Our American culture is replete with rifts both significant and trivial: rich vs. poor; equal opportunity vs. equal results; liberal vs. conservative; government as a solution vs. government as an obstacle; Patriots vs. Giants; pro life vs. pro abortion or pro assisted suicide; traditional one man one woman marriage vs. all manner of gay and sad alternates; Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street; Red Sox vs. Yankees; Bud Light vs. microbreweries.
Charles Murray, the libertarian political scientist and author, recently published his new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010”. He limited his research to the white population and his employment statistics to pre 2008 to mitigate the variances due to race and recession. The results are striking. He proposes that the political divide (Tea Party) and economic split (OWS), while divisive, are far from the worst of our deepening separations. His conclusion is that the accelerating values gap between the upper middle class and the working class is debilitating and threatens to end American culture as we have defined it for 250 years. Some of it is economic, but most damaging are the cultural differences.
Some definitions will clarify the argument. Dr. Murray studied in depth Belmont, a white affluent suburb of Boston, and Fishtown, a white working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. His classifications are calibrated by education and employment. Most of the people in the Belmont group had at least bachelor’s degrees and worked as doctors, lawyers, business owners, managers and academics. In the Fishtown group, most had high school educations or less and worked in clerical, retail or blue collar jobs requiring little training.
While taking into account the admonition about “lies, damn lies and statistics”, some must be included in this discussion for it to make sense. Dr. Murray’s evidence is convincing. Both upper and lower classes have been affected by the cultural tsunami of the last fifty years, but the mores and habits of the working class have been even more drastically altered, thus increasing the gap. In 1960, the average annual family income in inflation adjusted current dollars for the elite ‘zip codes’ was $84,000; today in relative terms it is $163,000. During the same time period, married families in the elite group dropped from 94% to 83%; among our working class married households has fallen from 84% to 48%. Children raised by single parents have risen from 1% to 6% among the Belmont families, and from 6% to 65% among those with a high school education or less. Regular practice of religion went from 71% to 60% in the upper middle class, and from 62% to 41% in the working class. Controlling for the recession, the gap between upper and working class industriousness (dropping out of the jobs market and working less than 40 hours) has also grown demonstrably.
The distressing reality is that the cultural commonality among the elites and the workers has fallen apart. “The centre cannot hold.” Elites live in enclaves increasingly isolated from the common folk. They eat different food, take care of their bodies differently, watch different entertainment, go to different schools, take different vacations and share less and less with fellow citizens of lesser means. While there has always been a gap, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted about American culture in the 1830’s, “The more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: They listen to them, they speak to them every day.” For most that is no longer the reality of our daily lives.
Forty years ago or less, the population of America understood each other better, embracing a common civic culture and “shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about (core) American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religion.” As we grow farther apart, communicating on a meaningful level becomes ever more problematic. We talk at and around each other, not with each other.
The good news for Dr. Murray is that there is a burgeoning recognition of the new American Great Divide as a grievous problem. He suggests that the remedy is not amenable to government mandates or educational curricula; the cure is one family at a time, one person at a time and is the responsibility of each of us and all of us: to simply, make the effort to know one another better across the cultural divide.
One of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books was “The Long Winter”. The life threatening challenges to Charles Wilder’s family were terrifying. Our family sometimes wrapped in blankets just reading aloud about the cold and weeklong prairie blizzards. Charles tied a rope from the door of their cabin to the barn. Each day he fed and milked their cow. During the seemingly endless, howling storms, he would take a lantern, keep his hand on the rope and do his barn chores. The rope protected him from losing his way in the storm; the blizzards were so intense that a dead reckoning error of just a few degrees would strand him, hopelessly unable to find his way back – a fatal mistake; he wouldn’t be found until the spring thaw.
Our lesson in that is this: hold on to the rope. Each family, each person. Hold on to the rope.
Listening moves us closer, it helps us become more whole, more healthy, more holy. Not listening creates fragmentation, and fragmentation is the root of all suffering.
Margaret J. Wheatley