The Good Fight
Rob Henderson on Foster Care, Social Class and the New American Elite

Rob Henderson on Foster Care, Social Class and the New American Elite

Yascha Mounk and Rob Henderson discuss his journey from poverty to the Ivy League—and how it has shaped his view of America.

Rob Henderson is a writer and author of Rob Henderson’s Newsletter. His forthcoming book, Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class, will be released next month.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Rob Henderson discuss the importance of a stable family for children; the concept of “luxury beliefs”; and why some things are more important than social mobility.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: I've been following your work for a good long while. But reading your memoir, which is out in about a month, over the last weeks, has put in place for me a lot of where you're coming from and how you see the world. 

To start off with, what is the story of your childhood, starting with your birth parents?

Rob Henderson: I was born into poverty in Los Angeles and never met my father. My birth mother didn't know my father, either. She had no recollection of him when she was asked who my father could possibly be. All of this information I gathered later from social workers: we lived in some cars, we were homeless for a time. Eventually, we settled in this slum apartment in LA and my mother was addicted to drugs. She was very neglectful, unable to properly care for me. She would tie me to a chair in another room while she would get high in her bedroom. She would have random men over at all times of the day and night while I was struggling in this chair. Eventually, some neighbors heard me screaming repeatedly. They called the police, who then came and took me away to foster care, which I was put into at three years old.

Mounk: Listeners may think, in an obvious way, it was a good thing that the state intervened and took you out of that home. Clearly, your mother was not fit to care for you. But you observe later in the book that no matter how neglected or abused young children are, they usually want, more than anything else, to stay with their parents. And some of the evidence seems to suggest that that desire is not an irrational one, that actually the results from foster care in particular may end up being worse.

Henderson: That's right. And there's consistent evidence that children are sort of programmed to be loyal to their caretakers, to their parents, to the people who raised them from infancy, even if the childbearing circumstances were less than optimal, as in my case. I do say that it was, in the end, a good decision to put me in foster care. I mean, these were two horrible options, that I could have either stayed with my mother and lived in that kind of environment; or the foster care system, which is also far from optimal as well. But I do cite research later in the book from a paper led by Amir Sariaslan at Oxford, published in 2021. And he and his co-authors essentially analyzed data from siblings within the same birth family. Some of the siblings were placed in foster care out of home care, and some of the siblings remained with their birth parents—oftentimes, the single, birth mother. And they tracked the outcomes of these kids later and found that the siblings who were placed in foster care were two to three times more likely to be poor as adults, addicted to substances, homeless, criminally-inclined—a lot of less-than-desirable outcomes for the kids placed in care relative to their siblings, which does suggest that foster care does have some kind of effect on kids, that sort of severe instability and uncertainty in a young child's life.

Mounk: So at three years old you're placed in foster family. As I'm reading this book—and it really is a compelling book that also has serious intellectual insights—that feels like a moment of hope. But then, it turns out that that environment is deeply unstable. You then are sort of funneled through a whole different set of foster homes over the course of the following year. 

What was it like to arrive in the foster system? And why is it that children so often are then placed in a succession of different foster homes?

Henderson: My experience was extremely upsetting. I just remember a series of adults that I was unfamiliar with. A social worker—and they're nice enough adults, but you're a small child, and you've lived with your mother your whole life up to that point—comes and takes you and makes you live with another unfamiliar group of adults and children. I was moving foster homes every six months to a year or so. Day to day, I wouldn't know whether I would be moved to a different home. A day or a week would go by and suddenly a foster sibling that I had formed a bond with would be taken to another home or placed back with their parents. Kids would come and go all the time. From a small child's point of view, it was total chaos. 

My case was unusual. Often what would happen is many of them know who their fathers were, but their mothers would become addicted to drugs, or would have maybe some mental health challenges, and so then the child would be placed into care. The mother would sort of recover from their condition, and then the child would be placed back with her. But in my case, I didn't have that. After my mother was arrested, she was deported back to South Korea, and I was placed into foster care. There was no chance of my being reunited with her. And so I was just moving homes every few months. 

Mounk: What do you think was the impact of moving between these different foster homes in such a regular way? How did that shape your way of connecting with other people early in childhood and perhaps later on?

