Charles Murray’s ‘New Elite’

CHARLES MURRAY’S ‘NEW ELITE’…. The Washington Post ran a rather long rant from Charles Murray yesterday, lamenting the “New Elite” and its members’ disconnect from the rest of us. Putting aside the question of whether it’s wise for the Post to publish Murray at all, the controversial writer wants us to know the good folks who identify with the Tea Party believe “elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.”

And if you saw the headline, read the lede, and thought, “Wait, is this just going to be another piece about how latte-sipping Volvo drivers see the world differently from Joe Six Pack?” you were definitely on the right track.

Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, 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 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.

If you read that carefully, you’ll notice that Murray used the word “probably” twice and “unlikely” three times. In other words, Murray thinks he knows quite a bit about how his “New Elite” think and act, but he doesn’t really know, and he’s not basing his observations on anything but his own assumptions. There are a set of cultural cliches about elites, and Murray wants us know they’re true. How does he know? Apparently we’re supposed to take his word for it.

But whether there’s truth to Murray’s premise or not, I’m not sure why we’re supposed to care. The notion of elites having different cultural norms, vacation spots, lifestyle choices, and leisure activities than others isn’t exactly new — this has been true for a very long time. Indeed, I think that’s why they’re called the “elite.”

Are we witnessing something different with this “New Elite”? Murray doesn’t say. Are there cultural consequences of this with broader meaning? Murray doesn’t say.

His argument ostensibly has something to do with Tea Partiers, but even that’s dubious. If there’s some kind of class/cultural resentment playing out, why are these far-right activists working to elect candidates who’ll prioritize tax cuts for the “New Elite” above all?