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The Magical Misdirection of Charles Murray: The Elite is Patriotic, But Not "Of America"

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Charles Murray has had such a long career dressing up right-wing polemic as social science that his latest volley, a pander to Tea Party populism, should come as no surprise. In a Washington Post essay, he argues: "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." He "propose[s]" to find "merit" in this charge.

Over two-thirds of the essay purports to describe the mechanisms by which the New Elite is constituted. In essence, it is composed of the sons and daughters of the "upper middle class" - defined nowhere in the article, but treated as a monolith of some sort - who test into the nation's most elite colleges, get channeled into elite graduate schools and elite professions, and are likely to live in relatively homogenous zip codes.

The segregation of the young elite, according to Murray, "might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege. Few of them grew up in the small cities, towns or rural areas where more than a third of all Americans still live." As a result, they never escape a "bubble" that encases them from college through their eventual settlement "in a comparatively small number of cities and in selected neighborhoods in those cities." (Note to prospective social scientists: "More than a third" is less than "a majority.")

What follows from this "geographical clustering" is "cultural clustering," and here rests the supposed antipathy of the Tea Party to the New Elite. (For purposes of argument, I will pass over everything fudgy in the picture drawn by Murray, including, for example, his equation of "suburbs" with economic affluence, even as suburban poverty has skyrocketed.) What does this cultural clustering amount to?

When it comes to television, members of the New Elite like trendy scripted dramas, but do not know "who replaced Bob Barker on 'The Price Is Right," and have never watched an episode of Oprah "from beginning to end." They are way into "yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking," but are ignorant of NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson and won't know that MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts. They don't read "Left Behind" novels or Harlequin romances, and do not vacation in RV's and big cruise ships. "They have never heard of Branson, Mo."

Cultural clustering, according to Murray, also means that members of the New Elite are less likely to have attended Kiwanis or Rotary meetings, to have lived either in a small town or in an urban neighborhood in which most residents lack college degrees, to have spent even a year in poverty (or near poverty), done factory work, or had evangelical Christians among their close friends.

Why does this matter? And - take a breath, because this is precisely where Murray slides from what sounds like fact-based argument into pure ideology - the things that the New Elite is missing out on are "quintessentially American things."

Quintessentially American things? Really? Does Chuck - I mean, Dr. Murray - mean cultural forms invented in the United States like jazz, hip-hop, and abstract expressionism? Why is Kiwanis "quintessentially American" when its founding chapters were created in Detroit and Ontario? (And, by the way, it's hard to think of two more self-consciously global outfits than Kiwanis and Rotary.) What makes his cited cultural preferences "quintessentially American" is that the college-educated supposedly do not share them. It is an utterly circular canard.

Of course, in nearly the same breath, Murray says he is not challenging anyone's Americanism. Members of the New Elite, he writes "are not defective in their patriotism or lacking a generous spirit toward their fellow citizens. They are merely isolated and ignorant. The members of the New Elite may love America, but, increasingly, they are not of it."

Well, Charlie - I mean, Dr. Murray - you can't really have it both ways. For all I know, Tea Party members are every bit as enthusiastic about opera and yoga as your nearest vegan. But, whatever their tastes, the linkage of Americanism to the Tea Party's assumed range of cultural preferences is nothing but the arrogance of those hoping to cultivate and pander to Tea Party prejudice, while the rest of us are sipping lattes and listening to NPR.

The last time I myself had a latte - I bought it at my local Speedway, as it happens - I was struck by how ridiculous a form of misdirection are complaints in 2010 about the cultural isolation of the college-educated (many of whom, by the way, are Tea Partiers). Like magicians who want you watching the ceiling while they remove a card from their coat pocket, the perpetrators of this propaganda want Americans not to see forms of experiential distance that have opened like a chasm, endangering democracy in the United States.

It is the distance between the top one percent of Americans, now owning 70 percent of all financial assets in the United States and pocketing a quarter of America's total income, and the remaining 99 percent. It is the gulf between the top tenth of one percent of Americans, who earn as much as 120 million Americans at the other end of the scale, and the one in thirty-four American 2008 wage earners who have earned nothing at all in 2009.

And then there's the gap between CEOs and workers -- CEOs who, on average, made $25 for every $1 the average worker made in 1970 to making somewhere between $90-500 times the average worker's salary, depending on whether you count stock options and other benefits. Of course, they make that money because they shoulder so much responsibility -- just look at how effectively CEOs have been held accountable for driving the economy into a ditch.

In fact, the top one percent of U.S. households actually pocketed half of the nation's income gains between 1993 and 2007, and two-thirds of total income gains from 2002 to 2007. This is directly traceable to the fiscal policies of Reagan and the Bushes, aided and abetted (but not exacerbated) by Bill Clinton.

So, you want to take note of an important gulf between an American elite and their fellow citizens? How about the gulf between those who can afford to pour millions of dollars into elections with the aim of insulating their wealth, and those who cannot?

Equating stereotypical small town cultural preferences with what is "quintessentially American," while dismissing what college-educated Americans stereotypically prefer as something vaguely unpatriotic is utter, pernicious nonsense. Fellow Americans, please do not be fooled by this misdirection.

I'm betting even Jimmie Johnson listens to Car Talk. And if he doesn't, it really proves nothing about America.