Charles Murray’s Bogus Elite

October 25th, 2010 at 1:28 pm David Frum | 77 Comments |

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Can you write about class without mentioning money? Charles Murray tries in Sunday’s Washington Post, diagnosis and the results make for very, ed very strange reading.

Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, shop and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows — “Mad Men” now, “The Sopranos” a few years ago. But they haven’t any idea who replaced Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right.” They know who Oprah is, but they’ve never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.

Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them.

They can talk about books endlessly, but they’ve never read a “Left Behind” novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans).

They take interesting vacations and can tell you all about a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada or an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor, but they wouldn’t be caught dead in an RV or on a cruise ship (unless it was a small one going to the Galapagos). They have never heard of Branson, Mo.

There are so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven’t ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or lived for at least a year in a small town (college doesn’t count) or in an urban neighborhood in which most of their neighbors did not have college degrees (gentrifying neighborhoods don’t count). They are unlikely to have spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line (graduate school doesn’t count) or to have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian. They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one.

Murray here is offering a less splenetic version of the argument urged by Angelo Codevilla in his Limbaugh-promoted new book, The Ruling Class.

America’s elite, insist Murray and Codevilla before him, is defined not by money and power, but by educational credentials and consumption choices. Watch Mad Men? Backpack? You’re in – regardless of whether you are a doctor earning $200,000 a year or an investment banker earning $200,000 a week.

Do I exaggerate? Listen to Murray himself as he does research in the New York Times wedding announcements:

Three examples lifted from last Sunday’s Times: a director of marketing at a biotech company (Stanford undergrad, Harvard MBA) married a consultant to the aerospace industry (Stanford undergrad, Harvard MPP); a vice president at Goldman Sachs (Yale) married a director of retail development for a financial software firm (Hofstra); and a third-year resident in cardiology (Yale undergrad) married a third-year resident in pathology (Columbia undergrad, summa cum laude).

Murray reads that passage and to him the key words are Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia.

But there’s Yale and then there’s Yale. I’d wager the fee Murray received for his article that the Yale-educated cardiologist mentioned above has never talked to his or her U.S. Senator. The Yale-educated Goldman VP? His senator calls him.

Murray appears to wish to define the American elite in such a way that it excludes Philip Anschutz, Larry Ellison, and Sarah Palin (all of whom have lots of money and power but unlavish educational credentials), but includes everybody who shops at Zabar’s. It seems an unscientific way of proceeding.

The kind of analysis Murray offers reminds me of a great story in Michael Korda’s memoir of his family, Charmed Lives.

Michael Korda’s uncle Alexander had the habit of dismissing everything he didn’t like as “chi-chi” and praising everything he did like as “simple.” Cufflinks were chi-chi, for example, while loafers were simple. Beluga caviar thinly spread on melba toast was “chi chi.” Beluga caviar thickly spread on rye bread was simple. Dom Perignon drunk from proper champagne glasses was “chi-chi.” Dom Perignon drunk from cleaned-out jam jars was simple.

There’s a lovely arbitrariness to it, and the same is true for Murray’s scheme. I wonder if it ever occurs to him that Tim LaHaye – the minister turned author who has sold those 65 million copies of the Left Behind series – might belong to some kind of elite? He has money and power, doesn’t he? (LaHaye played an important role in securing evangelical support for George W. Bush in 2000.) But no: LaHaye is an evangelical Christian and so is by definition excluded.

Murray reports that Branson, Missouri, is off limits to the American elite. Accordingly, Glenn Patch – the area’s largest landowner, and if not a billionaire, then next door to it – must lack elite status.

Factory floors off limits to the American elite? I have to believe that more than a few members of the Forbes 400 have visited the factories they own. So that disqualifies all of them.

As I said: a strange way to think. You can call this kind of analysis many things – but social science sure is not one of them.

Reading Charles Murray’s slapdash article in yesterday’s Washington Post, the thought occurs: how does an intelligent man and serious thinker produce such silly work?

