Outlook: The tea party warns of a New Elite. They're right.

Oct 25, 2010

Charles Murray, W.H. Brady scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, will be online Monday, Oct. 25, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled 'The Tea Party warns of a New Elite. They're right.'

I'm Charles Murray, looking forward to chatting about yesterday's article on the New Elite. It's my first time with this format and software, so don't be surprised if there is a  glitche or two at the beginning.

Why is it that the qualities, traits, and tendencies you cite as being central to mainstream America have so little to do with, say, Latino or African-American culture? Are they elites as well--or just not American?

Things would look even worse if I'd brought in Latino, Asian, Black, etc., aspects of American life about which the New Elite is clueless.

Why wouldn't we want the smartest and best educated citizens in a position to influence the course of America? Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams and Madison weren't average citizens by any means.

The problem lies in the extraordinary segregation of certain groups from other groups that goes far beyond everything we've ever known. A Virginia aristocrat in 1780 had far wider experience of different kinds of people than many residents of Georgetown today. The Big Sort by Bill Bishop is an excellent book on this, well worth reading.

I grew up in rural northern Wisconsin. I was raised an evangelical Christian. I went to college at a state university. I live in the metro D.C. area, and am financially secure. This was the "American Dream" we all aspired to. Now, because I don't follow NASCAR, like country music or recognize soybeans (I grew up in dairy country), I'm no longer a real American? By your own admission, only 1/3 of Americans still live in rural areas or small towns. Why do they get to be the real Americans? Why are their values and experiences more "American" than mine?

I'd kind of hoped that people would realize the quiz was tongue-in-cheek. Sounds to me like you actually scored pretty high on the quiz, but, let me repeat, the quiz is not psychometrically up to snuff. Heuristic was the intention

I've heard tea party participants and Republican candidates for office cry about elitism but they point at things like ivy-league college attendance as their evidence. Isn't it a good thing that well-learned people are engaging themselves in the business of the Republic?

Think about the entire experience of life--affluent suburb as a child, to a selective college, on to law school, immediate big income--it's an incredibly restricted experience of American life.

The wealthy elite have long been accused of being out of touch. ( The George HW Bush flap about the price of milk, and the flap over checkout scanners comes to mind). What makes this bunch even more so?

Actually, the first Bush was an exception. Think of the life histories of Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Carter--all people with working class or middle class backgrounds

Time and again, this essay describes as "mainstream" or "quintessentially American" things that the vast majority of Americans don't do: living in a small town (80% of Americans don't), reading Harlequin romances (85% don't), watching The Price Is Right or Oprah (more than 90% don't), belonging to Rotary or Kiwanis (99+% belong to neither.) It isn't just "elites" who don't do these things; the average person doesn't do them. (Nor follow NASCAR.) They're not even majority behaviors among the groups where they're more prevalent: the rural-and-small-town, the poorly educated, the old. So Murray's quarrel is actually with the REAL mainstream America, is it not?

I don't think there is any one behavior that a large majority of Americans share. The issue is the extent to which you've been exposed to a lot of things that your fellow Americans do. Do you have any personal experience, for example, with blue collar life in the US? If no, you've got a big gap in your experience.

Interesting piece. You suggested that "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations" won't apply to the new, genetically superior cognitive elite. Do you really think the "bobo" lineage is on its way to beating Fortune's Wheel forever? I am skeptical. What is the new elite's weakness?

Most of the people I know in the New Elite are doing a pretty good job of passing success along. I know a whole lot of their children who are making out like gangbusters, and very few who are not going to replicate their parents' success.


Several times, your article refers to "mainstream America" and implies that this demographic outweighs the "new elite," but no numbers are provided and it is poorly defined within this article. So my question is two-fold: a) what are the criteria for an American citizen to be a member of "mainstream America," and b) exactly how large is this particular demographic and how does it compare to the size of the "new elite" demographic (also not quantified)?

You'll see a book with all those nos in about a year or so--that's where the article came from, but journal articles are not what the Post publishes in Outlook.

The Blue Collar Jobs are disappearing anyway. To be a "real american" now, shouldn't you have had a service industry job? I'm pretty sure everyone can identify with working at a mall or slinging fries at McDonalds.

