Putting It Back Together Again

October 12, 2012 | Elizabeth F.

During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge?

This is just one of the seemingly bizarre questions that Dr. Charles Murray, the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), poses in his newest book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. The answer to this, and twenty-four other cultural questions can help you answer the larger question at hand: “How thick is your bubble?”

It is the danger of this increasingly thick cultural bubble – the bubble that rejects American-brewed beers, chain restaurants, and pop television and embraces French wine, buying local, and Indi-films – which Dr. Murray emphasizes in Coming Apart. By gathering extensive evidence about the makeup of what he terms the “New Upper Class,” Dr. Murray argues that an upper class culture is forming which is increasingly different from the majority of America, but which entertains increasingly powerful people.

The crux of Dr. Murray’s argument is that America is fundamentally “coming apart” at class lines. He argues that American exceptionalism refers to something fundamentally different about America’s makeup that has been duly noted throughout history by foreign visitors such as Alexis de Tocqueville in the mid 1800s:

In the United States, 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. (100)

It is this unity that Dr. Murray argues is starting to come apart.

In his book, Dr. Murray begins by discussing “SuperZips,” which he defines as elite zip codes in the 95th to 99th percentiles of the highest combination of elite education and high income. In other words, out of 100 people only one to five people live in these neighborhoods. According to Murray, the inhabitants of SuperZips are less likely to have experienced divorce, have children living in single mother households, be unemployed, and to experience crime.

Where are these SuperZips? Murray explains that the largest number of people living in SuperZips live near large, influential cities such as Washington, D.C., New York City, or Chicago. For example, thirteen SuperZips surround Washington, D.C., ten of which are in the top half of the 99th percentile. In other words, out of 200 people, only one person lives in these neighborhoods. Why does this matter? Because everyone knows that all the decisions are made in Washington.

The striking aspect of Dr. Murray’s research is not that well-educated, important people live in nice neighborhoods. The importance of his research is that the way these people live is strikingly different from the majority of Americans.

To drive home this point, Dr. Murray offers a test in his book to gauge the thickness of the cultural bubble in which you live. It asks questions that address your involvement in cultural activities shared by the majority of Americans. I do not want to spoil the brilliance of the test, but here are a couple of the questions:

Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?

During the last month, have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes?

Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights?

What does the word Branson mean to you?

Your answers to these questions determine the thickness of your cultural bubble; the higher the score, the more in tune you are with the majority of America but the lower the score, the more out of touch with society-as-a-whole your are.

After attending Dr. Murray’s recent talk at AEI, I decided to take the test for myself. Out of 100, I scored a whopping 46. This places me in the categories with the second and third highest scores or rather between the “first-generation middle-class person with working-class parents” category and the “first-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents” category. This is fairly accurate, but growing up in the Midwest certainly helped my score.

The point of this test is not to make you feel ashamed. (I must admit that I was constantly tempted to score myself liberally for fear of being an OES – Dr. Murray’s acronym for “over-educated, elitist snob”). Nor is the point of this test to make you feel compelled to change your cultural preferences. The point of this test is to identify your ability to relate to the majority of your fellow Americans. I cannot emphasize enough how proud, thankful, and blessed I am for my parents’ hard work to provide me with a great education and home life, and I hope to be able to do the same for my own children some day. I am, however, thankful to Dr. Murray for reminding us all that the world is sometimes bigger than our zip code.

That said, we need people who live in SuperZips. We need highly educated experts to weigh in on critical decisions. We need wealthy Americans to invest, open businesses, and create jobs. But we also need an understanding of our own country. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a member of the New Upper Class. The problem arises, however, when the members of the New Upper Class assume that everyone else is just like them – or worse, that everyone else should be.

When this happens the highly educated decision makers, probably living in the SuperZips, start addressing policy problems regarding non-New Upper Class members with the question “what can we do to save them from themselves?” As Dr. Murray said at AEI,

If you are going to ask that, you darn well better know some of the people whose lives you are going to take over.

So I conclude with a simple idea. If America is truly coming apart, let’s help put it back together again. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do it, but perhaps America’s people can.


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