How do you end up with a definition of “elitism” based on favorite TV shows and vacation preferences – and with no regard to money and power?

Let me hazard a guess – or a “thought experiment” as Charles Murray might say.

Murray is of course right that there exists an American elite. Murray may be right that this elite has pulled further away from ordinary people than the American elite of say 1960. Murray does not prove the case, he does not even try. But intuitively, Murray’s case makes sense for a reason that Murray omits to mention: the American upper class of 2010 is so very much, much richer than the American upper class of 1960.

But here’s another difference between the elites of 2010 and the elites of 1960: The current range of elites have done a much, much worse job of governing the country than did their predecessors.

For a decade, almost all the news from the nation’s political and economic leaders has been news of failure and mistake. From 9/11 through the stimulus, we have careened from one mistake to another. The one success of the entire period from my point of view was the TARP – and even that success was only necessary because financial and political elites had steered us toward the worst financial collapse since 1931. Kudos to those who averted the worst catastrophe, but their work should never have been necessary in the first place. And even TARP leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth, because the price of rescuing the US (and world) financial system was another round of outsize financial rewards to those who had created the mess in the first place.

Now here’s Charles Murray’s intellectual problem, to which the Washington Post piece represents an attempt at solution:

The elites who created this havoc were both financial and political. They include the sort of people who staff the higher levels of the U.S. government – and the people who give to the American Enterprise Institute. Any real analysis of what went wrong in the United States between 2000 and 2010 would likely arrive at a great many conclusions uncomfortable to a scholar at AEI, as I can attest! So better not to arrive – better not even to start. So instead we get Murray’s latest: a Style section lifestyle piece offered as social science.

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77 Comments so far ↓

  • Non-Contributor

    “A general loathing of evangelical Christians, which we find from many people who comment here, is one of these attributes.”

    I really think this says it all. After all – “It’s not about money. It’s about a set of beliefs, and the culture that follows from them.”

  • Don Draper

    MSheridan “jjv, let me see if I’ve got this right. Paraphrasing your statement above, the law isn’t on your side, popular commercial entertainment isn’t on your side, the media isn’t on your side, education isn’t on your side (outside Texas and Kansas, perhaps), and it’s all the fault of those damned elites?”

    Actually, that’s not a fair paraphrase of what he said.

    “Take a second and listen to yourself.”

    Why not just dispute his point and leave out the smarm? There is none in his comment.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    mpolito: “Murray is absolutely right in what he says: people who live in certain communities in this country, that tend to be in coastal urban centers, tend to live lives very different from those that the rest of the country (whether wealthy folks or not) live.”

    Well, of course, they do, and the reverse is true as well. The question is whether residence in only a certain part of the U.S.A. is “quintessentially American.” To be blunt, only a stupid person would subscribe to this view.

    Murray, Palin and many of the more prominent “leaders” of the TP believe that only certain experiences qualify as true “American” experiences. This is nothing more than a bigoted political tactic.

  • jakester

    You got that right, Unless you shamelessly pander to the ignorance and paranoia of the fundamentalists, you are an un-American elitist. Listen to Mark Levin rave about how these elites are taking away his target audience’s religious liberties by, for one, letting the mosque near Ground 0 be built or supporting gay marriage.

    What makes any sort of cheap social science pap like Murray’s absurd is that America is full of various ethnic groups, religions, subcultures based on things like auto sports, motorcycles, tattoos, surfing, careers, UFO cults, that trying to define some generic American culture that his bugbear elites are missing is so childish that he deserves nothing but derision. The subculture he is pandering to is defined by shallow people who live in a talk radio and FOX dominated environment.

