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.
Serious consequences have arisen from the lapse of the right’s elite commentariat into inarticulateness on the topic of religious authority. David Brooks — like Frum, another careful thinker and charter member of the target market for “Coming Apart” — uses Murray’s diagnosis to write the polar opposite of prescriptions. “I doubt Murray would agree,” Brooks sighs, “but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years.” Only government can “jam the tribes together,” and without that reunion, all is lost.
Alas, the verdict of history is that in a free society nothing unifies the decadent, the degenerate, and the dogged in a way that redeems the whole except religion — and a specific sort of religion at that. The positive, ecumenical religion of loving and serving all does not cut it. At the level of a culture or a civilization, unity is found together with freedom only where vast majorities in every class feel the inescapable weight of a divine burden — a commandment to be bound intimately to the destinies of those who would otherwise be strangers, on pain of eternal damnation.
The harsh truth is that when elites no longer believe this, they lose the authority to enforce it, and when the enforcement is gone, the unity — and the uncomfortable work it requires — melts away. (This is true at the largest of scales and the smallest. We really must dispense, for instance, with the indulgent fiction that romantic love is adequate to keep a marriage and a family together.)
That’s why libertarians are on such solid ground when they reject both the unity forged by the state and the unity forged by a pious officer class. They recognize that there’s something distinctly un-American in both. Unfortunately, their taste for abstract principles sometimes distracts them from grasping that these unities are un-American because they are foreign to our identity as it developed through history. We just don’t have an officer class of the sort that Europe lost. And we just aren’t able to love the state as the consummation of the nation in the way that people in the Old World can.
As the reactionary sociologist Philip Rieff has put it, America confronts two key cultural facts. On the one hand, “the rot starts at the top, always.” But on the other, America has never had a true cultural officer class and, unless something cataclysmic happens, we never will. Our “natural aristocracy” is a fickle and fluid slave to fortune. It can’t save the working class or any other — because, in America, it’s never a class that needs saving.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.