In his 2012 book "Coming Apart," conservative writer Charles Murray argues that America’s upper class has fallen out of touch with mainstream (white) culture. Murray calls this insular group “elites,” but a better term might be “fancy people.”
Fancy people drink wine instead of cheap beer; they watch auteur shows like "Mad Men" and "True Detective." Fancy people get married later and have kids later; they buy fresh produce at Whole Foods and exercise to stay trim. And many of them pile into exclusive Zip codes where these habits are the norm.
To help people figure out if they were fancy or not, Murray devised a quiz in his book. Last month, "PBS NewsHour" adapted his questions into an online poll, which has garnered over 50,000 responses so far.
Scores range from from 0 to 100, a full score meaning that someone is completely in tune with working-class culture. Perhaps not surprisingly, the "NewsHour" audience is made up largely of fancy people. The median score was around 40 out of 100.
The poll also asked people where they currently live and where they lived when they were 10. Last week, Murray revealed he calls the “bubbliest” places in America — where children grow up the most isolated from mainstream white culture.
Most of the 75 Zip codes that Murray identifies as top incubators of fancy people are located in major cities or wealthy suburbs of major cities. These places tend to have high median incomes and high rates of college attainment. The upper-crustiest place was the Upper East Side. People who grew up there scored a median 12.5 out of 100 on the working-class empathy quiz.
Zip codes in New York, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area were particularly well represented on the list — cities that Murray calls the “power centers of contemporary America.” A central part of his argument in "Coming Apart" is that the people running the country don’t really understand regular America. These latest poll results seem to back up his claim. If you live or grew up among wealthy, educated people, you’re unlike most of the nation.
You can take the quiz yourself at the PBS website. If you go through the questions, you’ll notice some problems with Murray's approach.
The questions tend to be arbitrary or weirdly specific. For instance, Murray asks if people have ever bought a pickup truck, if they’ve eaten at Applebee’s in the last year, if they’ve ever walked a factory floor. Most fancy people may not have done any of these things — but most middle-class Americans haven’t either. The pickup-driving, Bud-swigging blue-collar worker is a real kind of person, but he’s not necessarily representative of lower-middle-class America.
Besides, just because people have never made an Avon purchase (Question 12) or have never gone fishing (Question 15) doesn’t mean they’re blind to how the less affluent live. (Conversely, bringing an heiress to an Applebee’s is unlikely to help her better understand the plight of the working class.)
Murray himself has admitted that the quiz began as more of a rhetorical tool than a scientific instrument. He explained to PBS that his original goal was to show elites how different they are from mainstream America. “I could expect that many of my readers would be part of that new upper class,” he wrote. “The problem that stumped me for a while was how to convince them that their isolation is real.”
Some of the questions are more serious. One asks if people have ever worked a physically taxing job. “If you have grown to adulthood and you have never held a job that caused a body part to hurt at the end of the day, you fundamentally do not understand what work is like for a great proportion of the population,” Murray said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2012.
The larger argument in "Coming Apart" is that the schism between the classes has increased inequality. While the elites continue to work hard and marry, the lower classes have mislaid some of those values, Murray writes. The book paints a romantic picture of the 1950s and 1960s, a time when Murray argues that the rich and the poor were more alike than they were different. Richer men may have been able to afford Jack Daniel’s instead of Jim Beam — but by and large, Murray writes, people were buying and consuming the same kinds of things.
Now, it’s almost as if elites live in an entirely different galaxy, with their $50 yoga classes, their single-origin coffees and their NPR podcasts. Murray concedes that some of these differences might seem trifling, but he argues that these examples underscore the divergence between fancy people and the rest of America.
But there's a hole in this argument, as many have pointed out — talking about shared institutions and shared culture is harder when there hasn’t been shared economic prosperity in recent decades.