Society and Culture

The view from ground level in working-class America

So far, the chief criticism of Coming Apart is that I don’t acknowledge globalization and the disappearance of high-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs in creating the problems that afflict white working-class America. I have responded to that criticism elsewhere, but my technical arguments can’t respond to the larger myopia: The people making such arguments are incredibly out of touch with life as it is lived in working-class America (which relates to another theme of Coming Apart: the isolation of the elite). No one who is around those neighborhoods at ground level is under any illusion about the problems I describe.

Readers who don’t live in such neighborhoods can get a sense of what’s going on by engaging in conversation with the guys (or gals) who next come to your house to fix the wiring or clean the gutters or repair the deck. Ask about their friends and neighbors—who’s getting jobs in this economy, who’s not, and why. If you hire someone who has a small business, ask him what it’s like to try to find workers who will show up on time and do a good job. Start by saying that surely they have no problem in an economy with eight percent unemployment, and listen to them laugh. Or talk to teachers in schools that serve white working-class America. Here’s an email, edited to preserve anonymity, that I got yesterday.

I have never been so moved to write to an author, but after I finished your book, I had to share my response. I am a teacher who has lived in many parts of the country. In college, I spent one summer as a nanny for a family in Rye, NY. I have taught at a 50/50 black/white private high school in St. Louis. I have taught in a private school outside of Georgetown, Texas, where a couple of my students were the grandchildren of one of the former presidents of Yale. Then we decided to move back to my grandparents’ farm in Oklahoma. I taught in more of a Fishtown in Kansas, and am currently teaching in a school in a small town (shall I say Lower Fishtown?) in Oklahoma. Here you’d have to look hard to find a true nuclear family, no one on the school board has a full-time job, and last we calculated, we weren’t sure any of them had high school diplomas.

I have marveled at the contrasts in the people in some of these places: Rye & Georgetown vs. small town Kansas & Oklahoma. Your book really hit home. Definitely these kids where I now teach come from broken families. Religion does not seem to play an important part in their lives, although most of them would claim to be Christian. They are extremely dishonest. Many have blatantly lied to me, and there are few that I feel I can trust. Work ethic is a huge struggle. These kids have no concept of the upper end of society where kids are competing for the top colleges, where parents go over their graded assignments and argue for every point. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a parent examine an assignment where I am now. Some students have observed how their parents and grandparents have managed to survive with no one working, so why should they bother to work? They have nicer cell phones than I do. How much of this attitude can we as a society sustain? If this little town is one of many—and I suspect it is—the future is bleak.

As I was looking over some online comments regarding Coming Apart, I was very disappointed at how few people get it. They keep falling back on the economic disadvantages and don’t want to face the fact that morality could matter. Their world (along with Rye & Georgetown) is so far removed from Fishtown. They have no idea. No idea about these kids that despite their opportunity at an education, don’t take it, even if it is at a Fishtown School. In my current school in Oklahoma, virtually any of these kids could go to college for free, but none of them have the model of work ethic to do the work that it takes.

I’m not cherry-picking. I have gotten other emails like that—but few that so graphically express the cultural divide that has opened up between classes that not so long ago shared the same values.

16 thoughts on “The view from ground level in working-class America

  1. Dear Dr. Murray !
    It is with extreme hesitation,
    that I allow myself to make a comment related to you,
    my favorite and deeply respected social scientist.
    Dr. Murray ! Have you anywhere responded, except by a telephone conversation,
    to Steve Sailer’s and

    With my best regards to Mrs. Catherine Bly Cox and all your loved ones.
    Your truly, Florida resident

  2. The ‘ground view’ for anyone outside of the security (however temporary and false it is) of government unions and corporate cocoons looks like scorched earth. Taxation without representation. The socialist democrats or the crony capitalist republicans? Choose your poison. Neither party represents the interests of mom and pop private enterprise job producing small businesspeople. The morally bankrupt movie, music, media and professional sports/entertainment industries bombard us daily with socially acceptable ‘normal’ values that contradict traditional Christian morality and values, all in the name of making a buck for a faceless, nameless corporation somewhere. Single parent families, twice or more married people with kids from combined households is the norm, and divorce for convenience is rampant. Anyone who believes in marriage as a union between a man and a woman until death do you part, who puts God first and family second, is in the minority today. Yet, we are still blessed to live in America. We are blessed to be alive. We are blessed to have our faith. The struggle that matters most is the one within ourselves, the one that lasts for eternity. What goes on in the world around us is a reflection of the battle raging between good vs evil among all of us as individuals. Nothing changes, until we take responsibility for it. Everything else is secondary.

