Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy has some discussion about Charles Murray's quiz for elites, whether they understand and empathise with the middle and lower classes whose lives they rule in a general sense. Somin has several objections to the quiz and the concept.
I think Ilya has it right here. It is pretty clear what Murray is driving at. We do sense that it is better that the elites of a society understand the lives of the non-elites. Yet I agree that Murray has not captured it, nor is it an easily-defined quality. There are rulers who have great understanding of the lives of the great mass of their subjects – Ceausescu was a cobbler, I believe – yet are horrible; there are pure aristocrats with little identification with the proles who are nonetheless excellent rulers. Victoria, perhaps. Or Churchill. The common touch, valued everywhere but nowhere so much as in America, is an advantage but not strictly necessary. I don’t think the questions tell us much. Perhaps in aggregate they begin to point to something real.
Also, we are not quite clear what this quality is that we should hope for, but only a theory as to how it is acquired. If it is empathy we seek, should we not simply say so? Are we perhaps describing the impression that the lower and middle class have that an upper-class person does understand them? We would then want to measure something in their heads, not in the elites. Pollster questions sometimes ask: On a scale of 1-5, how much do you think the following candidates understand people like you? John Kerry was accused of being aloof and remote, raised in upper echelons and private schools and unable to identify with most Americans. Even his hunting – one of the things politicians do to show they are men of the people – was of the gentlemen’s club sort that has nearly vanished. But Kerry may have understood the perspective of the little guy just fine, I don’t know. He played hockey, which is in some areas a blue-collar endeavor and in others a rich kid’s sport. Impressions.
Is everyone who worked a few summers in a mill able to identify with the less well-off forty years later? Many of the New England well-off have experience sailing, climbing around in the White Mountains and living rather primitively for stretches, fishing in hard-to-get-to areas. Tragedies or medical conditions are great levelers.
In making such cultural divisions, we often find we aren't talking about anything very clearly. Folk music is on one side and country music on the other, except for bluegrass. And maybe classic country music, like Les Paul, and okay, Willie Nelson, and gee, what about Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris, and, okay, I have no I idea what I'm talking about...