The Power-Hungry Elite Aren't Who You Think They Are

The elite are not necessarily the wealthy but the people who run the country. And they live in almost a different world from the rest of us.

"Such a waste of talent!" sighs Kevin Spacey's character Francis Underwood during one of his signature direct-to-camera asides in the Netflix series House of Cards. Underwood is describing a lobbyist who "chose money over power," a mistake that "nearly everyone makes" in Washington. Underwood elaborates:


"Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart in 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who does not see the difference."

What's the Big Idea?

The crafty Underwood represents the kind of consummate Washington power broker that Charles Murray describes as such: He may not make as much money, but nonetheless yields "a lot more power than a lot of billionaires do." Murray, the author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (now out in paperback), told Big Think in a recent interview that he was about halfway through the writing of his most recent book when the terms 99 percent and one percent "became a big deal" in American political discourse.

These terms, of course, were popularized by the Occupy Wall Street movement and used to describe the large gap in income equality in the country. "To me that’s not the real dividing line," says Murray. Consider this scenario:

Suppose you have a guy who’s made 35 million bucks with a chain of used car lots. Occupy Wall Street was not against that guy and his 35 million bucks. They were talking about an elite that runs the country that seems to have a lot of power over other people’s lives and are not sufficiently accountable. That doesn’t include just rich people, it’s a particular kind of person.

In other words, as Murray sees it, the elite are not necessarily the wealthy but the people who run the country. These people live in almost a different world from the rest of us. Murray defines this narrow elite as the 100,000 or so people who have an outsized influence on the nation’s culture, economics and politics. 

They’re the CEOs of the most important industries, such as Hollywood and Wall Street. They are bureaucrats in Washington. So what are the characteristics of this narrow elite?

Murray deliberately eschews the kind of controversy he generated with his 1994 book The Bell Curve (which civil rights lawyer Barack Obama at the time cited as evidence that "white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism as long as it’s artfully packaged.") by focusing Coming Apart on white America. While this approach is also seen as deeply problematic by many other social scientists, Murray studies two classes of white America, groups he says are divided by a cultural inequality that dwarfs economic differences. 

Murray portrays the elites as an out-of-touch tribe that not only lives in bigger houses, but also enjoys amenities that are completely inaccessible to the rest of the country. For instance, the elites have support staff in their personal and professional lives. They also have flexible work schedules, enabling a markedly different lifestyle.

Elites don't watch a lot of TV. When they do, they're watching Downton Abbey or Madmen, not America's Got Talent. They also read more. They're healthier, and possess a near-universal aversion for domestic mass market beer. "You will never see Budweiser in the refrigerator of a member of the new upper class," Murray tells us. 

Now, you might be thinking that Murray is describing you, sans support staff. And if you share the cultural tastes he describes, you might think he is passing judgment, which is really not his point. 

The average television set in the United States is on 35 hours a week, Murray points out, and "that’s probably too much." However, the people watching all of that television are getting something that the elites are not: "exposure to our popular culture in very large doses." In other words, while there is nothing particularly virtuous about watching TV 35 hours a week, Murray says:

When you have that kind of divergence in that single behavior, you have part of the reason that you have an ignorance of, and oftentimes a disdain of, mainstream America by the new upper class which is very problematic in terms of the future of the country.

What's the Significance?

Murray sees the stratification of American culture as the result of an erosion of values, the very values, in fact, that created great prosperity throughout much of the 20th century. In a forthcoming post, we will explore Murray's argument about how white working class Americans are becoming less industrious. As for the elites, they have great staying power because of their education and the corresponding skill sets they possess that put them at a great advantage in the high tech economy. 

"How can I make life wonderful for people with high IQs?" If God had asked himself that question, Murray says, his answer may very well have been the America of yore. If you were smart you had a very good chance of getting ahead. However, Murray says the economy has shifted in a way that now rewards "simple, raw brainpower in a way that it never did before."  

To illustrate this point, Murray suggests you consider the example of a peer you knew in high school or college, "someone who has very high visual spatial skills, mathematical skills, and is a complete social klutz."

What opportunities would such an individual have in the early part of the 20th century? Maybe he could be a math teacher. But he probably wouldn't have even made a very good math teacher, Murray says. 

Today, however, Murray says:

You can take that same person with those same really inferior personal skills and he can juggle offers from Google and Microsoft if he’s a hotshot programmer, as many excellent mathematicians are. Or he can be considering going to work for one of the giant investment firms which can realistically promise him wealth beyond his wildest dreams ever.  

"Life is just wonderful for really smart people now," Murray concludes. "And as a result of that, the new upper class is infested with them and they live together and they reinforce each other’s opinions." That also means that our country suffers because, as Murray says, the new elites "don’t really have much of a clue about what the rest of the country is like."

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.