The Bell Swerve

On the list of right-wing villains, American Enterprise Institute Scholar Charles Murray ranks somewhere between Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the late Dixiecrat turned Republican senator Jesse Helms. Retired New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called Murray's 1994 book, The Bell Curve, in which Murray links intelligence to race, "a genteel way of calling somebody a nigger."

Viewed as responsible for laying the intellectual groundwork for welfare reform in the 1990s, Murray enjoys admiration in inverse proportions among conservatives -- something of a cross between Jay-Z and Justin Bieber. National Review writer Jonah Goldberg has called Murray "the most consequential social scientist alive." The reason for this adoration is pretty simple -- Murray is particularly talented at shoehorning social science into pre-existing conservative narratives.

It was with trepidation and mockery that liberals greeted the announcement that Murray would be giving a lecture about "the state of white America" on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination this April. Judging by the audience at the event itself, which was held at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., the state of white America is ... old. Attendees, wearing patched blazers and clutching copies of Murray's books, shuffled into a packed house; afterward, they indulged in "Real Murrikan" pleasures like red wine and brie. Nevertheless, Murray did the last thing anyone would have expected him to do in an age where Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck spend hours a day trying to manipulate conservatives into paroxysms of white resentment against President Barack Obama: He went post-racial.

"For decades, trends in American life have been presented in terms of race and ethnicity, and the reference point has always been non-Latino whites," Murray said. "My primary goal tonight is to get people to think about the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams, and not seams of race and ethnicity, but of class."

Instead of fretting about minorities, feminists, and undocumented immigrants leading a culture of moral decline in the United States, Murray cited figures showing declining levels of employment and marriage among working-class whites as evidence that America's "civil religion," its "founding virtues," had been eroded. These "universally understood" founding virtues, according to Murray, are industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion. Murray wanted to shock his audience out of complacency -- it's the working class, he argued, that has stopped working, getting married, and going to church. "I'm not talking about inner-city blacks here!" he cried. "We're talking about non-Hispanic whites." Plummeting industriousness, religiousity, and marriage rates, Murray warned, heralded the end of American exceptionalism and the beginning of a new era where the cultural gulf between different economic classes would become insurmountable.

Little of this is news to liberals. Your average New Deal liberal has long focused on the same population. It's just that such a liberal worries about stagnating wages and private-sector union decline instead of whether workers are simply lazy. Any feminist sociologist could explain that today, members of the upper middle class still lead fairly traditional lives because their economic circumstances haven't changed much in the past six decades, whereas fewer stable, low-skill jobs for high-school dropouts are available today than were available in 1950. If conservatives had actually been paying attention to the working class instead of assuming that the hippity-hop music and hookups at Wesleyan University were responsible for out-of-wedlock births and declining marriage rates, none of this would be particularly shocking. But to the audience at AEI, Murray was shattering an article of faith about an America whose moral values are besieged by feminists, minorities, and illegal immigrants.

While Murray's citing of long-term declines in religiosity, marriage, and employment among whites alarmed the audience, the idea that working-class whites might also be in moral decline was less a departure from the conservative worldview than it seemed. After all, when patrician Republicans put down the pork rinds and return to their pickup trucks, the basic party platform still boils down to believing rich people work harder than everyone else. But what happens, one audience member asked, when you factor in nonwhites? "When you present these trend lines for all Americans, they look almost identical to the ones that I present for white America," Murray said with a shrug. And, asked another, what about illegal immigrants? "In most cases, these trend lines started going in the wrong direction before immigration became an issue," Murray responded. Feminism maybe? "A lot of that's been assimilated," he said. The audience soon ran out of outsiders to blame.

As odious as Murray's writing in The Bell Curve is, it is merely a particularly ugly manifestation of one of the more profound conservative insights: that government cannot change human nature. In the abstract, it may be a valid point, but as anyone who has ever tried to get an abortion in North Dakota can tell you, it's a notion conservatives follow selectively. Still, it leads conservatives to terrible conclusions. Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal to abolish Medicare and Medicaid is carved from this basic moral worldview, that austerity is the chief driver of American moral virtue, that the welfare state has made us all soft, and that, therefore, it must be destroyed for America to survive.

Indeed, even as Murray tried to use the state of white America to shock conservatives out of tribal complacency, his own conservative assumptions crept back in. Murray didn't waver in his faith in conservative anti-government orthodoxy, particularly the idea that the erosion of America's "founding virtues" was ushered in by President Lyndon Johnson's expansion of the welfare state and passage of civil-rights legislation. Murray also looked at the signature legislative accomplishment of America's first black president, the Affordable Care Act, and saw something of the mid-1960s. "A lot of us were saying, these guys weren't playing by the rules ... [a sense] that I think also existed in the mid-1960s," Murray said about the passage of the Affordable Care Act. "With a sense that these guys weren't playing fair, comes a breakdown in all kinds of trust." (Those of us with relatives who lived under Jim Crow continue to have a different understanding of "fairness.")

True to his old form, Murray also lamented how white, blue-collar workers are losing jobs to undocumented immigrants willing to work twice as hard for less money; the idea that these workers might represent the very ideal of "industriousness" he fears America is losing never crept in. Similarly, race may have been off the table, but "moral relativists" remained fair game. One audience member suggested, "Vatican II screwed things up," to trills of laughter about the set of papal reforms that included removing the Latin mass as well as exonerating the Jews for the death of Jesus. Answering a question about Europe's decline, Murray described the continent as post-Christian, before pausing a beat: "post-Christian, pre-Islamic." The audience chortled again. Despite Murray's concerns about declining religiosity, not just any religion will do: On the sinking ship of American exceptionalism, that last thing anyone wants is a Muslim life vest.

Still, Murray's research on the state of white America led him to a conclusion you might not expect from a guy who, as Canadian writer Jeet Heer dryly noted, burned his last cross in college. "We are one nation, after all," Murray said, "more than we realized." Sounds like something a Kenyan anti-colonialist might say.

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