Henderson: I found it very difficult to connect with adults. Being taken from my mother the first time was very upsetting. The second time I was relocated, that was also extremely difficult for me. But by the third, the fourth, the fifth time, my emotional response was very blunted, and I sort of became numb to it. Probably, this was not a conscious thought that occurred, but it was probably just some sort of instinctive, impulsive, adaptive response that, if you were to feel those intense emotions every six months, it'd be very difficult on a small child. I kind of just shut down and became numb and became extremely suspicious of the motives of adults, and became a cynical little kid; I thought of all adults as being in this kind of same category—teachers, doctors, social workers. 

I was very angry as a kid. Once I did learn to read, and once I was adopted, I was putting in a pretty good effort at one point: I got, I think, third place in the school spelling bee. And I was putting in the effort because I had good parents. My adoptive parents, I wanted to do well for them. That was the longest I've been in a school. I was there for a whole year. But then once that started to deteriorate, after the divorce and the separation, I just wanted to express that anger in some way. And one way was to just stop caring about school. 

Mounk: There is this very strong correlation in different stages of your life between stability in the home and how you're doing in life and in school. Obviously, there's some kind of long-term effect, as you argue persuasively, from having an unstable environment in general. But even within that, when there are more stable and happier moments, quite immediately, you seem to thrive. And when that is disrupted, that has a direct impact on you. One of those periods is when your adoptive mother gets together with a new partner, a woman, and she becomes, I suppose, a kind of mom to you. And that is a kind of a second period in which you're doing better academically and in other ways. And when that gets disrupted, again, it has an immediate impact on your life. 

Tell us a little bit about what your high school years were like and what that teaches us, perhaps, about how it is that many of your friends, some of whom were talented in all kinds of ways, ended up getting onto the wrong path, in part, because they faced somewhat similar circumstances to yours.

Henderson: As you mentioned, my mother fell in love with a woman named Shelly. And they raised me through basically my middle school years, my early adolescence. But there was a massive family tragedy where Shelly was shot. And this upended the structure in my life and the family. There were other things going on, too. Shelly had three teenage daughters, two of whom were teenage moms. There was just a lot of domestic drama, would be one way of putting it. But generally, before that, before the shooting, my life was pretty stable. My grades had improved by high school, but, post-Shelly's injury (she managed to recover, but it was very slow and very painful), all of the structure that I had had had fallen by the wayside. My grades had deteriorated. I had five close friends in high school who were raised by single moms, one who was raised by a single dad. One was raised by his grandmother because his mom was addicted to drugs and his dad was in prison. None of them went to college, some of them dropped out of community college and ended up working sort of menial, minimum wage kind of jobs. 

And that was kind of the path I was on. By my senior year of high school, my mother and Shelly had separated. I moved in with my friend and his brother and his father, and I had to get a part-time job to help pay for rent and help pay for expenses. And then I just made this impulsive decision to enlist, and that was what got me out of that environment and onto a sort of a better path. I took this military standardized test not really knowing what to expect. I was just impulsive and short-sighted. The night before, I got drunk and played Xbox with my friends. I showed up hungover (maybe even a little bit still drunk, by this point) and took this test, met with the Air Force recruiter, and he was explaining to me that this is actually a really good score, and that I qualified for just about every job that was available. The test that I took is called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. And it tests a lot of the same skills as the SATs—math, arithmetic, literacy, basic problem solving. 

My recruiter showed me that these scores can be converted into SATs scores. And when he did this, I noticed that my score was the same as one of my classmates who was about to go off to college, a straight-A student. And I realized, “Oh, I could have gotten the same SATs score as the one smart guy that I would sometimes hang out with.” And there was no hope for me to go to college by this point. But it did sort of plant the idea in my mind that, maybe someday, I could. That potential was there, I just needed to figure out what I needed to do to convince colleges later on that these grades aren't actually indicative of what I'm capable of. And it was the test score that did that for me. 

This is why I sometimes publicly talk about how standardized tests should be an important piece of the puzzle when you're evaluating candidates, because there are a lot of poor kids who don't do well in terms of their grades for a variety of reasons, whether they're living in chaos, or with parents who were checked out. A lot of teenagers are focused, they are disciplined, but they have to work part-time jobs to help support their families. And so they don't have a lot of time to do their homework or study. But if you give them an afternoon to take a test, and you might realize this is actually a pretty bright, academically-oriented kid.

