Charles Murray [perhaps] does a Tucker Carlson, provoking me to unleash the usual torrent of graphs

by Andrew Gelman on February 8, 2012 · 10 comments

in Media,Public opinion

Charles Murray wrote a much-discussed new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”

David Frum quotes Murray as writing, in an echo of now-forgotten TV personality Tucker Carlson, that the top 5% of incomes “tends to be liberal—-right? There’s no getting around it. Every way of answering this question produces a yes.”

[I’ve interjected a “perhaps” into the title of this blog post to indicate that I don’t have the exact Murray quote here so I’m relying on David Frum’s interpretation.]

Frum does me the favor of citing Red State Blue State as evidence, and I’d like to back this up with some graphs.

Frum writes:

Say “top 5%” to Murray, and his imagination conjures up everything he dislikes: coastal liberals listening to NPR in their Lexus hybrid SUVs. He sees that image so intensely that no mere number can force him to remember that the top 5% also includes the evangelical Christian assistant coach of a state university football team. . . .

To put it in graphical terms:

Further discussion and more graphs here.


RobC February 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Wouldn’t it be true, though, that the rich tend to be more heavily concentrated in the blue states (e.g., New York and California)? If so, on a pure numbers basis, Murray’s comment would seem to be correct, i.e., more of the nation’s rich fall into the liberal camp (according to your taxonomy, very liberal on social issues and liberal to moderate on economic issues) than the conservative camp.

Alan T February 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm


Yes, blue states tend to have higher average incomes than red states, but in every state wealthier voters are more conservative. They are a little bit more conservative in blue states, and much more conservative in red states. This counterintuitive finding is a central message of Dr. Gelman’s “Red State, Blue State” book.

RobC February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I’m not talking about average incomes, Alan, I’m talking about the geographical distribution of “the rich.” And while, according to Andrew’s charts, the rich are more conservative than the poor, they still fall on the left half of the chart in the blue states, where I believe they tend to be concentrated. Accordingly, the statement attributed to Murray appears not to be incorrect.

Alan T February 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm

True, my previous comment does not of itself prove that there are more rich conservatives than rich liberals. Please click on Dr. Gelman’s “further discussion and more graphs” link.

Andrew Gelman February 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Yup. The maps tell the story pretty clearly.

RobC February 8, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Andrew, using the data on which your charts on the “further discussion and more graphs” page are based, could you tell us how many people in the top 5% self-identified as liberal and conservative in 2008, and if there are more recent data, how many do so today? Those are the numbers that would disprove Murray’s assertion, rather than the chart you provide above.

Mika February 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Liberal-Conservative Self-Identification 1972-2008

‘Liberal (1,2,3)’
Income 96-100 Percentile 17

Income 96-100 Percentile 12

‘Conservative (5,6,7)’
Income 96-100 Percentile 59

That is, within group “Income 96-100 Percentile” 17% identify as liberal, 12% as moderate and 59% as conservative. Rest of them don’t know or haven’t thought much about it.

RobC February 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Thanks, Mika. That’s the information we needed.

Larry Bartels February 8, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Yes, very helpful–and even more supportive of Frum’s point than I would have guessed. However, it is even more than usually important here to take the numbers from any single year with a considerable grain of salt. Not only is the top 5% represented by a small number of people in any given survey; it is a larger or smaller group depending on how closely the top income category in the survey happens to match up with the 5% threshold.

Acilius February 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I’m no fan of Charles Murray, but that snippet doesn’t sound like something he would say non-ironically. I’d have to see the book before I believed that Mr Frum had represented him fairly.

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