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Is the 'New Elite' really so out-of-touch? Does it matter?

I'm pretty sure when Charles Murray talks of the "New Elite," he has something like me -- or at least many of my friends -- in mind. No blue blood in my veins, I still grew up comfortably, got educated at name-brand schools and have life goals oriented around getting paid to think. Hell, I'm part of the elite mainstream media, so I've got to be out-of-touch, right?

And, yet, as I read through Murray's estimation of the cultural preferences he assumes I and my friends have, I couldn't help but think that he was the one who was out-of-touch. Not only, as Anne Applebaum points out, with the popular culture he criticizes others for not understanding. But also with the elite preferences he describes -- with such confidence that he doesn't feel the need to provide much actual evidence of his very detailed account. Murray admits hard numbers are difficult to find -- "no survey has samples large enough to calibrate precisely what's going on with the top percentiles of the population," and he cites Bill Bishop's "The Big Sort," among other work. But even after cautioning that he can't fairly describe his New Elite in detail, Murray goes on to give a curiously detailed description of the cohort's habits, an analysis that seems to rely as much on decades-old stereotypes about effete Ivy League intellectual types.

A few friends of mine -- all at least as deserving of the title "New Elite," particularly given their background in higher education, about which Murray obsesses -- gathered with me to examine the essay's litany of specific cultural references that we weren't supposed to appreciate. Here are some of the results:

Murray writes: "With geographical clustering goes cultural clustering. 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.'"

Drew Carey. Duh. As someone who used to watch The Price Is Right with my late grandfather, a retired nurseryman, every morning, I almost take that one personally. Almost all of us got that right.

Murray: "They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end."

Fine, but how many NASCAR dads can say they've watched a full episode of Oprah?

Murray: "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."

A friend -- and Yale grad -- responds: "A bizarre serious of assertions. I am a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth baseball fan. I used to know about both Jimmie Johnsons, but I hate the Cowboys and don't care about NASCAR. I always found MMA boring, though. It's like boxing. Too much hugging, not enough kicking ass."

Murray: "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)."

This one seemed to be a particularly inappropriate barometer of cultural awareness. A Jewish friend of mine retorts, "No, of course I haven't read a book about the end times."

Murray: "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."

One friend -- a Beltway attorney -- responds: "I don't even know where Boothbay Harbor is." Another: "As far as I'm concerned, Sierra Nevada is a beer."

Murray: "They have never heard of Branson, Mo."

All of us knew about Branson, Mo. Growing up out West, I got to Las Vegas more often.

Murray: "There so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven't ever... 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)."

There were metal detectors in my middle school. In high school, undercover cops posed as students. Half of my freshman class dropped out by senior year.

On the other hand, another friend -- a Harvard grad -- says: "I grew up in a town called Prunedale. Our neighbors raised goats and horses. We raised ducks."

Murray: "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."

I grew up in very conservative Christian faith -- Mormonism -- and made any number of evangelical/otherwise conservative Christian friends -- at college in the Ivy League, no less. I wasn't the only one in my little focus group.

"They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one."

Nearly all of us have been on a factory floor.

When I got to college, the first thing that surprised me was that, for all the alleged similarities, particularly socioeconomic, it was much more diverse than I had expected. Particularly when it came to regional diversity and the varied tastes that it brings. My first week of college, a guy in my freshman dorm told me that his favorite movie was "Varsity Blues -- because that's what growing up in the Midwest is like."

Of course, some of the items Murray lists were true for me and my friends, though rarely the same ones for each of us. Which is to say that Murray's probably not totally wrong. I have little doubt, though, that his weirdly specific description vastly oversimplifies the relationship any "New Elite" has with popular culture, in which pretty much everyone, Harvard degree or no, indulges these days. And he does so -- one can only guess cynically -- to exaggerate divisions in American society that aren't nearly as well-defined as he insists and then to imply that a group of Americans increasingly lacks the legitimacy to participate in governing.

I also get the sense that Murray is thinking more about Americans his age than those of us who are going to college and beginning our professional lives in an era in which financial aid and outreach is particularly robust at top universities, where popular culture is ever more pervasive. Perhaps Murray's most ludicrous claim to those of us in or just out of top American colleges is that his New Elite is becoming ever more detached from America. I had precisely the opposite impression -- that American culture everywhere is actually becoming more homogenous, including at the Ivies. I had classmates who became more culturally in-touch over their four years.