Mounk: So you decide to join the Air Force, in good part for the options that this standardized test gives you. And for the first time (certainly, since you're a little kid) you're in a very structured environment with very strong requirements.

How did that transform your attitude towards life? And in what ways did you find that structured environment to be, in fact, helpful?

Henderson: I mean, in hindsight, I sort of sing the praises of this structure. But, at the moment, I detested it. I went from this environment of almost complete freedom as a 17-year-old kid, no supervision whatsoever. And then suddenly, I was in an environment of extreme rigidity and structure where every aspect of our lives are just sort of tightly controlled—everything from the way that you wear a uniform to the way that you make your bed to the way that your room has to be spotless. Everything is just tightly monitored. Punctuality—the sort of soft skills that a lot of kids who are born into impoverished environments don't really pick up. And so that was extremely helpful for me. 

By the time I was 20, I saw where my friends’ lives were headed. And I realized I definitely made the right decision. Even if, ultimately, I left the military, when I was that young, I needed that kind of structure. I was enlisted for eight years and I needed all eight of those years in order to instill the sort of discipline and the habits and the expectations for myself, in order to become an adult. If you had put me in a college campus when I was 17, I mean, I would have failed out immediately, and not because I was unequipped or didn't have the potential to do well, but because the habits that I would form later were just not there.

The other thing is, I cite this concept in psychology called the “young male syndrome.” The punch line of the finding is that, consistently across societies, regardless of time and place, the segment of society that is the most sort of criminally-inclined, most impulsive, most violent, most aggressive, tends to be young males in their teens and early 20s. That’s for a variety of reasons: hormonal, biological, and to some extent, social and cultural as well. But once those years pass, you see this sort of massive drop off in criminal inclination and aggressive impulses and so on. And so, because I was locked in the military during that time (we still sort of acted it out, I got into fights and stuff, but it was in a controlled environment), I was able to mature and allow my frontal lobes to develop and become a just a more sort of self-aware and mature person from 17 to 25. Like I said, I had two friends who ended up in prison, and one friend who was shot to death during that period, when, if I had not been in that structured environment, my life could have gone very differently. 

Mounk: You do very well in the military, you're promoted very quickly, and it feels, here, like we're building towards the natural arc of a memoir, which is the triumph over adversity. But there's a big stumbling block, which is that you hadn't really processed your experiences as a child, you weren't really in touch with your own emotions. And you dealt with that in a way that many people do, which is through the overconsumption of alcohol. And so there's a genuine moment of crisis while you're enlisted. 

What do you think propelled you towards that period of alcoholism? And what did it do for you, when you got intensive therapy, and were able to process some of those childhood traumas? How did that transform you? 

Henderson: Yeah, that part of the book was difficult to write. I had never spoken publicly about this before. I wanted to do it. And I think the book format gave me as much time and space as I needed. I couldn't have fit that into a simple essay for my Substack or something.

My mother, I had mentioned, was addicted to drugs. There was probably some biological predisposition there. The tendencies were there. I mean, I had my first sip of beer when I was four or five years old. By nine, I was drinking tequila, and my friends and I would experiment and try to take cold medicine to get high. By high school, I had a neighbor who would sell weed and pills. We played the choking game, which is essentially cutting off oxygen in order to stimulate yourself and get high. This sort of thrill-seeking behavior is not uncommon for teenage boys in these environments. And then, in the military, there was a period where I wasn't able to indulge those impulses. But then after I turned 21, after I moved off base, I got a house with some friends and had a little bit more freedom away from the military base itself. You achieve a certain rank in the military, you become more like an adult. They trust you, you go off base, you get your own house. And when that had happened for me, I got this house with a bunch of friends. The military does have a huge alcohol-drinking culture, and I would indulge in it.

