27 October 2010

On Elites, Elitism and living in a 'bubble'

Whether Democrats lose control of Congress next week or not, tens of millions of Americans will vote for Democratic candidates, not just for the House and Senate but for statewide and local offices. Are all of these voters elitists? You'd think so from the rhetoric of some Tea Partiers, their radio idols and their Republican candidates. The word "elite" either no longer has a meaning, or the meaning has been mutated into something like "busybody," the elitist, on that dubious understanding, being anyone, regardless of class or education, who dares claim, on the basis of alleged knowledge, to tell other Americans how to live.

It's understandable if many observers dismiss this thin-skinned anti-elitism of Tea Partiers as a collective delusion, but Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) suggested over the weekend that there is some substance to TP suspicions. There is a "New Elite," Murray writes, if not necessarily a "New Elitism" of the kind that irks the teatotalers.

Murray points to college admission statistics, SAT scores and New York Times wedding notices that appear to prove the Bell Curve prediction of increasing "cognitive stratification" in American society. After a generation or so of leveling and relative equalization of opportunity following the opening of colleges to previously excluded groups, class divisions began to widen again with the emergence of a more meritocratic "New Elite."

The more efficiently a society identifies the most able young people of both sexes, sends them to the best colleges, unleashes them into an economy that is tailor-made for people with their abilities and lets proximity take its course, the sooner a New Elite -- the "cognitive elite" that Herrnstein and I described -- becomes a class unto itself. It is by no means a closed club, as Barack Obama's example proves. But the credentials for admission are increasingly held by the children of those who are already members. An elite that passes only money to the next generation is evanescent ("Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations," as the adage has it). An elite that also passes on ability is more tenacious, and the chasm between it and the rest of society widens.

While Murray notes a "left" ideological bias among the New Elite as a whole, he's quick to point out that many right-wing decision and opinion makers also belong to the New Elite. "[T]he politics of the New Elite are not the main point," he clarifies, "When it comes to the schools where they were educated, the degrees they hold, the Zip codes where they reside and the television shows they watch, I doubt if there is much to differentiate the staff of the conservative Weekly Standard from that of the liberal New Republic, or the scholars at the American Enterprise Institute from those of the Brookings Institution, or Republican senators from Democratic ones."

Membership in the New Elite, then, doesn't automatically instill the "elitist" attitude perceived and abhorred by Tea Partiers. If anything, Murray suggests, the New Elite is guilty of a more passive elitism, an elitism of alienation or ignorance of "mainstream America." The New Elite, he claims, is increasingly segregated residentially from the rest of America due to its tendency to mate within its own ranks. It's increasingly segregated professionally, holding few "jobs in businesses that provide bread-and-butter goods and services to individual Americans." As a result, the New Elite lives in a kind of bubble, isolated from contact with non-elite America.

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. 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)....There are 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.

These distinctions may be trivial in detail, but Murray believes that they add up to a cultural gulf that leads those self-consciously outside the elite, the Tea Partiers in particular, to feel that the New Elites "don't get America." Murray himself is more generous, but still critical. "They 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."

Being part of an elite and living in a bubble are two different things, however, and living in a bubble is not a privilege of class. Murray is guilty of a crude majoritarian presumption that whatever is popular is thus "quintessentially" American. For every proof Murray offers of the elites' bubbled isolation, an equivalent proof can be offered to show how a similar bubble isolates NASCAR-loving, gameshow-watching, Harlequin-reading, Rotary Club America from a "high" culture that has just as much claim to be "quintessential." Would Murray agree that there are at least some "quintessentially" American experiences from which Tea Partiers are isolated, of which they are ignorant, willfully or not? Would he concede that some phenomena that TPs deem quintessential aren't necessarily so for all Americans? In a demographically pluralist polity, no raw numerical majority can dictate that its experiences and interests are quintessential, just as no group has the right to call another a "special interest." Our political leaders need to understand the economic interests and public-safety needs of all classes of Americans, but cultural empathy is a lower priority. Someone's indifference to Oprah's schedule of guests should not disqualify them from public trust. Nor should a willingness to tell Americans how to live, as long as the final decision is put to a vote. Democracy, after all, is nothing but all of us telling each other how to live -- and somehow living together anyway.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So basically, if you're not a dirtclod then you're an elitist? No shades of grey, it's either one or the other? I'm guessing the author is a right-winger. Or a leftie who ought to be a right-winger.

The fact is, if you are not a "conservative" (whatever that may mean these days) then those who are will throw whatever meaningless moniker they deem an insult at you. Whether it be "elitist" or "liberal" or "socialist" or what have you. These words have no meaning other than as a pejorative to those who most often use them. Let's face it, to these cretins, even Jesus Christ himself would merely be some "jew liberal elitist trying to tell me how to live."