I spent part of mid-November visiting my in-laws in Moline, Ill., a mid-sized manufacturing town in the American heartland. It used to be that I felt superior amid the culture of small-town middle America; now I just feel like an alien. I’ve lived my life in urban meccas, mostly on the coasts. I had the arrogance to think that people from small towns were sheltered; in fact, I’ve been oblivious to my own bubble.
Growing up in a diverse place like New York City masked the fact that I had grown up in a class bubble. My friends may have looked different from me — I went to the UN International High School — but we all shared a fairly narrow, socioeconomic class position and orientation. We were mostly on the same trajectory in life: college educations, managerial jobs, liberal politics and a fast track to the cultural elite.
My brief visit to the Midwest prompted me to reflect on my continuing isolation from mainstream America. I thought about a quiz I’d taken a few months back titled “How Thick Is Your Bubble?” It was developed by sociologist Charles Murray as an adjunct to his latest book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” Murray argues that the new upper class consists of people born into the upper-middle class who have never lived or substantially interacted with people outside of their own elite bubble. When this class of people makes judgments about others, judgments based on their own atypical experience, there is a societal disconnect.
The quiz consists of 25 questions that span politics, religion and popular culture, such as: Have you ever held a job that caused a part of your body to hurt at the end of the day? Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis or Rotary Club or a gathering at a union local? Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?
The most you can score is 100. The higher your score, the thinner your bubble. The lower, the thicker the bubble, and the more likely you are to be insulated from mainstream American culture.
I scored a 26, accurately pinning me as a “second-generation upper-middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot.” Still, it’s kind of embarrassing for a guy who leads workshops on class and convenes cross-class dialogues. What I find even more troubling is that before working at Real Change, my score would have been even lower.
Murray writes that there is no longer any such thing as an “ordinary American,” making it harder to pinpoint the “American Mainstream.” But he leaves no doubt that it still exists. It’s become commonplace to deride CEOs and wealthy politicians for being out of touch with mainstream America. However, in reality, many of us have thick bubbles.
Real Change provides daily opportunities to transcend our bubbles, even though the vendors who sell the paper are often as distant from mainstream culture as many of our progressive readers. The biggest difference is that progressives have the luxury of choice to reject mainstream culture, whereas our vendors are rejected by it. If we are to build an effective progressive movement, we must be willing to do something about our own bubbles.