  3. “… the cultural divide that has opened up between classes that not so long ago shared the same values.”

    Divides opening. The Red Sea parting, perhaps? Or maybe Pangea splitting up.

    Values sharing “not so long ago.” Mmmm. Who doesn’t remember when the great ‘we’ shared values like popcorn at a movie.

    I think Dr. Murray, while seeing the forest for the trees, doesn’t even begin to see the ecosystem for the forest. My “chief criticism of Coming Apart” is that it wanders so academically in chosen missionary frame — a frame just rightly constrained to give us a picture of decline that becomes clear in the absence of larger truth. From happy Point A to dreadful Point B, the reader gets a statistical rendering of anecdotal, blindered thinking, rightly then concluding that the sky is most measuredly falling.

    Yeah, well there is a shake out going on, it’s true. But the forces are big and lasting, pervasive and contextual, and the icky economics of the last 50 years are just one skewed track. Like maybe… the rise of virtual life that is consciousness’ further escape from the immediate; the furious shredding of the threadbare tapestry of active chemistry that is the living Earth; the tightening of reason’s noose on religion’s feathered neck; obesity; the decline of decent pop music hooks; and on. It’s a mad, mad, mad….

    I don’t much like “big government”, but at least it’s big. As the planet simmers up, “big” is what can do big, and some very big moves are going to be needed across the next century (and beyonnnnnd!).

    Besides, in case it hasn’t been noticed, “big” is the only hedge we really have against the self-righteous predation that passes for liberty in far too many of our don’t-fence-me-in movers and I-did-it-my-way shakers.

          • …Yeah, mostly true. It’s because I’d rather be cute than just plain pissed off. It’s because I like Arthur Brooks and the AEI, and I support AEI’s championing of free enterprise.

            But the trouble with AEI’s bright beacon of pure rightness is that it’s often too bright. Views are espoused that only look brilliant if contexts are constrained. AEI tries to be academic and wise, and at the same time politically vivid. The more unilaterally vivid, the less the credibility of the academics.

            I read Coming Apart. I see it as, at best, somewhere between awkward and a yawn. And, as typical with the missionary right, I see it as a work in service to a stark and misguidedly righteous dogma, whether accidentally so or not.

            More pap, eh? But it can’t be self-important, really, because I’m not important and I know it.

            Besides, what could be more “self important. utter,” than a 7-word dismissal, as though spoken from on high?

  4. “but my technical arguments can’t respond to the larger myopia: The people making such arguments are incredibly out of touch with life as it is lived in working-class America”

    Just a little broadbrushed!

    • Broadbrushed? Oh, for you to walk in the shoes of the author of the either unread or uncomprehended, yet nonetheless, highly criticized/”reviewed” Bell Curve.

  5. Nobody will grasp what is happening in America, without understanding r/K Selection Theory in population biology. r-type cohorts in a population are designed to consume free resources, and focus on producing as many low-grade offspring as possible. They do this in nature by avoiding competition, mating promiscuously, single parenting, and beginning mating as early as possible. If you provide free resources, their cohort will grow rapidly. In nature, when they get free resource availability, they are known as invasive species. In the us, when they get free resources from government, they produce more offspring, and are less conscientious.

    K-selected cohorts are slower reproducing, and they are programmed to compete for limited resources. They seek to produce offspring that are as fit as possible by carefully selecting as fit a mate as possible, monopolizing that mate’s fitness with monogamy, carefully raising offspring in a two-parent family, and delaying mating until fully mature, to maximize competitiveness.

