In a discussion yesterday with Bill Bennett, Rep. Paul Ryan told him: “your buddy Charles Murray or Bob Putnam at Harvard, those guys have written books on this, which is we have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.” [italics mine]

Obviously, there are some real problems with Ryan’s argument, especially the coded appeal to racial stereotypes (“inner cities in particular”) and the outright dishonesty of claiming there are “generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work.” For more on these issues, see Jamelle Bouie, Igor Volsky and others.

But an additional thing that struck me in reading Ryan’s comments is that Murray’s most recent magnum opus, Coming Apart: The State of White America, applies the “tailspin of culture” argument specifically to white working-class people. This is not at all a new theme for Murray. In fact, over two decades ago, in a remarkably ugly op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Murray was predicting “the coming white underclass” and arguing that we need “to end all economic support for single mothers” so that “stigma will regenerate.” 

Murray’s conclusion then: “the brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively small ethnic minority. It cannot survive the same epidemic among whites.” In Coming Apart, Murray essentially argues that the “epidemic” has taken hold among whites. Similar arguments were made in the 2012 presidential campaign by Rick Santorum and continue to be made insight the beltway by Very Serious People like Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution and Robert Doar of AEI, who suggest marriage and high-school graduation are a panacea for poverty, even though there are about as many or more low-income married parents as single ones and most people living in poverty high school diplomas and increasingly post-secondary education beyond high school.

In short, today’s Charles Murray thinks the much bigger culture problem—the one that really puts American society's very survival at risk—is with white working-class people, which is what makes Ryan’s almost-nostalgic dog-whistling about “inner-city” men so striking. The big question here is whether Ryan is willing to up ante, and go for the full Murray by calling out white working-class "culture", particularly in the suburbs and small towns where so many low- and moderate-income white people live. Somehow, I’m guessing that’s not going to happen, given that it probably wouldn’t help turn out white, working-class Republicans to vote in November. But hope springs eternal ...