One week from today, a John Locke Foundation Headliner audience will hear Charles Murray discuss key themes from his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Murray documents a growing divide between two increasingly distinct classes — summarized by fictionalized neighborhoods of the affluent Belmont and the lower-class or working-class Fishtown. While Belmont and its residents flourish, Fishtown has declined over the past 50 years. But Murray suggests that the picture can change.

… I am hoping for a civic Great Awakening among the new upper class. It starts with a question that I hope they will take to heart: How much do you value what has made America exceptional, and what are you willing to do to preserve it?

As I have remarked throughout the book, American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves. Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I am thinking of qualities such as American industriousness and neighborliness discussed in earlier chapters, but also American optimism even where there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it, our striking lack of class envy, and the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies. Finally, there is the most lovable of exceptional American qualities: our tradition of insisting that we are part of the middle class, even if we aren’t, and of interacting with our fellow citizens as if we were all middle class.

The exceptionalism has not been a figment of anyone’s imagination, and it has been wonderful. But nothing in the water has made us that way. We have been the product of the cultural capital bequeathed to us by the system the founders laid down: a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government’s job to stage-manage how people interact with one another. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we have loved about Americans will go away. …

… What it comes down to is that America’s new upper class must once again fall in love with what America different. The drift away from those qualities can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation or victories on specific Supreme Court cases, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional and why it is so important that American remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it has been: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.