    It is worth noting, all of the traits Dr Murray listed in this post, ie reduced conscientiousness, diminished morality (rule breaking), low-investment rearing, etc are all personality traits associated with Liberalism. Liberalism exhibits all of the behavioral traits of the r-selected reproductive strategy in population biology, which, given free resources, will tend to expand relatively within a population. Broken homes are low-investment parenting, and are r-type. Lack of competitiveness is r-type.

    What has happened is America has been so successful, we were easily able to supply free resources to our population, and this fast-growing, r-selected cohort within society is multiplying. As they gain numbers, they seek to increase the free resource availability, through political means, which will only further increase their numbers. Eventually, they will collapse the society.

    To any population biologist, this would be blatantly obvious.

    Check this pdf for more on this.

    • So I read that paper. Did you write it? It is oddly revealing — only a conservative mind could have written it, so it is somewhat … autobiographical. But that’s true for any writer, I suppose.

      Still, it suffers dismally from the specious transference. While the behavior of cuttlefish and other species certainly shows us much about neural animals in general, and perhaps, eventually, humans in particular, it’s a hell of a leap to connect it all to gun control, promiscuity, family values and communism. An unconvincing leap beyond a certain point — a point that the paper goes beyond.

      I think the most important section is:

      “Caution Is In Order

      “It should be noted that individuals are difficult to characterize. In many ways, this is a Newtonian theory of group behavior, which makes no pretense of characterizing the Quantum Mechanical nature of any particular individual. … Additionally, humans are incredibly complex, both psychologically, and intellectually. There will exist contravening psychological drives which may overrule these urges, making individual characterizations even more difficult.”

      • Yes, I am the author.

        When I began the research, I was a highly Libertarian agnostic, and I actually did not ascribe to the Social Conservative platform. My interest was the nexus I saw between stronger organisms which embraced intra-species competition, and those weaker ones who were averse to it. I was curious why I was Libertarian, and why others wanted government to control everyone. I figured I could find some answer in looking at more primitive animals.

        Since then, I now view Socially Conservative policies, intellectually, as vitally necessary to the maintenance of a functioning free state, though I still am not viscerally/emotionally affected by the observation of non-socially Conservative behaviors – unlike someone more on the K side of the spectrum. In short, I am inherently Competitive, prone personally to monogmay and high investment rearing, but I am on the spectrum towards r, compared to true, ardently social conservatives.

        Then again, I have had a relatively easy life, free from amygdala stimulation, so it is possible my amygdala is not as developed as some. OR maybe I am genetically less ardently K. The reproductive strategies I have identified are like that. Although the population will show two clear camps, there are more rare aberrant variations which arise within each, combining traits.

        “it’s a hell of a leap to connect it all to gun control, promiscuity, family values and communism.”

        There is no other reason for those disparate issues to be connected, though.

        Look at the emotions behind the policies, because those emotions are how r/K urges drive behavior. I want to carry concealed, so if a threat arises, I can engage it in what is a pure form of Darwinian competition. Maybe I win, maybe I lose, but I am cool with that, and more over, I am driven to that by aggression in the face of threat. Others, are so terrified of that scenario, that they want government to imprison any innocent civilian who tries to be able to defend themselves with a firearm. They are happy to give a robber whatever he wants, and hope for the best. For a less fit, r-type organism, that is actually a better strategy than slugging it out, and getting culled.

        Now, if we were in a primitive environment, resources were becoming scarce, and the environment was becoming K-selective due to resource limitation, do you think I would flee the competition for resources, or would I engage those around me in aggressive competition? Would a Liberal engage, or flee to a new environment, with free resources? In the end, gun control is no different. It is a Darwinian battle for limited resources.

        And, of course, that choice is exactly what we faced when we evolved. It is believed today that due to a specific genetic adaptation to hot environments, we overpopulated our initial territory, and it became K-selected. Some fled at the sight of violence, and some stayed to slug it out in free competition. Those that fled, fled into an r-selective environment of free resources, in a new untapped territory. As time went on, they would have become more adapted, and more prone, to flee competition, and seek new environments, as well as more r in their mating and rearing. And even today, Liberals are more pacifistic, and they score high on preference for a novel environment, just as the DRD4 allele associated with Liebralism is found heavily in migratory populations.