Regardless, instead of Murray's clumsy, worn-out and probably inaccurate us-vs.-them critique, the more interesting question is, if there really is a New Elite with a culture that can be usefully distinguished from that of much of the country, in what ways does that matter?

A Harvard alum friend of mine puts it well:

"On the one hand I can see why it would be dangerous if policymakers, journalists, and academics truly didn't understand the tastes and perspectives of the rest of the country. But [Murray] seems to suggest they should also share them. So what if I like Mad Men and someone else likes NASCAR? (Not to say you can't like both.) Where Murray sees lamentable elitist ignorance, I see cultural pluralism. I'm a lot more concerned with increasing opportunities for working-class kids to get into college than with what they choose to do on the weekends after they graduate."

By Stephen Stromberg  | October 26, 2010; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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New elite? Old elite? What difference does it make to me? There will always be an elite, and I am not it. But it is passingly amusing to read Mr. Murray's attack on your elitism and then parry with his own counter-condesension. And now you're defending The Price is Right? Oprah? Nascar?

Go read Proust in the original French and let Murray drive his RV to Branson, Missouri. I, along with 98% of the population will go on with my life ignoring both of you and your presumably opposite, but oh so sadly similar foolishness.

Posted by: seabelly1 | October 26, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

So what is this, a first grade, no I'm not....oh wait, maybe I am...but you are too? Gotta tell the author, if he keeps writing stuff like this they are likely to take his elite card away. Oh, well, Oprah is on, gotta run.

Posted by: termiteavenger | October 26, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

It sounds as if you would have passed Murray's test, so by his standard -- you are not the "New Elite." Arguing that you are, but then refuting that you are not seems bipolar. Murray's article was aimed at the Maureen Dowds of the world.

Posted by: dansey | October 26, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

It sounds as if you would have passed Murray's test, so by his standard -- you are not the "New Elite." Arguing that you are, but then refuting that you are not seems bipolar. Murray's article was aimed at the Maureen Dowds of the world.

Posted by: dansey | October 26, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

But Maureen Dowd almost certainly knows what Branson, Missouri is. It's not clear about whom Murray was talking, because no one who seems to fit the definition matches the description. If effete Jewish, Catholic, and atheist ivy league intellectuals like Mr. Stromberg and his friends -- of whom I am one -- aren't New Elites, then who in heaven's name are the New Elites?

Posted by: AlexRemington | October 26, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

You Americans are shallow, shallow people.

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Posted by: dfhjadfjsdf | October 26, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse

One mark of the new elite is its pseudo-intellectualism, as made explicit by Maureen Dowd and Chris Matthews, who fancy themselves intellectuals. Going to Harvard is fine, but there is a great difference whether you study there math and physics or the sort of subjects Obama’s professors taught. There is a great difference between math or physics and gender theory or Fanon.

Posted by: suegbic1 | October 27, 2010 4:43 AM | Report abuse

"On the one hand I can see why it would be dangerous if policymakers, journalists, and academics truly didn't understand the tastes and perspectives of the rest of the country..."
Maybe but there seem enough people in the US who deny evolution and reject scientific methods yet use medicines and products whose development was only possible because of these to raise a question of how their perspectives can be truly understood. Bit like understanding the mind of a donkey?

Posted by: JohnSutton1 | October 27, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

suegbic - As a mathematician I got news for ya. Most mathematicians and physicists have the same cultral tastes as the guys in the humanities.

And they are mostly liberals.

Posted by: lensch | October 27, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

The new elite, just like the old elite, mistake their intelect,which nowadays has to be freakishly high in some arena to get into an Ivy, for wisdom. (The only other way to attend an Ivy is an extraordinary life story which is by definition not the norm)The two are not the same and the only thing that helps the US in public policy is wisdom. Frankly the mistaking of one for the other is dangerous because the bright think they are wise. Not necessarily so.

