation’s cities exploded in violence.  Four month later, Kennedy’s younger brother Robert, campaigning for president as heir to now hallowed Kennedy’s legacy, would also be assassinated.  That fall, Nixon would return as the Republican Party nominee and his campaign would instead unapologetically call for greater law and order in response to protests and riots.  

This time Nixon would win a narrowly decided presidential election, but the vote could no longer point to consensus.  Voters had diverged widely across three very different candidates -- Nixon and the aforementioned Humphrey and Wallace.  

The muted consensus in favor of civil rights had collapsed and would be succeeded by contentious ideological debates over how to redress decades of racism.  Meanwhile, dysfunction within the African American community would worsen as illegitimacy, unemployment, and crimes rates continued to rise; the debate over how to arrest the community’s further disintegration was rarely without controversy.  

A return to any consensus, gradual or otherwise, seemed remote.

White Guilt, Black Complicity

According to American scholar Shelby Steele, white America’s recognition of its racist sins was undoubtedly positive as it led whites to renounce the hypocrisy of its forefathers and to begin creating a genuinely color-blind democracy.  

Unfortunately, the admission of guilt permitted more radical reform elements to assert other, if not all, realms of American society were similarly corrupt.  Eventually radicals declared themselves in possession of a new “consciousness” -- an awareness to the “real truth” -- which granted them the prerogative to condemn and, where possible, rectify such corruption.  This newfound radicalism coincided with and abetted the rise of militancy within the civil rights movement.

In the same fashion that white counter-culture rebels denounced America as a warmongering materialist state, African American militants alleged the entire edifice of America was racist.  Beyond the explicit discrimination of segregation, militants contended every facet of American society was suffused with racism and every affliction suffered by the black community could be traced to this “reality”.

This consciousness led the African American community down a fateful path.  Because once one realizes the entire system is racist, then concluding one will always be discriminated against means one will always be a victim.  Furthermore, any attempt to assimilate and seek advancement would constitute appeasement, and more pointedly, the attempt would be futile.  

Why study hard when the university will reject your application because you’re black?  Why work diligently when management will never promote you because you’re black?  

In light of this consciousness, the only sensible approach is to capitalize on white people’s guilt and their utter desperation to avoid being condemned as racist.

In essence, the concurrence of white guilt and black consciousness resulted in the latter community’s trading its newfound freedom for the power to extort obligations from the former.  The former acceded to these demands because doing so restored a measure of moral authority; by fulfilling the black community’s demands, whites could take pride in being party to their advancement.  

Nevertheless, the white community’s cooperation, while demonstrative of best intentions,  usurped responsibility for personal advancement from black men and women, the very individuals who should have retained that prerogative upon liberation.  To compound problems, the white community declined to hold black men and women accountable for remedying the metastasizing dysfunction within their community.

From Steele’s perspective, the promise of civil rights has been undermined by whites’ acceptance of guilt and the manner in which blacks have reciprocated -- by exploiting white guilt instead of cultivating their community.

Of course, radical whites and blacks constituted a narrow, but admittedly noisy, segment of the governing elite.  How then did wider America come to reconcile with this peculiar constituency’s perspective?

As with many contrarian propositions, rational men and women sometimes yield to irrationality in the wake of a calamitous tragedy.

Punitive Liberalism

The sudden and tragic loss of President Kennedy convulsed the entire nation.  Two aspects of the event would eventually influence the linkage between black militant and white radicals.

First, news of the murder was relayed instantaneously around the world.  In the new era of television, everyone knew at the same time and experienced the same measure of grief.  Second, the grief was compounded by the apparent senselessness of the murder.  The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a disturbed leftist intent on satisfying his own delusions of self-importance.  First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy reportedly denounced Oswald, “[JFK] didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights... it had to be some silly little Communist."

As previously submitted, American scholar James Piereson described how this incomprehensibility left liberals grasping for explanations.  Moreover, Piereson demonstrated how Mrs. Kennedy and other liberals sought to obscure Oswald’s radical links in favor of depicting JFK as a martyr for civil rights.  

Some liberals embraced the sentiment voiced by New York Times journalist James Reston -- “somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order”.  Other liberals, the radicals described above, began crafting intricate and complex theories about wide-ranging and diabolical conspiracies including anyone and everyone.

However these despondent liberals coped, the cumulative result was twofold.  One, liberals came to believe the “real cause” of Kennedy’s murder was a perniciousness latent within America, and two, only stern liberalism could absolve America.  Piereson labeled this new direction "punitive liberalism," under which liberals concluded America was the source of all misfortunes in the world.

