Two Views of America and Where We are Headed

by Professor Jack

Two recent books about contemporary America highlight the crisis of the nation and offer explanations for that crisis. The two books represent competing paradigms. One paradigm is largely philosophical, and the other largely historical. The future of our society depends in great measure on which of these paradigms wins out.

The conventional wisdom is that our problems are caused by excess capitalism and the working of institutional greed. This is a philosophical position rather than an historical point of view.  A new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by journalist George Packer, makes this case. Packer colors his pages with Americans who feel victimized by the system. The usual villains appear here: stock brokers, lenders, corporations, banks, Wall Street, venture capitalists,”the rich,” the One-Percent, etc. One almost hears echoes of the Occupy Movement in the pages of Packer.

Another, and much more historical, scenario is the one of sociologist Charles Murray in his recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America. Murray, whose book is meticulously researched (unlike Packer’s more anecdotal work), makes the case that the great divide in America has its roots in four historical factors: a lost work ethic, the decline of marriage, a growing disrespect for law and traditional order, and a large-scale turning away from faith.

“We have developed a new lower class,” writes Murray, “characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.” The cause for this withdrawal lies mainly in the assumptions and practices of the elites who make up roughly 20% of whites. These affluent elites have abdicated their traditional role as moral teachers and models, and have let the middle and lower class whites drift into cultural agnosticism. The primary mechanism for this has been the large-scale adoption of “nonjudgmentalism,” an unwillingness to distinguish between good and bad at the societal level.

The differences between the two books illustrate the fissure between not just liberal and conservative, but between deductive and inductive thinking. Packer’s work assumes the progressive exegesis of America’s social pathologies, and fits the evidence to that narrative. Murray begins with the facts on the ground and builds to a trend. The one is journalism, the other sociology. Packer, as a journalist, tells many separate tales to make his case; Murray the social scientist tells a single tale through the accumulation of evidence.

It is likely that Packer wrote his book (The Unwinding), and titled it as he did, as a copycat to Murray’s influential work (Coming Apart). But rather than base his analysis in research and observation, Packer simply recycled the talking points of the major media and the very elites who are Murray’s source of many of America’s ills.    

Both books attempt to understand the historical arc of a large segment of the American people, and both come close to describing it right. But, without a proper diagnosis of the causes, there is no possibility for an effective course of treatment.