Sure. Blue collar was a short-cut. You've just gotta know some people who have jobs where their feet hurt at the end of the day. If you don't, and you've never held such a job yourself, you've got a problem.

Even if there is an elite, are Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell really the antidote to it?

The antidote has to come from within. The New Elite have got to make sure that their children get out of the bubble. They are really the audience to which I am preaching.

Do you think the world view differential of average Americans versus elite Americans have a bigger impact? Example: Gallup says that 80 percent of Americans identify as non-liberal, whereas you cite 80 percent of elite Americans self-identify as liberal. Is this a bigger factor than their "living in a bubble" as far as you are concerned with explaining their "disconnect?" Love your book "The Bell Curve" by the way, it should be a standard College Text!

The politics are important, but people fixate on it. Stopped and realized that all the thoughts I want to add to that are way too long to deal with in this format.

Did the Arkansas lawyer Bill Clinton lose his status and become part of the new elite by going to Yale?

Actually, I've come to have a fondess for Bill, after having been, let's say, not on his side during the 1990s. If you grow up as he did, you never leave that part of your experience behind.

Whoa, wait. So I was supposed to drop out of college and find a manufacturing job in order to gain this precious blue-collar experience? Or more realistically, why isn't a knowledge and respect for those who do those jobs enough?

All I can say is that I've propagandized my own children. The saying around the Murray house by one of my daughters is "Dad's idea of the perfect summer job is to work at McDonald's by day and clean toilets by night."

Do you think Glenn Beck represents mainstream America? Should he?

I'm on record as being not a Glenn Beck fan.

I am pre-disposed to agree with you. Recognizing that bias, I was wondering if you were going to take this thought to the next step and support with the sort of data you provided in earlier books?

I'm already two-thirds of the way through the book. I would give a lot to have access to all the proprietary data that advertisers have about market segments, when it comes to lifestyle distinctions, but there's a fair amount of data in the public domain.

I look forward to your book then; in the meantime, do you have any journal articles coming out that can "tide us over?"

No. Just taking a few days off to prepare this article was a luxury. I'm up against a deadline I'm going to have a hard time meeting.

Isn't there an argument to be made for the fact that most people don't know a lot about cultures outside their own? The elites don't understand middle America, middle America doesn't understand inner city minorities, inner city minorities don't understand the elites and so on indefinitely.

Yes. But it doesn't make much difference to public policy when a factory worker doesn't know much about life in Potomac, MD. It makes a big difference when the people in senior positions don't know about life a working-class neighborhood.

I've always enjoyed your work, Charles. I've read that the group that is truly discriminated from getting into the elite schools are rural and small town whites. That actually the elite schools in their hunt for campus "diversity" fall all over each other to admit students of color on scholarships, whereas white middle-class students have little chance. It seems it's these admissions policies that contribute to and exacerbate exactly the kind of cultural divide about which you are talking. Do you agree?

The universities are squeezed (though I don't have much sympathy for them). They are so aggressive about ethnic diversity, that they don't have a lot of slots for socioeconomic diversity. Summers was openly worried about this as president of Harvard, but I don't see much being done about it.

The bigger question, Dr. Murray, is what do you know about blue collar life and the mainstream? With your quiz, the picture you painted of "ordinary" America is part nostalgia and part a vicious vision of violence and ignorance. Tongue in cheeck indeed. You see 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. That your idea of humor? You are a Harvard BA and MIT PhD -- according to your article, you are the new elitist.

Well, I did grow up in Newton, Iowa, with a father who had only a high school education, and have lived for the last 20 years in a little blue-collar/farming town in Maryland (we're not talking horse country here), sending my kids to local public schools. I'm not COMPLETELY out of touch.


I would bet that a great number of the elite are secular and the commoners at least nominally religious. Is a lot of the rhetoric we hear about God from people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin really a kind of proxy for "our assumptions about how life is supposed to work are not being respected by the people who think we're rubes"?

It depends on which aspect of the elite you're talking about. The academic and intellectual elites are extremely secular, but not business elites.

You claim that the new elite are limited in their experience, which somehow makes them less American than blue-collar workers and low-class citizens. However, virtually all colleges nowadays heavily favor applicants with more well-rounded experience (community service, job experience, athletics, travel abroad, mentoring, etc.), and many of these experiences expose those so-called elites to members of other demographics. Does this somehow "not count," just as poverty-line living in graduate school "does not count"?