Posted by: allsides | October 27, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Instead of pointing out area's where Murray is wrong, ask yourself, is there not some truth to Murray's thesis? Are we not two America's, one of elites who don't really understand the other. Is there nothing you can relate with in his article. To me, his words ring true. It's not an easy phenomenon to describe, but anyone who has listened to the talking heads describe trends they don't advocate in terms of 'where the hoi-polloi have it wrong' should recognize the problem.

Posted by: ndc1963 | October 27, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

"As far as I'm concerned, Sierra Nevada is a beer."

I chuckled at that. In isolation, kinda makes Murray's point.

Posted by: NNevada | October 27, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Despite the defensiveness, Murray is on to something. Shorthand for what he is talking about would be 'urban bourgeoisie', I suppose. There is a distinctive culture of white people who attend Ani DiFranco concerts, listen to NPR, donate to environmental causes, etc., that is politically to the Left of the wider electorate.

Are they out of touch?, well, I don't think that class, which comprises a large element of 'the chattering classes' (law, journalism, academia, etc.) did not foresee the strength of the Tea Party movement or of the GOP resurgence in general. They overrate the importance of the 'white Left' (above) and their issues.

Posted by: markrichardc | October 27, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Mark nailed it. The only thing Murray is talking about, or Tea Partiers are denouncing, is liberal political beliefs. There are many cultural correlates of political liberalism, but "elite" is just a euphemism.

The Tea Party backs Joe Miller (Yale Law) and Rand Paul (Duke Medical). Obviously, political positions trump association with top ranked educational institutions.

The NFL has more fans than NASCAR, but Americans of all political persuasions watch football. More NASCAR fans vote Republican than Democrat, which means it's not a sport for "elites."

Posted by: nicholasgrossman | October 27, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

What can I say? I AM part of the elite. I am very proud to be part of the elite. I went to and graduated form an Ivy League school, even! Even worse, I have a graduate degree.

I did not know English when I started High School (public in Brooklyn) but got 5 out 5 in the English AP exam 4 years later. I am a Physicist, by the way. I worked my way through high school and college.

I have the likes of Murray for appetizer in an intellectual breakfast. And I do NOT feel a need to apologize for it.

I do not strive to be average or below average.

Oh, I live in rural Virginia, but I must not be in the 'real' America since Palin never visited us.

As for Murray and those like him, I hope their doctors come from the bottom of their class. They should not tolerate any elites, should they?

Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 27, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Mark nailed it. The only thing Murray is talking about, or Tea Partiers are denouncing, is liberal political beliefs. There are many cultural correlates of political liberalism, but "elite" is just a euphemism.

The Tea Party backs Joe Miller (Yale Law) and Rand Paul (Duke Medical). Obviously, political positions trump association with top ranked educational institutions.

The NFL has more fans than NASCAR, but Americans of all political persuasions watch football. More NASCAR fans vote Republican than Democrat, which means it's not a sport for "elites."

The inescapable premise of Murray's study is that AEI scholars understand Real Americans, while the educated New Elite do not.

Posted by: nicholasgrossman | October 27, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

An additional comment, on the the 'Left Behind' series: I read the first volume and will not read any more. The reasons are straight forward:

1. They are based on a poor translation and flawed interpretation of the Apocalypse to St. John of Patmos: The rupture follows the 2nd Coming, it does not precede it;

2. It is not about the 'end' of anything. The whole point of Revelation is that Good will triumph over Evil and peace will reign on Earth for a millenium.

But what do I know: being an elite, I read the Apocalypse in the original.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 27, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Want actual mainstream American cultural preferences?

Most popular sports league: NFL

Top grossing movies (2010): Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, Twilight: Eclipse, Inception

Top rated TV shows (week of Oct 24th, excluding football): Modern Family, Two and a Half Men, NCIS, The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, Dancing with the Stars

Murray's article would have been much more convincing if he selected actual mainstream culture, rather than niches that correlate with conservative political positions.

Posted by: nicholasgrossman | October 27, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I think that Stromberg might have hurt his argument by basing it on the premise that he is not one of the "New Elite" as defined by Murray. Murray defines the "New Elite" as those who graduated from brand-name schools (particularly the Ivies, but many others are presumably included such as Stanford or Duke, for example). That is a pretty weak definition. The point Stromberg is making here is that Murray's description of this class is wildly inaccurate. It is just plain silly to make assumptions about such a large class of people. The fact is that Americans of all "classes" have a wide variety of tastes and interests.

