What's This "New Elite?"

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JONATHAN CHAIT OCTOBER 26, 2010

What's This "New Elite?"

[Guest post by James Downie]

The Bell Curve author Charles Murray has a bone to pick with the meritocracy:

That a New Elite has emerged over the past 30 years is not really controversial. That its members differ from former elites is not controversial. What sets the tea party apart from other observers of the New Elite is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.

Let me propose that those allegations have merit.

This could be a defensible thesis, but Murray decides instead to prove it in as many wrongheaded ways as possible. First:

One of the easiest ways to make the point is to start with the principal gateway to membership in the New Elite, the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities. In the idealized view of the meritocrats, those schools were once the bastion of the Northeastern Establishment, favoring bluebloods and the wealthy, but now they are peopled by youth from all backgrounds who have gained admittance through talent, pluck and hard work. [...]

Compared with 50 years ago, the proportion of students coming from old-money families and exclusive prep schools has dropped. The representation of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans has increased. Yet the student bodies of the elite colleges are still drawn overwhelmingly from the upper middle class.

Though Murray tries to imply that the "new elitists" have deceived themselves, no group is more aware of the falsity of this "idealized view" than the "meritocrats" themselves. Walk onto any elite campus, and you'll soon hear a group protesting the lack of socioeconomic diversity, and it is quite often those same meritocrats pushing for student loan reforms and funding to broaden educational diversity. And Murray doesn't even seem to believe that income level has much to do with achievement:

Students who have a parent with a college degree accounted for only 55 percent of SAT-takers this year but got 87 percent of all the verbal and math scores above 700, according to unpublished data provided to me by the College Board. This is not a function of SAT prep courses available to the affluent -- such coaching buys only a few dozen points -- but of the ability of these students to do well in a challenging academic setting.

Not only does he deny the influence of income on SAT scores, but his main piece of evidence is a non-income based category, "students who have a parent with a college degree." Yes, that category overlaps strongly these days with "upper-middle class," but the GI Bill put many of those students' grandparents into college for the first time, regardless of class. From here, Murray moves into more straightforward, worrying evidence: the New Elite cluster around certain cities, and largely marry each other (though shouldn't the latter be an outcome of the former?). But his cultural examples make less sense:

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

Now, I've lived in Washington and New York my whole life, and yet I've never been able to get into Mad Men or The Sopranos. As TV ratings show, my classmates and I were/are always far more likely to watch Family Guy or Glee or something else less "elitist" than those critically-feted dramas. As for daytime television, until the rise of cable and the internet, the main demographics for daytime TV like The Price Is Right (whose new host, Drew Carey, is well-known to many "New Elites" from shows like Whose Line is It Anyway?) and "Oprah" were housewives and, um, college students, and both groups have been deserting daytime television.

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.

Er, MMA means mixed-martial arts, and its audience is actually more well-off than the average American. If you don't know what MMA is, that doesn't mean you're elitist; it means you are probably not a young male. As for the Johnsons, Jimmie Johnson is going for his 5th straight NASCAR title, but, as Matt Yglesias has already noted, it's unlikely that more Americans, elitist or not, know who he is than know one of the studio analysts on FOX's NFL coverage, given that football clobbers NASCAR in the ratings.  There are many other poor examples in the latter half of the article, but, to be fair, Murray was doomed from the start, when he fundamentally misunderstood the articles he was writing against:

All this [anti-elitism] has made the New Elite distinctly touchy (see Maureen Dowd's "Making Ignorance Chic"), dismissive (see Jacob Weisberg's "Elitist Nonsense") and defensive (see Anne Applebaum's "The Rise of the 'Ordinary' Elite").

"Elite?" they seem to be saying. "Who? Us?"

Of the three articles he cites, only Weisberg comes close to the argument Murray claims all three are making. Dowd, Weisberg, and Applebaum's columns overlap not in protest at being labeled elite, but in fear of "anti-educationalism," of politicians boasting of not knowing anything, of taking pride in ignorance. As David Frum pointed out yesterday, Murray, and others like him, are trying to avoid a definition of elite that includes wealth, because such a definition, and the analysis of why these elites have performed so poorly in the past decade, would inevitably lead to policies that the ideological right is not comfortable with. Instead, Murray's definition becomes dependent on geography, culture, and, most worryingly, education.  It is one thing to worry about the geographic clustering of college graduates or the continuing struggle for socioeconomic diversity in elite universities; it is quite another to turn learning into an enemy of "real America." Unlike class or race or other parts of one's background, a person can always expand his or her own education, and politicians should always be encouraging education, both for economic and cultural benefit. Using education as a wedge only ensures that ignorance continues, no matter what side you're on.

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posted in: jonathan chait, america, charles murray

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