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With the publication in 2012 of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, political scientist Charles Murray – celebrated and denigrated in equal measure for his earlier works, Losing Ground (1984) and The Bell Curve (1994) – produced a searing, searching analysis of a nation cleaving along the lines of class, a nation, as he put it, ‘coming apart at the seams’. On the one side of this conflicted society, as Murray sees it, there is the intellectual or ‘cognitive’ elite, graduates of America’s leading universities, bound together through marriage and work, and clustered together in the same exclusive zipcodes, places such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Boston. In these communities of the likeminded, which Murray gives the fictional title of ‘Belmont’, the inhabitants share the same values, the same moral outlook, the same distinct sense of themselves as superior. And on the other side, there is the ‘new lower class’, the white Americans who left education with no more than a high-school diploma, who increasingly divorce among themselves, endure unemployment together, and are gathered in neighbourhoods that Murray gives the title of ‘Fishtown’ – inspired by an actual white, blue-collar neighbourhood of the same name in Philadelphia.
It is in Fishtown that the trends Murray identifies as the most damaging over the past 50 years – family breakdown, loss of employment, crime and a loss of social capital – are felt and experienced. Its inhabitants have a set of values (albeit threadbare ones), an outlook and a way of life that are entirely at odds with those from Belmont. And it is between these two almost entirely distinct moral communities, that the new Culture Wars now appear to be being fought. Sean Collins, spiked’s US correspondent, caught up with Murray to talk about the cultural drivers of this latent class conflict; how it plays into the rise of Trump; and what can be done about this dangerous division.
Collins: Do you see the culture divides and trends you identified in Coming Apart as contributing to the rise of Donald Trump?
Murray: Yes, I do. There are two developments. First, if you look at those people who are out of the labour force – what I call the ‘new lower class’ – they are no longer participating in the major institutions of American society. To put it crudely, I think they look upon Trump as sticking it to the man in a way they find gratifying. But I think they also look upon this as entertainment. I’m exaggerating to some extent, but there’s a sentiment of ‘well, this is a really interesting reality show, look at what this guy is getting away with, with all his outrageous stuff – let’s see what happens next’.
Then you have other people in the white working class who are getting married, holding jobs, playing by the rules – and they are pissed as hell. They see all of these shenanigans among the elites, the Wall Street types, for instance, with their 20,000-square-foot mansions. And most aggravating of all, they have to suffer the cognitive elite’s incredible smugness and condescension. The elites don’t even bother to hide this condescension towards the white working class. They are constantly making fun of rednecks, of evangelical Christians. And they talk about ‘flyover country’, as if nothing between the East Coast and West Coast really makes any difference. Indeed, cognitive elites are contemptuous of the working class. At the same time, working-class people, trying hard to makes ends meet, are being faced with an awful lot of competition for work from an influx of low-skilled, immigrant labour – an influx that the elites have encouraged and done nothing to stop. So, are they angry? Yeah. And is Trump a vehicle for expressing that anger? Absolutely.