    Just a couple months ago Murray made the rounds of all the talk shows about how those others, which includes academics, bureaucrats, the usual collections of liberal bug bears and the “chattering class” are against all those good people that his side assiduously panders to. So I tried to call into one of those pompous talk shows to point out the hypocrisy that both Murray & the host are solid members of that chattering class who also live a rich privileged life, so how can they sit around and whine about elitists as if they were mill hands or stockers at Walmarts. Of course the pompous host’s screener wouldn’t let that one fly/

  • drdredel

    right, so when the courts make decisions you don’t agree with they’re elitists but when they uphold laws you do agree with they’re just doing their job.


  • MSheridan

    Don Draper, I was actually wondering if jjv might come back and say, “Yes, that is exactly what I was saying. And?” Although I disagree with jjv, as should be very clear, I’ll retract and apologize for any distortion of his or her position if you can point to where I made it.

    The argument as I understood it was that elites control the courts, they somehow determine popular entertainment (even though most of it is ostensibly produced to make maximum profit), they control the “echo chambers of popular culture”, and they control the schools. Looking back at what jjv wrote, the only thing I asserted in which I may have misrepresented his or her argument is regarding schools. From what was written, jjv probably doesn’t believe the entire educational system is controlled by elites. So okay, I apologize for that oversimplification. But jjv certainly believes that much of it is. The idea that elites control everything is certainly not restricted to the right. Lots of people believe that on the left as well, although they’re generally talking about a different definition of “elite.” However, the idea that liberal or quasi-liberal elites control “the Weltsenschaung of the nation” against not just the interests of the majority but also their inclinations–well, that strikes me as paranoid and ridiculous.

  • drdredel

    Fox News
    Paranoid and Ridiculous

    Much better.

  • Xunzi Washington

    Not sure I get the Branson thing.

    Branson is a regional ‘resort’ – likely limited strongly to the Ozarks and perhaps a tad bit beyond. It is essentially a long strip of aging theaters showcasing aging country stars (the Andy Williams theater) or current B-level country talent. Other than that, there are some decent kid rides here and there, which is fun for the family, and a lot of really terrible chain restaurants.

    Unless you really dig older country music or oddball regional comedy routines, or have kids and want to spend a day on the few rides they have, it’s unclear to me why anyone — elite or no — outside of the general Ozark region would know or care about Branson. I mean it’s a fine place, but it’s not clear to me why it should be a part of general American appeal.

    There are some good outlet malls, though.

  • Morris Baltimore

    Charles Murray is the one out of touch, not his imaginary ruling class. In Murray’s article in the Sunday Outlook section, he quizzes readers to determine their “new elite” status. His questions reveal how little the American Enterprise Institute scholar knows about mainstream America. Indeed, the picture he paints of ordinary America is part nostalgia and part a vicious vision of violence and ignorance. Next time, do some scholarly research before you quiz people about your fantasies, Murrays. As for the rest of the readers of this post: if Murray is so off base with his “quiz,” how much do credence do you give to the opinions that followed it?

