Charles Murray on the new upper class (2023)

The other day I posted some comments on the voting patterns of rich and poor in the context of Charles Murray’s recent book, “Coming Apart.” My graphs on income and voting are just fine, but I mischaracterized Murray’s statements. So I want to fix that right away. After that I have some thoughts on the book itself.

In brief:

1. I was unfair to call him a Tucker Carlson.

2. Murray talks a lot about upper-class liberals. That’s fine but I think his discussion would be improved by also considering upper-class conservatives, given that I see the big culture war occurring within the upper class.

3. Using the case of Joe Paterno as an example, I discuss why Murray’s “preach what you practice” advice could be difficult to carry out in practice.

Murray on the top 5%

David Frum quoted Murray as writing that the top 5% “tends to be liberal—right? There’s no getting around it. Every way of answering this question produces a yes.” In response, Frum and I both pointed out that, no, Americans in the top 5% of income are less likely to be liberal, compared to the average American, and are more likely to vote Republican.

Those numbers are correct, but it was unfair to present them as a contradiction of Murray, who when talking in his book about the top 5% is not talking about income. Murray defines “the broad elite” as “most successful 5 percent of the people working in the professions and managerial positions,” including top military officers, government officials, business executives, professionals, and the media, a set of occupations that include, in Murray’s words, “23 percent of all employed persons ages 25 or older.” He’s talking about the top 5% (in “success,” as broadly defined, which is related to but not quite the same as income) in these professions.

After his offhand remark about the upper class being liberal (more on that below), Murray takes pains to emphasize that this popular impression is exaggerated, writing, “the essence of the culture of the new upper class is remarkably consistent across the political spectrum.” The concept of upper-class people being liberal is not central to Murray’s argument; if anything, his point is the opposite, to de-emphasize the liberal tilt of “famous academics, journalists, Hollywooders, etc.” and rather make the point that, that whatever the political attitudes are of the new upper class, their attitudes and actions isolate them from mainstream America.

Getting back to Murray’s upper 5%: as he defines them, I’d guess they are more conservative than the average American on economic issues and more liberal than the average American on social issues. But I can’t really be sure.

Rather than defining the American upper class as including some job categories but not others, I’d prefer to include all the high-income groups and say that the American upper class is highly divided—that is, polarized. Murray does address much of this in his comparison of different sorts of SuperZips (high-income zip codes), so maybe it’s just a matter of emphasis: from my analysis of survey data (as in the graphs posted earlier), I see the big culture war occurring within the upper class, whereas Murray focuses on differences in attitudes and lifestyles comparing rich to poor.

As I noted earlier, upper-income liberals, while a minority of upper-income Americans, are still an influential group and worth studying. But alongside them is an even larger group of upper-income conservatives.

I think Murray and I are basically in agreement about the facts here. If you take narrow enough slices and focus on the media, academia, and civilian government, you can find groups of elites with liberal attitudes on economic and social issues. But I’m also interested in all those elites with conservative attitudes. Statistically, they outnumber the liberal elites. The conservative elites tend to live in different places than the liberal elites and they tend to have influence in different ways (consider, for example, decisions about where to build new highways, convention centers, etc., or pick your own examples), and those differences interest me.

In summary, it was unfair of me to lump Murray in with Tucker Carlson as a statistics-mangler. I think that any focus on upper-class liberals would gain more context by contrasting them with the more numerous upper-class conservatives, but Murray’s real point has little to do with political attitudes, and if you remove his comments about the purported liberalism of elites, nothing is really taken away from his main arguments.

“The New American Divide”

Murray describes his book (see also this Wall Street Journal article) as “about an evolution in American society” in the past half-century, “leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known,” with a new upper class that now lives a life that is qualitatively different from the experiences of most Americans.

I see this argument having the following logical implications, in the context of Murray’s conservative political attitudes (i.e. that he favors low taxes and low public spending):

As I read it, Murray’s argument plus his political opinions imply the following story: Rich liberals lead personally admirable and economically productive lives, but they are tied to a false ideology of socialism and social permissiveness. This left-wing ideology may have its appeal, but in the long term, or even the medium term, it does no favors for most poor and middle-income Americans, as it leads to economic stagnation (the natural result of money spent through the government’s political process rather than through the decisions of individuals and private businesses) and social disaster (all the problems that arise with families when individuals attempt to live their lives without restraint).

