Return Of The Radical

Charles Murray made a career out of controversy. Now he's focused on the white underclass

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Shelby Lee Adams for TIME

The hermit of Burkittsville. Murray gets perhaps one call a week at his rural Maryland home

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Murray's heartfelt, idiosyncratic new book examining the phenomenon, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960--2010, was released in January. The book represents something of a swan song for one of America's most controversial thinkers, and it has had a heated reaction. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently declared that he would be "shocked" if any other book this year more "compellingly describes the most important trends in American society." For a decade, liberals and social scientists have been warning of crevices opening in the middle class, causing a dramatic inequality of income and threatening to split the country economically into two separate Americas. Republican political campaigns, though they often amplified voters' resentment of elites, had not focused on the widening gap between rich and poor, sticking instead to themes of less government and lower taxes. But since the start of the current presidential campaign, a more distinctly populist tone has seeped into the GOP conversation, emerging most visibly in the rhetoric of underdog Rick Santorum. Murray has given this sentiment intellectual substance and grounding and a thesis--that the wedge driving America apart isn't its economy but its culture.

"Until very recently, as late as the mid-2000s, the conservative position on the economic changes coming to America was to deny they were happening at all," says David Frum, a writer and former George W. Bush speechwriter. "The next move, more recently, was to say, Yes, it's true, but this is the price we pay for dynamism and upward mobility. That also turns out not to be true. Here is a book for the first time from the heart of the conservative world that lets us accept these new trends in our society as true. That's welcome."

To Murray, it was as if he had been exiled so that he might more clearly hear an alarm. "America," he writes, "is coming apart at the seams. Not ethnic seams, but those of class."

Fishtown and Belmont

Both his rise to prominence and his conversion to libertarianism have, in Murray's telling, the same roots: his mid-1960s post-Harvard experience in the Peace Corps in the villages of northern Thailand and his work a few years later in the impoverished neighborhoods of South Side Chicago. In both cases, he saw "government coming into communities and screwing things up," he says. In 1984 he consolidated these views in his first book, Losing Ground, which argued that welfare had created a culture of dependency, and which helped provide the intellectual foundation for welfare reform. Three decades later, Murray is still gleeful about the outraged reaction the book drew from the left. "I violated the liberal moral monopoly on caring about the poor," he says.

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