One night, I just started drinking and continued to drink. And then even after I was essentially blackout drunk, I drank another bottle of bourbon and woke up in the bathtub covered in vomit and ended up in the ICU with alcohol poisoning. And I told the doctor what I'd been doing, and they got a psychiatrist and I explained how much I had been drinking. She recommended me for this inpatient treatment program, essentially a six-week rehab program. And that was a period of reflection and recovery. And I remember being really embarrassed about it, because at work I was actually doing okay. I knew that rumors would start. 

By this point, I was starting to think about what I would do after the military. I thought about college. But I thought, like, if I'm in rehab, college is not really in the cards for me. So I built a sort of relationship with one of the counselors there and some of the other patients. And I realized I'd been running from a lot of the things that I had experienced. I wouldn't go home for the holidays. I didn't really talk to my adoptive mom that much. I had completely lost touch with Shelly. I would visit home, I would visit my high school friends, my sister. But that was about it. I decided that it was time to fix that and try to be a better son and address all of the things that I’d been through.

Mounk: One of the transformations you talked about  is unlearning the behavior of distance from others and yourself, learning what it's like to be in tune with your emotions and what it's like to trust, and having lasting relationships with others. 

What does that look like to realize about yourself, that this is how you've been shaped by your childhood, and to set out to unlearn those behaviors?

Henderson: It was challenging. Even the feeling of love, I never really understood what it was. One of the counselors knew that I liked to read so he would hand me these books about attachment theory and early parent-child bonds and all these kinds of things, and I'd read about them. And the consistent picture that emerged when I was reading this was that the first five to seven years of a child's life are critical for developing the capacity to get emotionally attached to someone, to build relationships; that the relationship with your mother, or with your first caregiver, is a template for all of your future relationships. But the first seven years of my life was total chaos. And I found it difficult to truly trust anyone. I had friends, but it was like, very shallow, superficial, teenage male friendships. 

I was 24 when I went to rehab, and having those realizations was just very difficult for me at first. I remember arguing against it and saying I was actually fine, it's just this alcohol thing, and once I stopped drinking, I'd be okay. But the alcohol was just a symptom of something else. And once I addressed that, things started to turn around for me. But it took a couple of months for me to fully accept it, and to be open about it with my mom. I called Shelly, and she and I spoke for the first time in about seven years, and I told her everything. I said, “You never called me after your split with my mom,” and she told me that she was running from her emotions, too. She was doing the same thing. Learning that this is like a very sort of maladaptive strategy a lot of adults use, to just sort of run away from everything and withdraw and try to forget, it usually doesn't work. At least in my case, it didn't work. 

Mounk: So around this time, your enlistment is coming to an end and you say, “Hey, I'm, you know, I love reading. I'm pretty interested in the world. I might want to go to college.”

Henderson: Yeah, I went online and searched around and eventually connected with the Yale Veterans Association. I emailed them, and eventually someone recommended this program, the Warrior Scholar Project, which was this new program that had just been launched to help veterans apply for school, to improve their study habits, their academic skills, that kind of thing. I applied for that and managed to get in. And it was like a two-week academic boot camp: how to write an essay, how to communicate with college admissions staff, and all this kind of stuff. It was really helpful for me, and I stayed in touch with some of the people who were involved. I mean, some of the people involved were actual vets, but a lot of them were just tutors from elite universities. They had tutors from Vassar and Yale and Dartmouth, just these bright young undergrads who are recent graduates who wanted to help old vets like me get into college. That was really helpful for me, too. And they proofread my college admissions essays. Yeah, it was a great program. 

Mounk: What were your first encounters with that social circle, which is so powerful and so influential in the United States. I guess in the terminology of ethnography, you have a kind of outsider-insider view: you, in many ways, were an outsider to that kind of social group, but you lived among it as an insider and have become, in a way, a part of it. 

What were your observations when you arrived, finally, as an undergrad at Yale?