        Two urges. One is comfortable with the idea of a competitive, even potentially lethal competition. One want’s any chance of any competition, even forbidding responsible, law-abiding citizens from defending themselves. It is an issue of comfort with fitness based competition in an environment of freedom, or a desire to eliminate the competitions through government control, and apportion resources in a more r-selective manner.

        Communism/Capitalism is the same. One psychology welcomes the idea of entering into free competition with others, with an unsure, fitness-based, competitive outcome. The other psychology is horrified of this, labeling it with the epithet “Social Darwinism.”

        Of course it is really “Social K-selection,” since K-selection is the form of Darwinism which rewards the fit with commensurate resources. And to which, Liberals propose the opposite, “Social r-selection,” in which every individual is provisioned equally, with unlimited levels of free resources that they need not compete with peers to acquire, just like the r-selected rabbit in nature has far more grass than he can eat.

        Then we hit “promiscuity and family values,” which is actually the strongest argument in favor of this work. I had no dog in this fight, promiscuous girls weren’t a problem in my eyes, especially the good looking ones. But I could not argue, r-selection entails promiscuity, while K-selection entails monogamy. Indeed, in politics, we see a major culture war (elements of which even Murray identifies above), whereby some think promiscuity is fine, and single moms are no problem at all. The other side abhors promiscuity, and preaches about abstinence until monogamy, even wanting it taught to children. Remember the uproar over Murphy Brown single mom’ing it on TV? This is why it was opposed by the same group which embraces the necessity of aggression when faced with threat, favors monogamy, and accepts competition among peers, with disparate outcomes.

        Go back to Altmeyer, and the Authoritarian Personality, and all the other’s who tried to characterize Conservatism as a pathology, going all the way back to the fifties and sixties. They all noted confusedly, that one aspect of the “problem” was a hangup about sex, and a belief that free sex was bad. To this day, nobody can say why issues of sex and parenting accompany issues of economic competitions, self defense competitions, or national competitions. Until you look at r/K in nature.

        Of course then you see the Hippies. As you saw in the paper, they were strongly r-selected from the r-type draft dodgers of WWII (who would have fled rather than fight in our evolutionary history). Hippies were highly promiscuous, actually opposed to monogamy, supportive of commune-like Anticompetitive environments, and generally maladaptive to modern life in a Capitalist environment. WWII ended, and the census showed that as the WWII vet’s kids hit the scene 20 years later, Hippies were documented as dying out by Bugliosi.

        Two psychologies, and four traits, and it explains why every aspect of each ideology aligns with the others. Support for competition will accompany support for monogamy, as well as support for two-parent families, as well as encouraging the young to abstain from sex until mature.

        And opposition to competition/docility will accompany promiscuity, as well as support for single parenting, and support for early age at exposure to sex. The left is at least tolerant of all of those, if not outright in favor.

        And of course, free resource availability will favor r-types, who exhibit every trait Murray has identified as increasing in our culture, now that it provides free resources to this cohort.

        This work on r/K is the only explanation out there for why issues of sexual behavior would accompany issues of free competition among men. And all of it was written about fifty years ago, while biologists examined other species, and how they reproduced, absent any awareness of the clear relationship to our ideological divide.

        Look at our population, and you see two groups, each with a strategy identical to the r/K paradigm. Individuals may vary, just like in nature, where not every r and K-strategist is in lock step with every other. But at the group level, as statistical aberrations filter out, you have two ideologies, one entirely r and one entirely K.

        Liberals won’t see this, but Conservatives will, and the truth is, that is all that is needed. All Conservatives need to do is perceive that the Liberal is a clear member of an aberrant out-group, and it will affect our political battles immensely, especially as our economic environment becomes more K-selected, as the coming collapse approaches.

  6. Murray is right in talking to teachers to get a glimpse of the culture “ground war”. They see it all, unfiltered.

    My own experience working in a rural area is like this:
    1. Granpa got the farm land, farmed.
    2. Granpa was successfull later in life, got the cabin and fishing boat.
    3. Dad got all that for free more or less, but did not inherit an economy where farming had as good of outcomes. Decline…but the assets lasted Dad as well.
    4. Sonny boy just sees the cabin and fishing…doesn’t know or care how they came about–just wants them. No connection to work and worth.