    1. Sure, I recognize Jimmie Johnson as a top NASCAR driver, and NASCAR may be the leading spectator sport in terms of ticket sales to races. But far more Americans watch NFL, MLB or NBA games (not all of these together, but each individually) on television than NASCAR. Nothing wrong with NASCAR, but it is not more popular than three other major sports that help define what America likes best: team sports.
    2. Murray’s question about recognizing ranks by uniform insignias is a stand-in for military service. While being a military veteran is an honorable thing, it apparently is not typical. According to the U.S. Census, in 2009 only 9.5% of people over 18 were veterans. It may be a sad thing that so few serve so many, but that is the way it is in mainstream America.
    3. Watching people in cages pound each other in mixed martial arts (MMA) is what the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is all about – but is it a mainstream favorite? The broadcast of the fight called UFC 120 on October 16, 2010 attracted 1.9 million viewers.The elitist golf U.S. Open Championship in July pulled 10 million viewers.
    4. Branson, Mo. is a great place to visit for country music, and 7 million people toured there last year. However, more 30 million visited the Smithosonian Institutions museums. Sorry, Murray, museums are more mainstream than country music.
    5. Service and civic clubs like Kiwanis and the Rotary are great institutions, but there are only 240,000 Kiwanis members and 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide – hardly mainstream. Why didn’t Murray mention the 2.2 million community volunteers who were managed or mobilized by AmeriCorps members in 2008? He’s former Peace Corps, after all. By the way, people with higher levels of education have higher rates of volunteerism – does that make volunteering an elitist thing?
    6. Murray seems to think that The Price is Right is an indicator of mainstream America, but only 698,000 people watched it the week on October 21. That liberal showcase The View may not be mainstream, either, but more people watched it then (728,000 viewers).
    7. Murray should wake up and smell the numbers – for a number of decades now, the number of people living in small town America has been tiny compared to the number in urban and suburban areas.
    8. By Murray’s measurement system, sorcery is more mainstream than Christianity. Authors of the Left Behind series, a 16-volume fictionalizing of the Bible’s Book of Revelations, had total sales of 65 million copies worldwide. J.K. Rowling’s 7 books in the Harry Potter series have sold more than 400 million.
    9. According to Murray, living in an area where most people lack college degrees is an indicator of being mainstream. That area is called the United States of America. In our “hometown” Washington Metro Area, with the nation’s highest education level, fewer than half of people over 25 have 4 year college degrees.
    10. Identify a field of soy beans? Only 16 percent of Americans live outside metropolitan statistical areas – the largely rural places where you expect to find soy beans. There are more people waiting at big city bus stops to get to work than feeding chickens in the countryside.

    In summary, Murray sees mainstream America as undereducated rural/small town veterans who enjoy watching fast cars, brawls, country music and game shows, who are hooked on apocalyptic religion and who join civic clubs. Well, what can you expect from an elitist with a Harvard BA and doctorate from MIT?

  • JonF

    Outside the South a lot of people don’t know any Evangelicals. I’m an Orthodox Christian and I attend church regularly (so not a secular agnostic)… but I have no Evangelical friends. I did have a Pentacostal friend in Florida, and I have friends-of-family (and a step sister) who are Mormons. The idea that Real Americans must know people in various Southern churches is just plain nuts.

    Also, a lot of us were born in suburbs and lived our lives there. Why the silly nostalgia for “small towns”? For better or worse America has been a suburban nation for many years now.

    And Branson, MO? A popular touristy place for people in the South Central states. But not so much the rest of the country. Again, why is Murray so fixated on the South?

    Murray is as out of touch as he accuses the “elites” of being. Which makes sense as he himself in one of those elites.

  • JonF

    Re: Branson is a regional ‘resort’ – likely limited strongly to the Ozarks and perhaps a tad bit beyond. It is essentially a long strip of aging theaters showcasing aging country stars (the Andy Williams theater) or current B-level country talent.

    Indeed. Is Murray unaware that the real Country Music mecca is a little burg in Tennessee called Nashville?

  • JonF

    Re: He also feigns ignorance of anthropomorphic climate change and says the minimum wage is unconstitutional. Ditto for the direct election of Senators.

    Um, how can something we established by explicit constitutional amendment be “unconstitutional”? is it Miller’s contention that the Constitution is unconstitutional? No wonder he’s in trouble.

    By the way, “anthropomorphic” means “in human form”, as if there were some weather goddess POed at us for some reason.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    Moris Baltimore, an excellent post!

  • SkepticalIdealist


    Snobby liberals who do yoga and drink cappuccinos may be annoying, but they’re not costing the middle class anything by living snobby, annoying lives. They’re not the reason wages are stagnant. They’re not the reason unemployment’s on the rise. Most importantly, they’re not the reason we’re knee-deep in debt. For that, you’d have to look to a good ol’ boy with a country twang by the name of George W. Bush. Seriously, what difference does it make if the wall street fat cat selling derivatives has a southern accent or a yuppie one? Thievery is thievery no matter their inflection. Why take comfort in being swindled by your own kind?