Henderson: At first I remember I was surprised how normal the students were. They were dressed like regular college students the way that I would see on TV or in movies, wearing flip flops or whatever. Gradually, I would come to learn that, actually, it's unfashionable if you come from an affluent family to be very flashy, with your money. It's better to sort of downplay it and to blend in, that kind of thing. But then I would learn like, “Oh, so and so's dad is the president of this TV network.” But it's very sort of hush-hush as far as how much money people have, or how famous people's parents are or whatever. And so that was one shock: they're just as rich as the Ivy League kids of the past, they just don't show it as much. The other shock was the preoccupation with news and media. It's funny, now I'm a writer and I sort of keep up with these things. But growing up, I never read the news. My mom and Shelly subscribed to the Red Bluff Daily News, but we couldn't afford cable. I didn't watch The Daily Show or any of the popular cable news channels. This is sort of corroborated by a lot of research on class on ethnography and so on, that working class families don't actually talk politics that much at the table. It's just not as prominent of a conversation piece compared to sort of middle, upper middle class, and above that. Talking about current events is very much a hallmark of that social strata. So I would go around campus and people would ask me about this op-ed in The New York Times, or this splashy essay in The Atlantic, or this thing that everyone's talking about.

I felt very out of my depth. And so I started to read all of these things and try to keep up with it and realized that this was part of the assimilation into this environment, sort of having a cursory knowledge of current events, what people are talking about—and not necessarily the concrete details of these newsworthy events. But what opinion to hold or what the opinions out there are, that people are describing: this columnist said this, but this person said that, to know and enter into and recapitulate these arguments. 

Mounk: Understandably, when you arrived at Yale, you had kind of impostor syndrome, right? You graduated high school with a 2.2 GPA. You didn't have a lot of friends or acquaintances who were at those kinds of schools and you thought “My God, these kids are all gonna be smarter and more well read and more knowledgeable than I am.” But then you go on to say that, quite quickly, you lose that impostor syndrome. 

How is it that you realize that your classmates we're perhaps not quite as smart or impressive as you might have expected?

Henderson: I arrived on campus at a very kind of unique time—arguably, to witness the birth of what is now called “wokeness.” I mean, there's like an intellectual genealogy of where it all comes from, in critical theory and all of that. But I at least saw the birth of this sort of the modern version of it. 

I left the Air Force in August 2015 and started my first semester at Yale in September. And then, in October, there was this massive controversy. I'm sure a lot of your listeners will be familiar with what's now referred to as the “Halloween Costume Controversy” at Yale, with the Christakises, Erika and Nicholas, who were two professors. Basically, the Yale administration in the lead-up to Halloween of 2015, released this email essentially asking students to be sensitive with their Halloween costumes, something like that. Erika Christakis, who was the associate master of one of the colleges and on the faculty, wrote a response email just to the students within her residential college, essentially saying “You're all adults, do we really need the administration interfering with Halloween costumes, of all things?” and essentially defending freedom of expression. 

The ensuing uproar was just incredible, shocking stuff. I mean, I was just totally mystified by the response to it. I think a lot of people were mystified. But I was very mystified simply because I read the email four or five times in a row, and I still couldn't get what was offensive about it, I was so removed from the culture. There was an ongoing debate about the purpose of higher education (by now, these arguments are everywhere—in 2015, it was just not quite as mainstream). I didn't understand that there was this sort of birth of social justice, identity politics, all this stuff, including accusations against Erika Christakis, calling her racist, defending cultural appropriation, all these things. I didn't even know what a cultural appropriation was. And I had to have three or four students explain it to me. 

That was a strange time for me. When I tried to get students to explain to me what was offensive about it, or try to explain to me the reasoning and the ideology underlying why they wanted to get Erika and her husband fired, and what transgression they had committed, none of it made sense to me. At first I'm like, “I'm probably the dumb one, I don't understand it.” I'd ask around. People would just get mad at me for even asking, some took pity on me and they would try to explain it, and I still didn't get it. And then eventually, I realized, “Oh, this is probably because it's mostly nonsense.” There was one student who told me I was too privileged to understand the pain that Erika and her husband had caused the Yale community. 

Mounk: Who was this person? Why did they think that you were privileged?

Henderson: She was just this rich white girl who went to Exeter, and came from a rich family, or upper middle class, at least. You know, very white, very affluent, at least compared to where I came from. And she was trying to explain to me just how much pain these professors had caused, and the sort of traumatic language, and so on and so forth. I'm trying to understand why you would use these words for an email, of all things. And I realized these words meant something different to the students.