Yes, I suppose having to punch the community service part of your application to Harvard is better than nothing. But there's a Lady Bountiful aspect to a lot that (Thursday night, 6-7:30, soup kitchen).

I work in Ballston with a bunch of DOD lawyers. Back a few yers ago over at the mall these elitist snobs were turning up their noses at the auto techs from American Service Center. I chimed in they make more than you do. What. Yeah a journeymen level tech gets half the labor so they are making about $60 a hour with bonus for a 40-hour week. No huge student loans paid, etc., and they making about $130k+ and are 27-years-old. That LLB or JD gets you far huh!

One of the worst things about current HS education is that it tells kids that they can either be lawyers or work at McDonalds, and never talk about the many interesting and well-paying jobs that are out there. I think the TV show Dirty Jobs is one of the great public service shows out there.

What are the policy implications of your thesis? I would guess that a New Elite would be, for example, more likely to send troops into harm's way and less likely to provide useful tax incentives for individuals, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will support a particular troop involvement in Afghanistan or a particular tax cut program (or for that matter a tax increase).

As I said in another post, I want the New Elite to start questioning the choices they're making for themselves and their children. Do they really want their kids to grow up in a hothouse? Do they really want to live in gated communities (gated figuratively or literally)? Is that the way to a satisfying life?

Isn't the real crux of this division in our society traceable to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.? When I was growing up, it appeared that career choices narrowed to two: work hard (trade jobs) or work smart (college, professional or semi-professional jobs). Both seemed to pay well albeit the professional jobs did sit at the top of the heap, at least in prestige. Since we have become a service based economy we no longer have that choice and relative evenness of the distribution of the economic pie is gone. Your thoughts?

Assembly-line jobs are really boring. In many ways, the skilled jobs out there now are a lot more interesting and rewarding than they used to be--think about all the new technical specialties taht the economy has thrown in the last few decades. But don't get me started about the evils of the role the BA has come to play in Ameircan life....

Isn't it natural for me as a parent to want my children to excel to an elite level, whether it is academically, athletically or economically, or should I tell them to be mediocre? When they settle for second best, is that better than being first?

There's no tension between demanding your children strive for excellence, and also demanding that your children get out of the bubble.

Would offering more opportunities to lower-income students be a better way to get more diversity in leadership roles than electing people who wave their lack of education around like a badge of honor? Would a socio-economic affirmative action program be out of the question?

I think such affirmative action would be great.

One of Harlequin's prolific authors is a sorority sister of mine from the elite University of California at Berkeley. So does that make Harlequin elitist?

It's not a binary world.

Isn't part of the resentment turned on elites a factor of the stunning failure of the finance and housing markets which followed the downsizing of corporate america during the 80s? Except for the tech boom, which came more from Stanford than Harvard, what tangible results have current elites delivered? The robber barons of the 19th century may have lived opulant life styles but they also built railroads, steel mills, factories and the real J.P. Morgan never asked the government for a bailout. The 21st century elites seem content to pat themselves on the back for their eduction and sophistication while the corporations they run file for chapter 11 and come begging the federal government for stimulus. Meanwhile, the average Joe or Jane who trusted their investments, career, retirement and future healthcare to these self- styled masters of the universe is left to sort through the remains of corporate failure and pay the taxes to fix their mistakes.

Sometimes it seems to me that we've constructed an economy that will make the skills lawyers have unreasonably valuable. The amount of talent that we funnel into negotiating the labyrinthine legal and regulatory structures we've created is ridiculous.

Interesting article--where's the incentive for the New Elite to make sure that their genetically-blessed offspring know something about the rest of the country? Doesn't it seem as though they would prefer that their children stay elite?

Because life in the bubble is sterile and not nearly as textured and interesting as getting out more. Think about all the ways in which life in affluent America is restricted.

Isn't this the Great American Dream? Sounds like those who didn't succeed are just plain old-fashioned jealous of those who worked hard enough to make it.

What gives the New Elite their edge is largely cognitive ability. Nobody "deserves" that ability. It is as undeserved as the skills that enable people to become virtuoso violinists or NBA stars.