    Also, to your point about evangelical Christians being “held in contempt,” they should probably remove the log from their own eye before they ask others to remove the speck from theirs.They always automatically assume that if a segment of the population doesn’t like them, the problem is with that segment of the population and not themselves. They can never stop and ask, “Hmmm, would I like it if evangelical Muslims lobbied for their “traditional” values to be given the force of law? And succeeded?”

    The fact of the matter is that legislating Christianity, or any religion for that matter, will always be incompatible with the Constitution. You need not look any further than the first commandment and the first amendment for proof of this. Thou shalt not have any gods before me is incompatible with freedom of religion. Unless evangelicals want to force everyone to be Christians, we can never have United States that is governed by the law of the bible. It would also infringe on the gift of free will a just and perfect God would have given us. Not to mention we’d have to bring back stoning, punishing adultery with death, and literally implementing thought crime (i.e. the commandments against coveting, which are not exactly conducive to a capitalistic society, and highlight the inherent contradiction between free market fanaticism and Christianity.).

  • jakester

    Or let’s talk about the Bogus New Populists that Murray is and represents:
    They are well educated, privileged and live a fairly cosmopolitan life making the rounds of talk shows and other infotainment venues.

    They live in very upscale dwelling, often a gated community or a mansion with security. Though their country retreats may have a few poorer locals living around them as loyal farmhands or workers, so they can feel connected.

    They have upper middle class jobs based on mainly communicating to others or organizing business ventures.

    Though they claim religion is really important in their lives, but it rides far behind any fear and concerns concerning their wealth, security or parochialism.

    They steep themselves into enough blue collar pop culture and affect some mannerism as not to alienate their field & mill hands too much

    They claim they really care so much about their lower class brethren in commonness, but besides pandering to and flattering their paranoia, selfishness, macho struts, and parochial pride REALLY COULD CARE LESS ABOUT THEM UNLESS THEY “PULL THEMSELVES UP A BIT”

    After all, for all their talk about how great hunting is, they have the money to go to luxury game farm resorts where their precious peasants let out the pheasants & quail from cages as they walk by to be shot by them.

  • ktward

    Skeptical: Unless evangelicals want to force everyone to be Christians

    By definition, that’s exactly what they’re shooting for. Though to be fair, they don’t call it ‘force’, but conversion. Meantime, until the conversion is complete may as well get the legislative paperwork started.

    Re: Ten Commandments

    - I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite Hitch piece, but this one would definitely be in the running.
    The Ten Commandments were set in stone, but it may be time for a re-chisel. With all due humility, the author takes on the job, pruning the ethically dubious, challenging the impossible, and rectifying some serious omissions.

    - And Carlin. Master of the rewrite. Two’s good.

  • merlin

    Definition of New Elite:

    support Sarah Palin for Pres. in 2012 = not elite

    spend$1 million for Elton John to sing at your wedding = definitely not elite.

    support anyone else in 2012: card-carrying member of the New Elite

  • jakester

    What you said about Miller is typical of a lot of teabaggers, they want to go back to US Government and laws circa 1791 where only propertied white males could vote. They are uber reactionaries, and in a way, totally unrealistic romantics living in a past that wasn’t so grand.

  • Don Draper

    Watusie: Joe Miller…feigns ignorance of anthropomorphic climate change and says the minimum wage is unconstitutional. Ditto for the direct election of Senators”

    I have no doubt this last remark is false. Miller knows that the Constitution requires the direct election of the Senate. He probably criticized the direct election principle on some theoretical or philosophical basis, as other analysts have done in the past, for making the Senate more directly accountable to the people and hence more susceptible to majoritarian abuse.

    Given the number of states that went for Obama in 2008, your side might have gotten single-payer through the Senate if all those Red State voters weren’t electing their Senators directly.

  • Don Draper

    Side Note:

    Other than terminology, what is the difference in principle between all this supposed teabagger anti-elitism and the age-old political tactic of “running as a Washington outsider,” or representing oneself as a “champion or voice of the common man/woman”?