She made a bunch of assumptions about me based on how I look—a sort of cisgender, Asian-ish looking guy—and assumed that I am a privileged person. Later, I would ask students what actually sort of determines privilege, because they would also talk about lived experience; your lived experience confers this legitimacy on your opinions, to expound on social ills and to suggest solutions and so on. But then they would also talk about how, by dint of the way that you look, or your gender or ethnicity, like those grant legitimacy to your opinions. I would ask students what's more important: lived experience or your social category that you belong to. And some of them would say, “You shouldn't ask that question, it's kind of dangerous”; or, “Depending on who you ask that to, you should phrase it in a more careful way”; or whatever. Other students would say things like: your ethnicity, your gender, your sexual orientation, those things determine your lived experience, and they're sort of intertwined. And when I heard that, I realized this was just total nonsense, because I had lived the kind of life that I had. 

Mounk: One of the things that you observe is a very big distance between what your classmates say about how people should be leading their lives, and how they themselves lead their lives. For example, they advocate for ethical non-monogamy, or various forms of polyamory, even though they come from families that are very traditional in terms of their structure and expect to have marriages themselves that turn out to be quite rational. But despite that they say that things like: discipline isn’t really important in what determines whether or not you're getting to college, that it's luck, more than anything else. But they’re incredibly hard-working and will probably impart some of those virtues to their kids as well. 

Tell us about that discrepancy and where it comes from. And I feel a little bit of tension in the way you talk about that; at times, it feels like it's a form of obliviousness, that they’re not even aware of the extent to which their lives are structured by certain forms of discipline or certain forms of just genuine orderliness, and so, therefore, it's easy to say, “Oh, it's fine to be disorderly,” because they don't actually know what it means to grow up in genuine disorder. Sometimes, you seem to indicate a really more cynical view of it, that it’s a kind of a way of beating out the competition: by saying that Goldman or McKinsey and so on are these terrible evil corporations, and if they can convince some of their classmates that that's true, then they might not apply to them, and they might have an advantage when they do.

Explain this phenomenon to us, and perhaps help clarify which of these two interpretations of why they're acting that way seems more accurate?

Henderson: I coined this term “luxury beliefs” a few years ago to describe a lot of the culture you see among sort of upper and upper middle class people, especially grad students and graduates of elite universities. Luxury beliefs are defined as ideas and opinions that confer status on the affluent while often inflicting costs on the lower classes. And a core feature of a luxury belief is that the believer is sheltered from the consequences of his or her belief. There is this kind of element of duplicity, whether conscious or not, and I can get into that in a second. 

Just as an anecdote to illustrate this, as you mentioned, I had a conversation with a former Yale classmate who was telling me that monogamy is outdated, and that marriage is this kind of patriarchal, outmoded institution. And then I asked her how she grew up. She was raised by a two-parent family, stable structure. I asked her, when she's finished with law school and wherever she goes next (at this point, she was working for a tech company and applying to law schools), if and when you have a family, how do you want to do that? And she said: “I'll probably end up getting married, having a husband, and have that kind of conventional family life. But just because I want to do it doesn't mean it should have to be for everyone. And I do think that marriage is problematic,” and so on. And I thought this is interesting, because she benefited from this institution, she intends to carry the benefits of those institutions forward to her own children, but her official public position is that people shouldn't have to do this, or she's publicly denigrating it and saying, “Actually, don't do this,” or that it's problematic or oppressive in some way. And I encountered that repeatedly: the investment banks, you know, some of these students would say that they were emblems of capitalist repression, and that they were evil and so on, and then I would see them at these kinds of recruitment sessions on campus for Goldman Sachs or these well-known firms. 

I think some of them are legitimately manipulative and duplicitous people, probably a numerical minority; maybe 10 to 20% of them are actually very strategic and very calculating in this way. And, you know, to be honest, I've met these people who are sort of candid in terms of like, how they approach life in terms of viewing everything from this kind of zero-sum, cost-benefit analysis: how do I get ahead, no matter what bridge I have to burn, or which relationship I have to manipulate? I would say probably 80% of people have their hearts in the right place, they're trying to do the right thing. They think that maybe we should move beyond marriage, maybe we can reimagine the family—these kinds of things. They are trying to legitimately think of ways to improve the lives of other people, but it's just very short-sighted. 

