Contrary to popular belief, the 'American Dream' is neither dead nor dying, according to American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray.
"If you're talented in this country, there's never been a better time to be alive," Murray declares at the Milken Institute Global Conference. "They'll identify you, you'll be shipped to the best schools, even if you don't have any money and no matter your race. In that sense, the American Dream isn't dead."
However, there is a downside to this intense focus on finding and nurturing the 'best and the brightest,' according to Murray. The American Dream may be alive for individuals but the American "civic culture" is dying as the nation splinters into a two-class society.
Over time, the "churning" of talent slows down and creates a new generation of upper class citizens, Murray observes. "The talented kid from Podunk goes to Harvard Law, gets wealthy and marries a woman sitting across from him at the negotiating table. Their kids are squarely in the upper class and "likely to remain so."
Murray's concern is that while the father in this hypothetical scenario has a childhood connection to "Main Street America," his children will have a very different experience. "A lot of kids in the second or third generation in this upper middle class life haven't a clue what life is like in ordinary America."
Murray examines these trends and their implications in his latest book: Coming Apart: The State of White America.
Murray says he focused exclusively on non-Latino whites to eliminate race as a factor in his study. His conclusion: Upper class whites live in a very different culture than lower class American whites. They watch different TV shows and movies, eat at different restaurants, read different books and listen to different music.
More critically, they have starkly different values and practices when it comes to issues such as having a kid out-of-marriage, a healthy diet, smoking, steady employment, educating their children and the like.
In their seclusion from the realities of working class Americans, those at the top are becoming elitist in a way that's antithetical to American traditions, Murray laments.
With some notable exceptions, "historically, Americans hated the idea of being in the upper class," he says. "The guy who got rich usually came from a humble background and tried to identify with that. People claimed they were middle class even when it was obvious they weren't."
Today, there's "an awful lot of people very comfortable thinking they are the upper class," Murray observes. "They think, 'why should I associate with those bozos?'"
But those "bozos" are also fellow Americans and Murray fears the separation between the upper and working classes is eroding what he calls "the American civic culture...and the common sense of what it means to be an American."
Left unaddressed, Murray believes these trends could make America become more like Europe, where class is much more entrenched.
Somewhat controversially, Murray believes income inequality is a symptom of these trends, rather than a cause.
"Rolling back income inequality won't make any difference in the isolation of the new upper class from the rest of America," he writes.