Charles Murray writes: Actually, the first Bush was an exception. Think of the life histories of Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Carter--all people with working class or middle class backgrounds ... By this measure, you must agree that President Obama is among out least elitist presidents ever.


...that these people are stuck in a bubble and have never met anyone who isn't like them? Just the fact that the tea partiers rail about that? Some of us are educated *and* moderate- or even low-income, you know. But maybe that pokes a hole in your thesis.

I guess the answer comes from readers. To the extent that the examples I gave don't fit your experience or the experience of your friends, you're free to conclude I'm wrong. But the reaction I usually get is that I'm describing something that people worry about it their own lives.

Exactly. You should take your own advice. You're painting every educated "elite" as ignorant with no data to back it up. I say people who are ignorant of other people, whatever segment of the population they hail from, are problematic. And, as you say, policy-makers should strive to be broadly knowledgeable/experienced. But, "it's not a binary world."

I believe in distributions. But here's an example: Do most of the people in your neighborhood have college degrees--just 50 percent or more? Yes? In the 30,000-odd zip codes of the United States, just 4 percent have that proportion of college graduates among their adults.

With your background - degrees from two "elite" institutions, probably gained at a time when those degrees were only available to the "elite" - are you one of the "elite" or a "real" American? I ask this as someone with two Ivy League degrees who grew up in a working class town (in a state that has in many ways become synonymous with "Eastern elites") with one parent who did not go to college and the other who worked as a teacher. The Tea Partiers, no doubt, would consider me an elite, but I grew up with NASCAR (before it was the flashy spectacle it is today and was colloquially known as the "beer and butts" circuit) and an uncle who was president of the Rotary Club. Does any of the research include evidence on people like me who are perhaps more attuned to small town "real" American life than many Tea Partiers, but who would, based on surface observations and broad generalizations, be labeled "elite"?

You're part of a diminishing minority. You're from the first few generations when there was lots of socioeconomic churning going on, as people got opportunities their parents were denied. That churning is subsiding. That's the problem.

Don't you think utimately the result of the elitism is a divide and uprising? Isn't that what you are really worried about for your children?

I think America can prosper economically and in terms of national power just fine with the stratified system we're creating. It just won't feel much like America any more.

Could you give a brief explanation of the evil of a B.A.? Would you rather people get their hands dirty?

It's become an artificial gatekeeper for a lot of jobs that has nothing to do with the real requirements for holding those jobs, and has acquired way too much status (or, more accurately, not having a BA has acquired way too much stigma)

I would argue that it DOES "make much difference to public policy when a factory worker doesn't know much about life in Potomac, Md.," because people vote for people they agree with. If rural people don't know what it is like to live in a crowded suburb or city, they won't support things like bigger road or public transit budgets, because those things aren't much of an issue in THEIR experience. It go both ways.

Good point. But there's still an asymmetry to the costs of the factory worker's ignorance and the secretary of transportation's ignorance (whoever he or she may be. I don't know offhand).

Are Malia and Sacha being raised without an understanding of the "real Americans" in spite of their being assured of the finest educations in the country?

Could be.

Perhaps an incentive for the elites to get their kids out of the bubble might be a traditional classical education? Your description of the New Elite focuses on Business, Law, Medicine and Science/Technology. Isn't their a history of wealthy parents seeking a more intellectual type of education for their children? Or would a generation of underpaid philosophy/literature/art history majors just create an new, different bubble?

I'm  a big fan of classical education, period, for all sorts of reasons. ED Hirsch is my guy for K-12

If the Law of Unintended Consequences applies, isn't there a risk that some of non-elite kids that elite kids rub elbows with will aspire to become elites themselves? Or are elite kids likelier to move downscale?

I don't think of it that way--moving up or downscale. It's about getting to know who your fellow citizens are.

So the response of the tea party is to take us back to zero knowledge based policies? Can America survive being governed for a generation by know-nothings?

Elites rule countries by definition. There isn't a society except hunter-gatherers which hasn't been ruled by an elite. You don't want people at the top who are clueless about large numbers of people over whose lives they have so much influence.

Isn't the point to improve on your status and make your lot in life better? It's almost like you're saying shame on the educated because they have all their teeth and don't play the banjo.

I must not have communicated clearly.

You never answered the question

I fit the definition of the elite by virtue of my job. I like to think that I'm not in the bubble.