By now almost everyone who gets a degree from an elite college has at least one family member who also went to university. They come from affluent, comfortable backgrounds. They've almost never met a person from a working-class background. And most of them have never had a 20-minute conversation with someone who doesn't have a college degree, or tries to understand what their lives are like, or what their family life was like. They want to reduce everything to material privilege without also understanding the benefits of having the guardrails of two parents, of having the values instilled in them of hard work, success, striving, punctuality, respectfulness, integrity, ambition, and trying to do the right thing. And so I make this point in the preface of my book that I've actually met a lot of affluent people who, as imperfect as it is, have attempted to at least imagine what it would be like to be poor, and try to really think about what it would be like to not have had the material privileges that they've had. But I've never met anyone who's tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up without their family, to grow up in the kind of severe disorderly home life where no one is really monitoring you, or checking whether you're doing homework, or having to change schools all the time. Both of those things are important. I think we should be addressing poverty and inequality and those questions, but we could also be looking more at the family. 

Mounk: It's interesting, because to me, this kind of mediating variable of social class seems really important, right? As somebody who grew up in a context in Europe where most people did not have very stable family units, but in a middle-class environment and an environment of people who are highly educated, even if perhaps not always particularly affluent; as someone who’s spent a lot of time in France, where working-class people are actually more likely to get married than upper middle- or upper-class people, that does not seem to lead to the same kinds of social ills in those contexts. I think it’s probably still the case that even once you hold constant for social class, people with two-parent households tend to do better than those who do not—but certainly, it doesn't lead to the kind of dysfunction that you see in the States, because it is cushioned by all kinds of background factors of social stability: two parents who earn good money, who share certain set of values about how to raise their kids, who perhaps have interpersonal skills to make sure that even though they get divorced, they actually continue to have pretty warm relationships with each other. There's a broader social context of people who look out for each other and so on; whereas if you're in a context where all of that is lacking, then the sort of risks of that just end up having a much bigger impact.

I want to get a little bit deeper into this concept of luxury beliefs, which I have to say I didn't quite realize you had coined, because it's become a very commonly used term. And I think it is a very useful term. But it's also a term that I think is sometimes misapplied or applied too broadly. So help us situate this term in a broader tradition of thinking about status distinction and help us understand exactly what it means.

Henderson: My claim is that luxury beliefs have, to a large extent, replaced luxury goods. This isn't to say that luxury goods don't still signal status and confer a certain amount of prestige on the owners of those possessions, but beliefs have become a new expression of “cultural capital,” this term coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the mid 20th century. If it was once about luxury goods, about performing your class through the way that you dress, the way that you carry yourself, the activities that you partake in. By the mid 20th century, Bourdieu was pointing out that a lot of a lot of wealthy people will convert their economic capital into cultural capital through having intricate and sophisticated knowledge of art, or wine, or literature, or sort of rarefied domains of knowledge, that if you're a working-class person or a manual laborer, you wouldn't have the time or the resources to have access to that information and to be able to communicate it in the right way. And so my claim now is that luxury goods are an expression of cultural capital. If you express certain luxury beliefs, and express them in the proper way, you are, in fact, signaling that you probably went to an expensive college, that you have the time and the means to read the right articles and the right books, listen to the right podcasts, and you are around the kinds of social circles with these kinds of avant garde ideas.

Mounk: There’s at least two ways of interpreting luxury here, and I wonder which of those two you have in mind or whether it's both. One is that, as George Orwell, who I love quoting on this, said, there's some things that are so stupid that only highly-educated, intellectual people might believe them, right? This is an idea that wouldn't occur to anybody to have unless you have been exposed to this very luxurious education, have gone to the right kind of credit-level seminars, in order to understand that this is the set of beliefs that is de rigueur. It is a luxury in the sense that the nature of these beliefs is so unusual that you have to be part of a very select social circle in order to acquire them; you have to have access to the luxury of a very rarefied education in order to hold them.

