Despite a mania of animosity on the left and the right over what should be done about class in America, the most influential voices seem to agree on one thing: our elites must save the working class. Periodically, the hysterics climax with a screech that the whole middle class needs to be saved by our faux-aristocracy. But the working class is held up as an especially desperate case. After all, the working class is what we call the group of people who aren’t locked in the underclass yet continue to do jobs that our elite organizations characteristically compete to incentivize people away from.
In today’s America, such a class of persons, willing and able to fill a socioeconomic role that’s impossibly challenging for those below them and impossibly unappealing for those above, is a resource more precious than gold, and it is coveted and obsessed over accordingly.
But instead of scheming to cultivate a vast class of hardy grunts, elites across the ideological range aim more to infantilize them, treating them like lesser beings in need above all of institutionalized maternalistic love. Barack Obama offers the typical liberal combination of lectures and bribes. Rick Santorum captures the strangely similar spirit of Republicans who think the working class will collapse into servitude and vice unless the government incentivizes and subsidizes their virtues. The parties haggle over what counts as a virtue, but the pattern of thinking remains the same: without us, you’re doomed.
That might be one of the deeper reasons why Charles Murray’s forthcoming book on the working class is already drawing such a feverish reaction from the elite press. Pitch-perfectly titled “Coming Apart,” the book sets out to explain how “the state of white America” has gotten so fractured — and, by Murray’s lights, so parlous.
Murray contends that the two most important groups of white people today are working-class degenerates and upper-class decadents. Like you (right?). Murray cares most about the group located between the first two — aspirational, hardworking folk thrown back on their dwindling resources — but you can’t understand their plight unless you understand the degenerates below them and the decadents above them on our socioeconomic ladder.
The relationship between these two disappointing cultural classes, says Murray, is a causal one: white elites have abandoned the true virtues, and their casual-to-callous attitude about vice has left them unable either to inspire or to discipline the less naturally gifted whites teeming at their feet.
The solution? What David Frum, in a long, flabbergasted review of “Coming Apart,” calls “a lot more scolding of the poor by the rich.” Actually, Murray wants only the resurgence of elite judgmentalism that follows from “a civic Great Awakening among the new upper class.” Social conservatives will immediately sense that Frum recognizes the impoverishment and limitations of a secular renaissance of noblesse oblige, but rejects the hope of an elite religious crusade even more than Murray appears to do.
This is the quintessence of the paralysis and impotence of our hardworking, well-intentioned elites. The right’s elites propose to replace the cultural officer class of yore with one enigmatic at best about religion; the left’s elites, rightly suspicious that money becomes the measure of all things when God is not and honor no longer can be, rebuke the wisdom of private wealth in favor of the state as the true source of unity, purpose, and goodness.