Murray writes about culturally and politically influential elites because they have the ability to influence American attitudes, both thorough their economic power and through their representation in the news and entertainment media. Murray writes about politically liberal rich elites because he disagrees with their politics. From Murray’s point of view, there’s no point in writing about rich conservatives (for example, that dude who’s funding Rick Santorum) because they are already doing what he wants, advocating for lower taxes, lower government spending, and more restrictions on the behavior of lower-income Americans.

The above is not a quote; it’s just my attempt to draw out the implications of Murray’s thesis that the upper class should “preach what it practices” and recommend to ordinary Americans the attitude of long-term responsibility.

Just to be clear, let me emphasize that Murray’s book does not distinguish between a “good” elite that’s conservative and a “bad” elite that’s liberal. He considers the new upper class as problematic as a class. My point above is that, given his political views, it makes sense for Murray to be more concerned about the attitudes of the liberal elite, a concern Murray can have without implying any moral criticism on his part.

Again, Murray never writes anything like the bit I have above about economic stagnation; this is just my interpretation of the implications of his concerns in the context of his economic beliefs.

And let me also make clear that Murray does not consider the politics of the new upper class in making his case that it’s problematic. Even if the American upper class were 100% conservative, Murray could still be concerned about their disconnect with the masses. But I think the contrast between liberal and conservative views is relevant given Murray’s own attitudes.

One way to see this is to consider Murray’s political quiz, “How thick is your bubble,” where he challenges his upper-class readers to assess their points in common to the ordinary Americans. One of Murray’s questions is, “Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights?” The bit about gay rights is cute, but it also serves to separate out the liberals in the audience. After all, lots of non-elites go to gay rights parades. What if Murray had asked, “Have you ever participated in a parade not involving the pro-life or Tea Party movements?” This might not be the best example; my point is that there are lots of ways to separate the elites from the non-elites. Elites are more likely to know a business executive, more likely to buy a new SUV, more likely to fly business class, more likely to attend professional sporting events (those tickets are expensive!), less likely to rent rather than their homes, less likely to ride public transportation, and so on. Murray’s quiz is interesting but he chooses to separate elites from non-elites in a particular way that makes me think he’s sensitive to the attitudes of politically liberal elites in particular.

Difficulties of the recommendation to “preach what you practice”

Murray does not consider the case of Joe Paterno, but in many ways the Penn State football coach fits his story well. Paterno was said to live an exemplary personal and professional life, combining traditional morality with football success—but, by his actions, he showed little concern about the morality of his players and coaches. At a professional level, Paterno rose higher and higher, and in his personal life he was a responsible adult. But he had an increasing disconnect with the real world, to the extent that horrible crimes were occurring nearby (in the physical and social senses) but he was completely insulated from the consequences for many years. Paterno’s story is symbolic of upper-income America: you can live an ordinary life in an ordinary house and still feel like a regular guy but still live in a bubble.

Paterno was a political conservative so he doesn’t quite match with Murray’s story, but he’s otherwise a good fit, a man who lived by a code of personal morality that he did not expect of others.

Joe Paterno is an extreme example, but I think his story is relevant, to explain the difficulty of the “preach what you practice” guideline. My claim is that “preaching,” to make a difference, requires actions as well as words. While Paterno did not espouse a nonjudgmental stance on rape, assault, etc., in his actions he expressed a hands-off policy. I see no reason to think that Paterno believed these crimes committed by his coach and players were OK, he just didn’t seem to think it was his role to do anything about it. I don’t place myself above Paterno in any moral sense—I certainly don’t monitor the after-hours activities of my own students and employees—I just see it as an example of the social distance that Murray writes about, that an authority figure such as Paterno can feel it’s acceptable to be so isolated in this way.