Another interpretation of luxury connects to what you were saying earlier, which is to say that these are views that have negative social consequences that you are insulated from: defund the police, let's get rid of the police—you can't afford to hold those views if you live in a poor neighborhood where, without the presence of police, you are very likely to be victimized. You seemingly can, at least for a number of years, afford those beliefs if you live in a very rich neighborhood in which crime is low in any case or, in perhaps the worst case scenario, you might have to move into a gated community or hire private security; and so, therefore, what makes these luxury beliefs is that you have have the privilege—I suppose, the luxury—of living in a kind of set of social circles where the negative consequences of those beliefs wouldn't affect you in a direct way. 

Which of these meanings is “luxury” getting at?

Henderson: Those two (more the first one) can, I think, sit alongside each other in the luxury beliefs framework. But these are luxuries in the sense that they're expensive to obtain. Because you have to be able to afford the right education and the right access and you have to have the kind of job where you can afford to keep up to date with the latest information and the latest luxury beliefs. And they’re luxuries in the sense that you stand apart from society, you're not affected by them personally, whatever the consequences of that may be. So in both senses, they are luxuries. 

You quoted Orwell earlier—I had a professor at Yale, John Gaddis, who liked to say that common sense is like air: the higher you go, the thinner it gets. But they're luxuries in both senses; they're expensive to obtain, and you're shielded from any kind of fallout. But it's a sort of a sociological framework, so it's not meant to be a sort of a direct analogy to luxury goods. Some people have accused me of just rebranding virtue signaling or something. But it's not virtue signaling. Some luxury beliefs are sort of intended, I think, to some extent to demonstrate one's moral character or ethical virtue or something. But there are luxury beliefs that aren't that way, too. 

Mounk: I want, as a final question, to ask you about the most straightforward political upshot, as you see it, of your own story. We spend a lot of time talking about social mobility. And it would have been very easy to write your book as a paean to social mobility, right? You grew up in these very challenging circumstances. Because of your grit and your smarts, and a little bit of luck, a couple of positive turns, you go to the Air Force, to Yale, and to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge and become a well known writer and media figure. 

But that is not the implication you take from your own story. You think that what matters is not trying to identify some people whom we can then deliver from more challenging circumstances, or from the working class, but to change the nature of what life in that class looks like. What would that entail? 

Henderson: This is why I dwell so much on the lives of my friends, and near the end of the book, I sort of describe where they ended up. At least, a couple of them went to prison, ended up in menial jobs, had multiple children with different women out of wedlock. If you tried to predict the life of someone with my life or their life, it's much more likely to look like their lives than mine. And so I didn't want it to be this sort of triumphant story of, “Oh, if you just work hard and focus and join the military”—I think this is not a solution. 

People want to focus on economic issues, I think that's fine. If we want to find ways to financially support poor families, I'm not at all opposed to it. But I also think there's a cultural piece that people are reluctant to describe as well. In a lot of our discussions we retreat to discussions of economics, because talking about culture makes people feel judgmental. People don't want to talk about values. They don't want to feel like a schoolmarm wagging their finger at how people live their lives. But if you've benefited from a certain set of cultural practices, think about how they benefited you and how and why you plan to carry them forward for your own children. Obviously, we shouldn't judge and condemn people for making different decisions. But we can still hold up the ideal of the two-parent family. Yes, it's true that a lot of people don't live up to the ideal, but that doesn't mean we should discard the ideal and say, “Well, because a lot of people don't live up to it or because they fail to meet that standard that therefore we should dismantle it completely.” There's consistent research that elite influence does actually have some non-trivial role to play in terms of public attitudes and public opinion, practices, beliefs, habits and so forth. And so if the tastemakers and the members of society who wield a lot of cultural influence do start talking about the importance of family, the relevant outcomes for children, this too could play some important role in getting people to reconsider how they live their lives.

In the last couple of months, I've talked to two readers of my Substack, both kind of upper middle class. Both of them told me that they were having some difficulties in their marriage, kind of bored and a little bit unhappy, thinking maybe this marriage had just kind of run its course. But they both had small children, and they were sort of on the fence about whether or not to dissolve their marriage. But then they had read some things that I had written and reflected on some of my thoughts about it, and they reconsidered, and now they're speaking with their wives. And one is enrolling in couples therapy. They went a different direction simply because of something they had read. And to me this does illustrate that the opinions that we encounter from people that we like to read, that we admire, that we respect, do play a role in our lives. Ideas matter just as much as economics, I think.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.