    One weird note. All the sonny boys have cellphones, computers, cars, ATV’s, braces for teeth, etc. None of them have college savings or any realistic idea or achievement in education. Many go to community colleges…to learn things that don’t end up in useful jobs or drop out.

  7. This shows the problem with the American political class: They feel as though they have a right to interfere with our lives for our own benefit. One would think that the purpose of law would be to allow us to pursue happiness on our own account, instead even a supposed conservative wants us to explain our behavior as adults to him. I graduated high school in 1996 and there were girls who got pregnant before then; I am sure that they have NEVER paid a dime in federal income taxes and received tens of thousands of dollars in social entitlement benefits before I was able to purchase my first car with cash. Am I more childlike than they are? There are girls I have dated who owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and are able to do nothing specifically useful with their degrees, except the degree can somewhat function as a ticket to a high stake status game that the government runs by perpetually interfering with liberty of contract. Are these women more mature than I am because they have a socially sanctioned credential that they cannot pay for but earn less than I do without the credential? Am I less mature than women whom have destroyed men in divorce after cheating on them? In fact am I less mature than Bill Bennett because I make my living producing wealth in the private sphere as opposed to being a mouthpiece for a political class whose social engineering projects have failed? Is it mature to refuse to discuss the actual harms and benefits of various psychoactive substances instead advocating a quixotic drug war that relies on police powers of the state to do away with self-medication entirely? Is it mature to refuse to discuss the terms of social security as correctly being a insolvent ponzi scheme or is it more mature to demand that we “eat the seed corn” because we “owe it to ourselves”? Is it mature to run for political office and offer a series of benefits for unintelligent women that encourage single motherhood instead of a social order based upon kinship? Is it mature of Kay Hymowitz to fail to see the connection between government paternalism in all spheres and the rise of child men? It is mature of the men of the last 50 years to refuse to say to women that the purpose of going to “work” is to produce wealth not to make employers eat the cost of making up for those times when men oppressed women? I saw an article the other day and I dont know how accurate the statistics quoted were, however it stated that a third of US income consists in transfer payments of some sort, forty percent of the US households do not live within their means, fifty percent of the US pays no federal income tax at all. For anyone to not be able to recognize that the progressive movement has radically changed the terms of our engagement with life and expect humanity to remain the same is quite frankly, immature.

  8. Perhaps what’s going on here in Fishtowns all over is a variation on the process outlined in Gregory Clark’s Farewell to Alms. That is, the working class is in a situation in which its skills are worth less and less in today’s economy and the economic survival chances for its family members are dwindling.

    Meanwhile, the upper-middle classes are finding their credentials, except where topnotch, are worth less and less, thus their employability is becoming reduced, at least in the economic stratum in which they grew up and internalized its prevailing values.

    Thus the existing working class is pinching out in a reproductive sense, while upper and upper-middle classes are drifiting downward socially and economically, but carrying with them the values of the upper-middle classes.

    Back in the time Clark was discussing the framing event was the Industrial Revolution; today’s it’s computerization, globalization, and the growth of a “knowledge economy.”

    If Clark was correct about what happened then, and the same process plays out again now, it’s possible to be hopeful. But it’s gonna be rocky for a little while yet.

    • It is notable that what Murray says about “Fishtown” seems to have many parallels with the European working classes of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

      As their skills became worth less and less – due to a number of overlapping factors from the opening up of Australia to inflation to the spread of industrialisation to Asia to automation – Europe’s working classes turned en masse to radical socialism. They did this despite the fact that strongly religious (at all events in Catholic nations) ruling classes often repressed the very ideals that came naturally to the working masses.

      However, like the working classes, the resource base on which Europe’s ruling classes had developed was declining. Indeed, their decline, as European agriculture with its short growing seasons and scarcity of flat land became uncompetitive against Australia and Africa, was even more rapid.

      This meant that, over the long term, radical socialism, militant atheism and big government was the inevitable fate of Europe and later Canada.

      These are the trends we may be seeing in Obama’s America, and probably in Latin America and the Middle East.

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