Charles Murray's "Coming Apart" is an antidote to progressive utopianism about the social changes in America since 1960. Nostalgia for a pre-1960 American "golden age" is widely mocked, but the evidence shows that it did in fact exist.
This is an important book because it shows the downside of progress in meticulous empirical detail. The data show that after 1960 the shared culture of America ended and the upper and lower income classes walked different destinies. The upper class maintained its values and way of life. But the lower class entered into a self-destructive tailspin. In lower class neighborhoods, marriage eroded along with participation in civic groups, voting, and religiosity. Meanwhile, a growing number of lower class men no longer supported themselves. Social isolation grew and out of marriage childbirth became the norm. That bedrock of traditional American civil society - the married, working family engaged in its community - is now almost completely gone in lower class neighborhoods.
The upper class and lower class have become physically and spiritually isolated from each other. The upper class still marries, still participates in civil society, and still works hard to get ahead. But more and more these are activities limited to rich people.
More than one blogger has likened the growing cultural divide to the Vickies and the Thetes in Neal Stephenson's "Diamond Age". The cultural practices of the upper class are conservative even if their politics are not.
Murray focuses on the experience of white Americans to avoid any composition effects driven by rapidly changing racial demographics over the last 50 years. He wants to show that American culture itself has changed, not merely that the country is composed of a different cultural mix than before. In a later chapter he recalculates several key metrics for the upper and lower class of Americans of all races and finds little difference.
The centerpiece of the book is Murray's empirical analysis of the General Social Survey and other data sources. The book finishes with the author's guesses as to the causes of the growing class divide. This section is weaker, but it is an intriguing detour. He notes that the modern upper class refuses to preach the values that it lives by. Moralizing is out of style - the only remaining public morality is non-judgmentalism. Pathological behavior with high social cost has lost its stigma. So the upper class works harder than ever, but the growing numbers of men who don't support themselves are not chastised.
Murray is uncertain that non-judgmentalism alone can explain his observations. But it is an interesting coincidence. American school children used to be taught loyalty, courage, fairness, and honesty in their readings for english class. Now, such imposition of values through the education system would not be tolerated.
The last 60 years brought inarguable improvements to American culture. But even as racial and gender divides shrank, the class divide yawned larger than ever. "Coming Apart" shows the downside of progress.