Punitive liberalism indicted America for a long list of cosmic sins.  A racist misogynist America had enslaved Africans, persecuted Native Americans, oppressed women, and marginalized minority groups. Greedy Americans had exploited the poor and ruined the environment.  A hypocritical and imperial America had installed dictatorships and overlooked human rights abuses around the world all in the name of the Cold War.

Just as Steele observed, Piereson explained that by assigning “collective guilt” to American society, the broader liberal elite could begin exploring ways to exploit that guilt.  More broadly stated, punitive liberal consciousness assumed American guilt on matters above and beyond civil rights and amplified liberals’ determination to attain greater authority.  

As Steele observed on a separate occasion, liberals reject personal responsibility because the symbiosis between guilt and liberals’ purported enlightenment justifies a liberal’s exercise of greater authority over the former.  “Collective responsibility is the great fount of power for contemporary liberalism.  This [is the liberal] formula for power -- seizing responsibility for correcting the damage done by America's sins.”

In terms of practical politics, Piereson notes that, just as in the discussion of white guilt and black complicity, punitive liberalism fostered “an impressive network of interest groups was developed to promote and take advantage of this sense of historical guilt.” [Emphasis added]

In terms of policy, punitive liberalism included affirmative action and quotas, the expansion of welfare entitlements, environmental regulations, abandonment of longtime Cold War allies, and campaigns for unilateral disarmament.

And still, punitive liberalism received millions of votes; after all, everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot.

Americans Brought Low

After 1968, liberalism shifted from the sunny triumphalism of JFK to the dour defeatism of James Carter.  (Acknowledged, Carter was the only Democratic president between 1968 and 1992, but liberal Democrats constituted the majority in Congress for the entire period, save the U.S. Senate from 1980 to 1986.)

By the 1970s, punitive liberal policies had sapped the vitality and ambition of Americans.  Just as changing global economic circumstances and the shift from an industrial to knowledge-based economy challenged Americans, punitive liberal policies had supplanted the standbys of enterprise and resilience with restrictions and dependency.  Perpetuating such policies only deepened the ensuing stagnation, which then prompted calls for more regulations and welfare.  

The vicious circle slowly ensnared more and more Americans.  

Carter’s declaration of a “crisis of confidence” simply underscored the disdain of punitive liberalism -- the failure to prosper was America’s fault, not the crippling agenda of its governing liberal elite.

At decade’s end, the public’s confidence declined precipitously and more than a few average Americans came to believe as black militants had -- the entire system had been rigged against them.  Success didn’t reward self-reliance, a work ethic, initiative, and honesty.  Instead, success depended on knowing the right person, being lucky, cutting corners, or simply giving up and taking the easy handout.

The long economic boom beginning in 1983 submerged the slide, but as Murray’s research documented -- and the crash of 2008 revealed -- the erosion had indeed continued.

Dim Prospects for Coming Together

To preclude the class-based cleavages he fears, Murray hopes American exceptionalism will prove more resilient than observed.  But, more interestingly, Murray hopes for a cultural shift within the elite, by which the members will begin preaching what they practice -- “America’s new upper class must once again fall in love with what makes America different.”

Given the uninspiring nature of the current presidential election campaign, Murray may be relying on too shaky a reed.

The incumbent, the first African American president in the nation’s history, is the quintessential representative of the cognitive elite and the direct manifestation of punitive liberalism -- not its policies, but its notion of structural inequities, collective guilt, and the requirement for paternalistic government.  His prescription for governance is orthodox punitive liberalism -- the wealthy should pay redistributionist taxes, all citizens will be mandatorily enrolled in federal entitlement programs, and his coalition’s interest groups will not be held accountable for shortcomings within their purview.

His opponent declares himself a conservative, but his record and pronouncements mark him a proponent of “big government conservatism,” which mirrors the liberal inclination to lock in interest group dependencies by funneling government largesse accordingly.  Big government conservatism is not predicated on guilt or the leveraging thereof.  Instead, its mantra is competitive compassion -- merely a replication of the political competition’s tactics. Modern day conservatism has forsaken the twin traditional and libertarian foundations of classical American conservatism and has capitulated to the same destructive appetite for power inherent to liberalism.

Regardless, electing either side would have the same effect -- greater authority accrued by those eager to wield it and more resources transferred to those eager to redistribute it.

America’s future has never rested and should never rest on the disposition and wherewithal of its elites.  The stalwart Americans raising their voices and enduring condemnation as extremists or “bitter clingers” must hold fast as something far more precious than electoral outcomes are at stake -- the American project itself.


  1. Charles Murray; Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
  2. James Piereson; Camelot & the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism
  3. Shelby Steele; White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era

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