Murray’s argument is a step forward in sophistication compared to some other discussions of the culture war. Old-style conservatives such as Michael Barone have characterized upper-income liberals as being frivolous “trustfunders” who do “not to have to work very hard” and “have done nothing to earn their money,” slackers who “revel in looking down on” the common people.

in contrast, Murray tones down the Snidely Whiplash rhetoric and describes upper-class liberals as people who are living admirable lives but who are giving irresponsible advice because of their deluded social theories. His recommendation is, “When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

The Paterno example illustrates the difficulty of this recommendation. What he had to do was not simply preach against rape and violence, but to act to stop it. Paterno was acting like the new upper class and simply looking away, allowing crimes to happen under his umbrella of protection. Unfortunately, this sort of behavior would seem to be characteristic of the old upper class as well, so I’m not sure how new this all is.

My point is that preaching values in a real way is not so easy; it requires hard work and direct involvement, not just talk. I don’t think Murray would disagree with me here. He writes that conscientious people should “voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms,” but it takes more than voicing disapproval. The kind of disapproval that makes a difference takes work and is risky. Joe Paterno could have reported the crimes of his coach and his students to the police, but at a possible cost to his reputation. Or, to choose a more homely example, just try telling an acquaintance that he or she is not conscientiously raising his or her kids. That won’t be a costless conversation to you! Again, it might be a good idea, but it’s hard to think about Murray’s suggestions without considering their challenges.

Upper-class liberals and upper-class conservatives

Setting aside the difficulties of implementing his recommendations, I see two limitations of Murray’s thesis. The first is a matter of selection. Let’s divide Americans into upper and lower income categories. (Murray just talks about whites, but I think the arguments apply to the general population; my guess is that after the reception of his Bell Curve book, Murray just thought it would be safest to leave race out of his discussions entirely.) Murray is comparing rich liberals to poor everybodys, but he just as well could be looking at rich conservatives. By focusing on the cultural contradictions of liberalism, Murray piques the attention of the liberal elite while lulling the conservative elite into a false sense of security. But I think he’s telling only part of the story, as I emphasized in graphs such as this:

My second problem with Murray’s argument is that it has a bit of a self-contradictory nature. As David Frum has noted, Murray criticizes upper-income Americans for (a) shunning lower-income cigarette smokers, but also for (b) not shaming lower-income people for poor life choices. But smoking is a poor life choice, no?

Elsewhere Murray states that upper-income Americans are more likely to go to church, and it seems that he would like these upper-class people to encourage churchgoing among the mass of Americans. But at another place he says that the elites themselves should try going to church, just like the common people do. So which is it: is churchgoing an admirable habit, along the lines of marriage and hard work, that the elites should encourage others to do, or is churchgoing a bit of homespun Americana, like watching football on TV and eating at Applebee’s, that the top 5% should reconnect with?

The point of these examples is not that Murray is wrong, either in his prescriptions or in his recommendations—much here depends on one’s economic views about taxation and government spending—but rather that his argument keeps going in two opposite directions at once. From one side he argues that the upper class has good habits that they should transmit to ordinary Americans; on the other side he says that the upper class should become more like the rest of the country. But I can’t see how you can have it both ways. This connects to my earlier point that much could be gained by considering the diversity of attitudes among the upper class.


This whole discussion got started because Murray was writing something about social class and David Frum and I fired back with statistics about income. But Murray is not writing about income; in fact, he explicitly states,

The new-upper-class culture is not the product of great wealth. It is enabled by affluence—people with common tastes and preferences need enough money to be able to congregate—but it is not driven by affluence. It is driven by the distinctive tastes and preferences that emerge when large numbers of cognitively talented people are enabled to live together in their own communities. You can whack the top income centile back to where it was in the 1980s, and it will have no effect whatsoever on the new-upper-class culture that had already emerged by that time.

I don’t know how true that is, but to be fair to Murray, he’s talking about cultural attitudes, not income. Based on my own interests, I’d take this the next step and consider the divisions between liberals and conservatives within America’s elites. My suggestions along those lines don’t contradict what Murray’s saying but rather represent additional things to think about.

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