American Culture

We all live in bubbles that distort our perspectives of America – rich or poor, rural or urban

Every bubble distorts our understanding of America

2f45d-free_wallpaper_patriotic_eagle_american_flag_background-1-1024x768Updated 11/25/16: added Footnotes section break at the bottom for clarity

I always knew that being white, male, straight, and educated meant that I was living in a bubble that distorted my perspective on the world. But it wasn’t until Election Day, when 62 million (as of 11/22/2016, according to USA Today) of my fellow Americans voted for a fascist (or proto-fascist) that I realized just how distorted my view of America had actually become. Since then I’ve started second-guessing myself on a host of issues that I thought were universal American ideals that have, it seems, turned out to merely be universal among my friends and family.

One of the mental adjustments I’m still trying to make is to recognize that 62 million people didn’t care that Donald was spouting rhetoric that was anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric. 62 million people were OK with bigotry and borderline incitement of violence, behaviors and values that I thought were fundamentally un-American, values defined by the United States Constitution itself1. But while I’m certainly living in a bubble, I’m not the only one. The fact that many of Donald’s supporters are also living in their own bubbles was brought home to me in an NPR story I listened to on my way into work a few days ago.

The story was about Vigo County, Indiana has been a presidential election bellweather for most of the last century. Asma Khalid, a reporter who has covered the intersection of demographics and the election, interviewed Bernard Gibson at a store where he was picking up heaters to keep his baby chickens from freezing this winter. Gibson had this to say about the people of Vigo County:

These are real people here. These are not New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, you know, these are – these are real people that live every day from hand to hand and have – just have to work to make a living and everything else.

Gibson’s view that people living on the coasts and in big cities are somehow not “real” people, who are somehow not living paycheck to paycheck (“hand to hand”), who don’t have to work to making a living, tells me that he’s living in as much of a bubble as I am.

See, there are actually more urban people than rural people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. I dug into the USDA’s data on rural (nonmetro) poverty that was published in September 2016. According to their latest data (for 2014, collected from the Census Bureau among other places), the poverty rate in nonmetro counties nationwide was higher than in metro counties, 18.1% to 15.1%. But there are only 44 million people living in nonmetro counties, as opposed to 266 million people living in metro counties. That means that there are about 40 million people living in poverty in metro area counties vs. 8 million in nonmetro counties.

When I looked at Vigo county, I found that it was classified as a metro county (associated with a metro area of 250,000 people or fewer), something that I didn’t think the folks that Khalid interviewed would agree with. So I reran the numbers with counties like Vigo reclassified a rural county. In this case, the number of rural people from 44 to 72 million and the number of urban people dropped from 266 to 239. But the poverty rate doesn’t change much – 17.6% for rural vs. 14.9 for urban. That’s about 13 million people living in poverty in rural areas vs. 35 million in urban areas.

Unemployment and participation in the labor force in rural areas is much worse than it is in urban areas, but again, since there are so many more urban people, the total number of people affected in urban counties is much higher than in rural counties.

And while there are all kinds of jobs in rural areas where “you have to work to make a living,” with the implication that anyone who doesn’t have a labor-intensive job isn’t really working, there are all kinds of labor intensive jobs in urban areas too – construction, landscaping, janitorial services, and shipping/receiving to name a few.

Finally, some of us who think for a living (because as an engineer, that’s essentially what I do) have been involved in creating tools that have dramatically improved life for people in rural America. Satellites monitor the health of crops (via remote sensing of chlorophyll or water content) and track weather systems to help guide planting and harvest. Satellite and ground-based monitoring systems help determine when it’s safe to do controlled burns and when a controlled burn is more likely to turn into a wildfire, and they save lives in the case of wildfire by helping the police and fire departments determine how the fire is likely to behave and what areas need to be evacuated. Doppler radar helps protect people from dangerous thunderstorms and identify probable tornado-spawning storms. And so on.

We all live in bubbles created by the people we choose to associate with, where we live, our ethnicity and gender, our education, where we get our news, and the like. As I said above, the results of the election pointed out just how much of a bubble I’ve been living in, and how distorted my view of America became as a result. But Gibson and pretty much everyone who thinks like he does is also living in a bubble that distorts their vision of America. It’s just a different bubble.

The hard part is to figure out how to pop our various bubbles or at least make them distort reality less.


1. Values that stand in opposition to the 1st Amendment (freedoms of religion, speech, the press), the 4th Amendment (secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, probable cause), 5th Amendment (due process), 14th Amendment (equal protection of the laws),15th Amendment (right to vote irrespective of race), and the 19th Amendment (universal suffrage).

18 replies »

  1. I’ve found talking with, not at, has been incredibly beneficial to achieving an understanding of my fellow rural-ites, who accept me as an urban expat, mostly. I think, and it goes both ways. They know I do brain work, or at least had in the past because it shows when I’m at the computer terminal updating data I keep in a simple spreadsheet. They know I can cook like a fiend, just not at a grill. They know I can take a cut, stop the bleeding, and get back to work, or take a knock on the head that sits me down hard, only to get up again and get the job done. And they know I’m a political junkie whose views often clash with theirs.