"Do most of the people in your neighborhood have college degrees--just 50 percent or more?" What's the point? That doesn't prove anything about the experiences I've had or the perspective I have. It's just a data point.

It proves you live in a REALLY unusual neighborhood, statistically. An interesting datum.

"In the 30,000-odd zip codes of the United States, just 4 percent have that proportion of college graduates among their adults." No doubt these zip codes account for the majority of people who claim evolution is false or that global warming is a scam. Being uneducated is not a badge of honor, sir.

If that's the way you think of the people in those 96 percent of Zip codes, I think the correct response from me is, QED.

You tend to write about issues that are based on 'hard' data. Where does your data come from for your assumption that the new elite are out of touch?

I suppose it is too glib to say the results of the election next yes. Yes, I'm sure it is too glib. So I won't say it.

You say: "I fit the definition of the elite by virtue of my job. I like to think that I'm not in the bubble." Precisely. But you only identify the nasty ignorant elite by this same definition. How do you know what proportion are just as vigilant as you about not being in the bubble?

I don't know how one would come up with a specific proportion. If you specify the socioeconomic composition of people in various kinds of jobs--where they grew up, where they went to schools, the things they didn't do, etc., you get a portrait of a class. Are there lots of exceptions? Sure.

Really? It seems I can't read a single newsblog and fail to see something about all the college grads who can't find jobs due to the recession.

Harvard grads don't seem to be having much problem.

Education is out of sync with American working life. There was an article in Saturday's Post on how we're learning too much math: How much math do we really need? Way too many people go to college in this country.

Maybe two or three times too many.

How will the election prove your thesis if some candidates with advanced degrees from top universities win with Tea Party backing (e.g. Rand Paul)?

Okay, if I must get political: The liberal New Elite has attracted a firestorm of opposition that I interpret as being an indirect indicator of not having a real firm grasp on the center-right nature of the electorate.

With today's information age (Internet especially) the bubble has burst to a degree. It is hard to be ignorant if one watches the news, which I am sure the elite do.

In a way, the explosion of information sources has made segmentation easier, not harder. People select the sources that they prefer, which means they can avoid (if they wish) everyone who doesn't agree with them.

I know how to get out of the bubble. Work as a seasonal crop harvester. Do the work our immigrants do. Now that'll get you out of the bubble.

That would do it indeed.

if elites were more in touch with the rest of the population?

Can't make this point quickly, but I'm not really making points about how to make better policy in the piece, or in the new book. I'm asking about how we deal with a new class structure that is unlike anything we've seen before in this country, and that is antagonistic to a lot of the things that we've most loved about the nature of our society.

I have come to understand (I have never been to Germany) that in places like Germany people in skilled trades are paid well and not looked down upon. Is that true? And how can we improve trades training as a path to good wages and the good life?

We actually have more resources for that kind of training than most people realize, but high school counselors, for various reasons, think they have to tell everyone they should go to college.

Comparing neighborhoods to zip codes is comparing apples to much larger apples. I live in a city with some of the highest dropout rates in the country but in a neighborhood you would have to have a decent job to afford to live in. Am I elite or not?

I'm really bemused by the notion that "Am I elite or not?" is a question that has a binary answer.

I may not like everything you are saying, but I get what you are saying about college. My only issue is even if people don't really need the BA, college is probably the last chance most will ever have to be exposed to ideas, literature, etc. With the state of high schools today, a HS grad doesn't have much incentive to keep learning on their own.

The answer there is to push a lot of liberal education back into K-12. Shouldn't have to wait for college to get exposure to a lot of that.

Wondering why you didn't mention the military in your terrific op-ed, since the military is one of the greatest integrators of America (and the New Elite are hugely under-represented).

Lack of space. But I agree with your point.

Doing the work of an immigrant crop harvester won't get you out of the bubble. Being an immigrant whose best opportunity is the work of a seasonal crop harvester is something completely different from picking lettuce until your back hurts and you go home.

Well, it would be a lot better than nothing.

"I'm really bemused by the notion that "Am I elite or not?" is a question that has a binary answer." Well, it seems many readers took your piece as indicative that you think it is.

Just gotta write better, I guess. Out of time.

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Charles Murray
Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of 'Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality.'
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