The important part of Stromberg's article is that just because a person doesn't have the exact same tastes as another doesn't mean that he can't understand the other person's life (as much as any of us can understand another person's life). For example, there are plenty of working class Americans who don't pay any attention to NASCAR. Does that mean that they can't understand those in the middle class or even the wealthy who do? Who is the "elite" in that example?

While I did not go to one of the brand-name schools that Murray seems to suggest are the pathway to entry into the "elite," I am highly educated with a law degree from a top law school. I went to school with graduates of Ivy league schools, many of whom had similar tastes, attitudes, and views as guys I was in the Army with -- both officer and enlisted (I was both at different times).

In fact, my experience in the military is a more important difference in my political thinking than where I went to school. The divide between the military and the rest of the country is a more dangerous problem than any discussion of who is part of the elite. The problem of the "civil-military divide" is a discussion for another day.

The fact is that the elite live in America and are affected by the same problems that confront the rest of the country (although in some cases, they are affected in different ways). Just because someone is more educated or more wealthy does not make them somehow separate from the rest of society. We live in a capitalist society that allows people to strive for a better position in society. Because of that, we will always have a society that is stratified. But American culture is both diverse and ubiquitous -- all of us are exposed to it, but there is so much that we can pick and choose what parts of that culture to join. And there is no evidence that those choices are at all driven by where someone went to school.

Posted by: DM_Inf | October 27, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Murray's essay was nothing more than an advertisement for his new book. And if the book contains the same fluff as the essay, it won't be worth reading.

Posted by: santaregina | October 27, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

AMviennaVA; all,

"AM": obviously, your analogy of the art of medicine to public service is TERMINALLY flawed, as it has NOTHING to do with the making of laws and/or representing the voters in Congress or the WH.
IF it did, our current VPOTUS wouldn't be able to even do the minimum to fill the requirements of the office of VPOTUS, as "Poor Joe" Biden is in just one word, STUPID.= he is so STUPID that he said FIVE TIMES, in two speeches in 2008, that "jobs" was a THREE letter word.
(one could also argue that BHO isn't much more intelligent than "Poor Joe", as he selected that ignorant DOLT for his running mate, when he could have had almost ANY of the DIMocRATS in the USA.)

to ALL: IF you are as disgusted with the mess that the DIMocRAT "leadership" has made of our government since 2007 as our members are, you should join your local TEA PARTY group. you will be warmly welcome & immediately "put to work" to help us take our country back from the FOOLS, IDIOTS, corrupt union bosses & common criminals, who currently infest the nation's capitol.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | October 27, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I don't think the rich and elite are any different today as they have been through-out history.When it comes to greed,sefishness,self serving,and corruption,they are the same today as in the days of the Romans.If any body thinks they are going to change things they are Totally delusional.

Posted by: ctharwick | October 27, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Stromberg knows he's not part of the "New Elite" but he sure want's to be part of the "New Elite".

Mr. Murray's point is the "New Elite" live in a bubble, they raise their children in the bubble they don't associate with Americans living outside the bubble.

Posted by: knjincvc | October 27, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

The old WASPS have been replaced by a hostile elite of jews. You are a perfect example.

Posted by: PeteMoylan | October 27, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

The thought struck me, what if you asked the Guidos and Guidettes on Jersey Shore what they know about NASCAR, country music, and soybeans. My guess would be next to nothing. Does this mean Snooki is part of the new elite? I would also guess that Murray, with his fancy-schmancy degrees from Harvard and MIT, doesn't care much about these things either.

Posted by: sjpatejak | October 27, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I am sure I read this article in the Sunday Newspaper here in the UK ?

Posted by: sheilafresco | October 27, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

texasnative46 @ October 27, 2010 11:55 AM: I did NOT read your post, though it is apparently addressed to me. Just so you know, I do not read posts that contain obvious name calling or derogatory labels. I also do ot trust posters who abuse capitalization.

So, if you want me to read you post, phrase it correctly and go for some correct punctuation, too!

Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 27, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse


imVho, that is your loss. - what i said was FACT, whether you wish to know THE TRUTH or not.
(THE TRUTH is the truth; it is NOT "opinion" and/or "feelings".)

further, i've seen you do the same & worse in your own posts.

people who carp/moan/complain/whine/whimper about "name-calling" are generally UNABLE to either:
1. ADMIT that the label is CORRECT,
2. they know that the facts are absent from their side of the argument
3. they are UNABLE to present any legitimate argument to counter the "name-calling".

note: i type to suit me & nobody else AND it has been my long experience that those who worry/complain about SILLY things like "style"/"format"/"typos", rather than comment on the "content", generally have little or nothing of value to add to the conversation BUT making nonsensical comments about "style" makes them feel "less inferior". - that too is FACT.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | October 27, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I have a question for everyone. Does anyone know where all this critique of the "American intellectual elite" is going/tending? Recently we also had the guys going on about how lazy professors were -- today I'm about to teach one of my four classes, and I dare anyone to try that and talk to me about laziness. So the question remains: Where is all this headed?

Posted by: pwynn | October 28, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse


i don't know "where all this critique" is "going/tending" BUT i can tell you that the members of the TEA PARTY (and most of the rest of society, for that matter) "are not particuliarly impressed with" people with earned (or especially honorary) doctorates, who seem to think that they are somehow "more worthy than" persons who do not have a bunch of letters following their name.
personally, i find that some of "the least able people" are those who go around "advertizing" their academic credentials. - one of our local school district bureaucrats with EdD after his name comes to mind.
(his business card says his name plus: BA, MSEd, EdS, EdD. - Dr D__________ never misses a chance to remind everyone of his degrees & INSISTS that he be addressed "socially" as "DOCTOR D_________".)

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | October 28, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

This debate verges on the nonsensical. I have degrees from the finest schools in the country, and I took my son to the drag races at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas because we like fast cars.

So Murray and anyone else who thinks like him can just f off.

Posted by: Observer691 | October 28, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

In defense of the "new elites":

It seems very clear to me that the gap in understanding does not fuction in the way Murray or many of the commenters on here suggest. I would posit that the so-called "new elite" actually understand mainstream America very well. After all, those individuals have managed to navigate their way up and out of it--not as rejects, but as (for lack of a better term) social climbers. Further, they rely upon mainstream America existing for their income (as in, without a consumer base, there is no money to be made).

I do, however, believe that much of mainstream America has no understanding of the new elites, and even less respect for them. This is a problem. Our country really ought to be relying on its best minds and most educated individuals to be developing solutions to many of our country's problems. However, much of mainstream America is completely skeptical of the solutions that elites often develop--even to the point of disregarding solutions that would otherwise be helpful.

In other words, the failure of mainstream America to be wiling to listen to those that legitimately know more and understand more is, well, a failure. Lets be honest about this: a regular Joe is not going to have the understanding needed to formulate successful economic or fiscal policy. As a country, we should stop pretending otherwise and start listening to those that do, in fact, know better.

That's not paternalism: that's reality.

Posted by: SDub | October 28, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

likes and dislikes aside, i can say one thing for sure, much of this new elite made their fortunes at the expense of the rest of us, and only continue to be elite due to the corruption and collusion of those in this admin and the last who basically turned over and continue to turn over the nation's wealth. it's a culture of extraction and greed. to hell with the rest of us. now that's a cultural issue worthy of examination. the price is right, indeed.

Posted by: aj14 | October 28, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

The reasoning of this defense of 'the elites' could be extended to, for example, men who are accused of 'not getting it' about gender matters, or whites or are said to be out of touch with non-white concerns, or suburbanites who are alleged to be cloistered from 'real' 'authentic' gritty urban streets.

Sometimes the concerns of the above political constituencies are understood, all right. They are just not agreed with, when it comes to policy prescriptions. As the article contends, 'understanding' is not 'agreeing'. Liberal-minded people, as usual, see this when it comes to themselves, but not when it comes to their political opponents.

The strongest element of the indictment of 'the (implicitly liberal) elites' is that they are out of touch with how they themselves are perceived - rich people yodeling opposition to 'the rich' in favor of 'the little guy', white people pouring soul and apologia in denouncing racism as a 'whites-only' sentiment, male politicians supporting reproductive rights for women, but not for themselves and their own sons and brothers.

Posted by: markrichardc | October 30, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

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