    This is yet another example of people hypocritically and dishonestly hounding “teabaggers” for using a near universal tactic.

    William Henry Harrison tried to traffic on Andrew Jackson’s popularity by representing himself as a backwoods-man from humble origins. The truth is that he came from a very affluent family.

  • MSheridan

    Don Draper, it is incontestably true that the Constitution requires the direct election of the Senate. That is not at issue.

    Originally, Article 1, Section 3, Clause 1 stated: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.” However, the 17th Amendment changed this procedure with this language: The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

    When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

    This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

    However bizarre it may seem, much of the Tea Party wishes to repeal the 17th Amendment, and Joe Miller specifically is on record as supporting that goal.

  • Yglesias » We Are All Pointy-Headed Elites

    [...] David Frum has a good post on Murray and the real American elite. Tweet SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "We Are All [...]

  • someotherdude

    I think “Evangelical” has become a new stand-in for conservative Anglo-Protestant, for most people, especially Murray.

    I grew up around conservative Protestants in the Black and Hispanic communities, and they look nothing like Murray’s “evangelicals.’

  • JonF

    Re: they want to go back to US Government and laws circa 1791 where only propertied white males could vote.

    Can you document anyone from the Tea Party saying they think Blacks and women should not be able to vote?
    By the way, as a curious historical fact, New Jersey originally (post 1776) allowed property-owning free blacks and unmarried women to vote, but removed that suffrage when they changed their constitution to allow all white men, regardless of property, to vote.

  • Fastball

    Murray, I’m confused. Help me sort out whether I’m an elitist, Real American, or an elite Real American, or none of the above.

    What if I’m a member of a Rotary club (I am) and dislike country music (I do) ?
    What if I don’t watch Oprah, or the Sopranos, or Mad Men or the Price is Right (I don’t) ?
    What if I’ve lived a year in a small town (I have) and know great backpacking spots in the Sierra (I do) ?
    What if that small town is IN the Sierra (It is) ?
    Since I don’t follow NASCAR or read Harlequin romances, I’m curious: How many guys who go to NASCAR races read Harlequin romances? How many of those NASCAR guys told their friends they read Harlequin romances? How many lived to tell the tale?

    Murray, the world needs to know.

  • ltoro1

    Identify a field of soy beans? Geez, I grew up in a rural area, next door to my grandfather’s 80 acre farm and I couldn’t do it.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Murray’s op-ed is odd stuff, considering he’s written books on the subjects of “Genius” and the societal implications of I.Q. I’ve admired his work for years and would’ve thought him one of the last people to succumb to the “elitist” trope that is the opium of today’s right-wing populists.

    After reading his piece, I’m confused as to what sort of “elitisim” he’s refering to. Economic elitism? I would think not, since the overwhelming majority of Tea Partiers and Movement Conservatives make way more than the median household income.

    Political elitism? Maybe, although arguements against the political elite become moot once you, you know, win an election and get power, as the tea partier’s are seeking to do. In a representative government, all major officeholders are “elite.” The U.S. Congress is a far cry from the more egalitarian politics of a small town city council or the pure democracy of Ancient Greece.

    If Murray was arguing against cultural elitism, then I have to say he doesn’t seem to understand the concept very well. Yes, Mixed Martial Arts and RVs are not a part of elite culture. But neither are “Mad Men” or MBAs– they are merely part of the consumerist paraphenelia of middle class liberals, just as MMA and RVs are a part of right-wing consumer habits. None of these things have the least thing to do with “elite culture”– with Matthew Arnold’s disinterested search for the best in art and thought– but are the bogus tokens of bogus blue state/red state lifestyle differences.

    I can’t believe it’s necessary to say all this to a man who’s written a book– an excellent book– on the nature of scientific and artistic genius. I mean, is there anything more culturally “elite” than genius?