Explaining the 2016 Electorate's Behavior

The pols, the pundits, and the public are scratching their heads to explain the conduct of this year’s election cycle. A book published several years ago may have some answers.

The pols, the pundits, and the public are scratching their heads to explain the conduct of this year’s election cycle. Why have we seen one-third of the American electorate enthusiastically grasp what was previously outlying behavior? “Coming Apart,” a book published several years ago by Charles Murray, may shed some light into this dim corner of our understanding of some of our fellow voters.

Murray’s thesis is that what were once thought to be core American values have been largely maintained by the educated and affluent and abandoned by the less educated, working class. This idea runs counter to some dearly held ideological pillars. He says the greatest inequality in America is not economic per se, as some politicians are claiming, but rather a cultural schism.

Murray identifies four “founding virtues” that have played a vital role in the life of the US. They are industriousness, honesty/law-abiding, marriage, and religion.

Take marriage for instance. In the highest-income neighborhoods, he says, divorce rates are falling, out of wedlock births have fallen below 5% to college educated women and self-reported marital happiness has risen. But in blue-collar America it is a very different story, according to Murray. Forty percent of white women without a college degree have had children out of wedlock, divorce rates have risen, and marital quality has fallen.

Another example is religious behavior. “Who would have guessed that the white upper class is now much more likely to be in church on any given Sunday than the white working class?” And the blame is not really the NFL’s.

Lest you wonder, although the focus of the book is on the white population to avoid conflating race with class, Murray makes it clear that the same tendencies are also strong in the Latino and Black communities. And it requires no deep dive into statistics to come up with this unhappy conclusion.

As if to quell the rising voices of disagreement, he does make the case that, cultural or not, the situation is rooted in economic and educational inequality. And the means to righting the listing cultural ship is in fact more easily available educational opportunities. Which in turn will lead to an economic leg up, an increase in aspiration and pride, and a return to the four values that Murray avers are essential to social stability and comity.

Which brings us back to this year’s election. As has become popular on the internet, the question for Americans to ask in November after the election will be “Canada or Australia?”