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This column is part of a series written by seniors from the pilot senior seminar on American citizenship. The class is led by its students, whose interests and experiences are as diverse as their areas of study. These columns are their lessons.

Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? If you do, then chances are you aren’t a cultural elite, according to the quiz inspired by Charles Murray’s recent book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.”

We took the quiz as a class and discovered that most of us straddled the two worlds of Fishtown and Belmont, Murray’s terms for the working class and upper-middle class. The basic premise of the book is that the two classes that used to watch the same TV shows and live in the same neighborhoods are quickly becoming divided.

Murray argues that this divide will have serious political consequences, since the cultural elites make government policies that affect everyone — the working class included.

If the elites misunderstand the other classes, they are more apt to make mistakes when formulating and implementing public policy.

While there was some disagreement over the extent of that cultural divide in our class, there was general agreement about the nature of the political divide.

As former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

Murray fell neatly in the culture category, while his critics (and most of the class) fell into the politics category.

While there are a few examples of where government action shaped culture (Brown v. Board of Education comes to mind), the picture is much more complicated when it comes to issues like income inequality. Aside from income caps or other destructive policy measures, it’s not obvious that there are many other tools in the government’s toolbox.

Take divorce rates, for example. Murray points to the low marital rates of the working class (48 percent versus 83 percent in the upper-middle class) as a reason for the recent slowdown in social mobility.

His fears seem confirmed by the Pew Economic Mobility Project, which found that “among children who started in the bottom third of income, only one-fourth of those with divorced parents moved up to the middle or top third as adults” compared to “half of children with continuously married parents (who) moved up the income ladder as adults.”

Perhaps additional tax incentives or ending no-fault divorce would help, but, as the 19th-century political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed, it’s the underlying mores that matter. It’s up to us to cultivate those virtues that make our society a success.

We ended the class with a reading from Edmund Burke, the 18th-century English statesman who gave a speech to his constituents in which he argued that, since “parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole,” then “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

All too often, our representatives choose to forgo their own judgment in order to ensure their re-election. Hard truths are dispensed with in favor of the meaningless fluff we’ve come to expect from the political class.

To be good citizens, we have to recognize that some issues, like the ones Murray raises, require thorough investigation, which, in turn, requires leaders who take steps that may cost them an election but put our country back on the right track — something to bear in mind as November 2012 draws near.

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