Coming Apart / by Mike Hudack

We were warned. We should have known. No one has any excuse.

Brexit showed that polls are useless when one option is less socially acceptable than the other. People were ashamed to tell pollsters they were going to vote for the crude, lewd, unqualified Trump. They lied in telephone polls and they lied in exit polls. But they didn’t lie in the voting booth. Brexit should have taught us this lesson, and shame on the pollsters for ignoring it.

But more importantly, Charles Murray called yesterday’s election a couple of years ago in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. In Coming Apart Murray talks about the decay of white working class life in America. He also talks about how the “winners” in American society are increasingly sorted from the “losers,” such that they barely touch. The losers are aware of the winners. The winners are not aware of the losers.

Murray explores the increasing homogenization of individual neighborhoods: the spread of super-rich and super-poor ZIP Codes. He talks about Washington, DC and Virginia and New York City in one breath and Michigan in the next. He compares, he contrasts.

His conclusions are inescapable:

The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.

Murray was not ignored by the political class or the mainstream media.

David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.”

Bloomberg Businessweek wrote “Charles Murray has written an incisive, alarming, and highly frustrating book about the state of American society.”

Publisher’s Weekly: “A timely investigation into a worsening class divide no one can afford to ignore.”

But it was ignored. Murray warned us. He was ignored.

Murray wasn’t the only one. While Murray wrote about the growing segmentation and alienation of American society and the decay of rural white America, Robert Putnam wrote about the decline and fall of American civic society in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, all the way back in 2001.

Here’s a jacket quote for Bowling Alone from Amazon:

The conclusions reached in Bowling Alone rest on a mountain of data gathered by Putnam and a team of researchers since his original essay appeared. Its breadth of information is astounding–yes, he really has statistics showing people are less likely to take Sunday picnics nowadays. Dozens of charts and graphs track everything from trends in PTA participation to the number of times Americans say they give “the finger” to other drivers each year. If nothing else, Bowling Aloneis a fascinating collection of factoids. Yet it does seem to provide an explanation for why “we tell pollsters that we wish we lived in a more civil, more trustworthy, more collectively caring community”. What’s more, writes Putnam, “Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs”. Putnam takes a stab at suggesting how things might change, but the book’s real strength is in its diagnosis rather than its proposed solutions. Bowling Alone won’t make Putnam any less controversial, but it may come to be known as a path-breaking work of scholarship, one whose influence has a long reach into the 21st century.

Putnam wasn’t ignored either. The Washington Post called him “The de Tocqueville of our generation.” The New York Review of Books wrote “Rich, dense, thoughtful, fascinating…packed with provocative information about the social and political habits of twentieth-century Americans.”

Cass Sunstein sounded the alarm about social media and the Internet’s impact on our civic life in Republic.com and Republic 2.0. From the Amazon jacket:

Republic.com 2.0 highlights new research on how people are using the Internet, especially the blogosphere. Sunstein warns against “information cocoons” and “echo chambers,” wherein people avoid the news and opinions that they don’t want to hear. He also demonstrates the need to regulate the innumerable choices made possible by technology. His proposed remedies and reforms emphasize what consumers and producers can do to help avoid the perils, and realize the promise, of the Internet.

Again, Sunstein wasn’t ignored. The New York Times Book Review wrote that the book “Raises important and troubling questions about the effect of the Internet on a democratic society.”

The Financial Times wrote “Cass Sunstein sounds a timely warning in this concise, sophisticated account of the rise of the internet culture. He argues that it is our very ability to wrap ourselves in our own tastes, views, and prejudices with the aid of technology that constitutes a real threat to the traditional democratic values.”

Those three books sum it up:

  • The 21st Century economic order has been kind to an elite few but unkind to most;
  • Institutions of civic society that once brought us together — from fraternal organizations to bowling clubs to churches — have disappeared;
  • The Internet, and social media particularly, has pulled us apart rather than pushed us together.

But something even more important is at play here: Millenials are making less than their parents. American productivity growth is stalled. The great promise of liberal western democracy and economics is, for the first time in modern history, failing to deliver the goods. This is what you get.

And make no mistake: This situation is global. It’s true in America, in Britain, in France. A lot of people have been left behind by the 21st century. God is dead. Humanism as our new religion doesn’t give people the safety and security that Christianity did. The factory is no longer employing the town. Global elites are increasingly segregated and isolated in Paris, in London, in New York, in San Francisco. Yesterday it was Brexit. Today it is Trump. Is tomorrow Le Pen?