    I know I’m fortunate in my past personal life and my current online life to be surrounded by PhD’s and professionals in all manner of thinky fields, plus a good, strong contingent of creatives and technophiles. That defines the majority of my bubble from NOLA to DC. It’s not that I had an aversion to trade and service workers. Gravity just pulled me differently. And I’ve mostly been lucky that so many who’ve achieved more in those respects than I have have usually accepted me within that bubble.

    There’s not a lot of desk jobs in a town of 3000, 60 miles removed from the nearest “major” city at ~60,000, a “small town” by my previous experience. There’s professionals aplenty, if one has need of medical services, an attorney, accountant, dentist, or banker. There’s some talented creatives and enough techies to keep the computers running.

    It’s a place that runs on blue collar intelligence, though, and for an urbanite who always wanted to work on cars but never had a driveway or garage, it’s a different kind of intelligence to experience up close with the judgment filters turned off. For an urbanite who enjoys woodworking but never had access to a proper shop space, it’s different again. For an urbanite who would really like to get to a point where he can start building things but has never swung a hammer at two nails in succession (but for that one summer ages ago), it’s different again. Mind you, it’s Earth. We’ve got our share of dipshits here as elsewhere, but I’m not inclined from my experience of New Orleans or Virginia/DC/Maryland to think it’s at a greater rate or in greater raw numbers. I’d hazard from the gut that true, drooling stupidity might even be rarer out here, and certainly be lower by the raw numbers given the lower general population density.

    There is an intelligence that comes from a world that doesn’t indulge excuses. When the thing breaks, whatever it is, but it’s critical that the work getting done continue to be done, these thinkers figure out what they can and rely on the field expedient to get the rest done while truckers haul the broken machines to the people who get make complex repairs. When we hear about American ingenuity, it’s important to remember that this kind of ingenuity was part of that picture. Show a mechanic here an old tractor of whatever model, one they’ve not yet seen, and even though the younger ones have cut their teeth on the latest and greatest implement tech, they’ve got their training and knowledge. They get theory of operation and how it translates from one thing to another. And maybe the holes don’t line up on this one like they do on that one, but they know there’s a sense to it, and with no manual and nothing immediately available online (they don’t get to charge their fees for unlimited ass-sitting and data-searching) they figure it out. And while anyone can maybe take the same classes and learn the same theory, it would be as ridiculous to think just anyone could pick up their trades as it would be to think just anyone could master eight different scripting languages, professionally illustrate magazines, or solve a problem with a circuit in a gizmo in near earth orbit.

    There’s also not a lot of loners or prima donnas in these kinds of settings. Much of the work is individual. Only so many people can turn that wrench at the same time, and people getting underfoot can be a pain. But there’s tasks no one person can do, where only brute strength + cleverness + teamwork can get r done. And there’s a related dynamic associated with this…how they deal with a weak link. Some people, regardless of the urban/rural divide, just can’t find a broom that fits their hands or operate a garden hose. They might know how to do some things, but it’s all a bother they’d rather avoid until it comes time for credit. From what I’ve seen, they’re given chance after chance after chance. It takes a lot of laziness and distrust, but eventually they move on when they can’t take the heat. But it can’t be said they weren’t given ample chances. I think there’s an element of not leaving your own behind…until you’ve done all you can, at least.

    None of this is to suggest that an embubbled ruralite necessarily has an enlightened view of anything urban. Or that they’d be as open as I’ve been. Or that they wouldn’t. They’re humans, wild, free, cantankerous, and chaotic as any I’ve ever known, mostly without “can’t” in their vocabularies. And if one wants to reach them, to pierce bubbles, not only must we escape our own, we really, really (I can’t emphasize this enough) really need to stop talking at them like we know better when we can’t even tell when to check the headlight fluid level. Not only does it offend and thicken bubbles, it sets us up for derision we’d thought reserved for us against them.

    These are just some of the things I think it behooves us all to consider when dealing with others. It seems like for every ten things we know, they know ten other, not ten fewer. This is especially important when dealing with the various misunderstandings of the truly abstract things about which opinions run so deep. Can it be surprising to anyone who thinks they understand the Constitution like we think we do that those who misunderstand it do? Constitutional scholars can’t be trusted to get it right. Professional consensus only runs as broadly as the silo it’s found in. And there’s folks like Sam and I both who understand a cynical political dynamic beneath its surface the movers and shakers would as soon went unnoticed. And we’re surprised that someone without our self-annointed advanced sophistication doesn’t grok how the First Amendment works. And we take umbrage. And then we ignore those subtleties when it’s not politically expedient for us. How long did it take for the left to start pushing back against safe spaces, for instance? Pick a right, any right, and watch that unfold time and again. Our “benighted” brethren might be indulged then in thinking it’s us that lack common sense and fairness.

    When there’s a law broken, by all means, talk at. Talk at from behind a badge and a gun. Talk at with an attorney and a judge. Talk at with a sound repudiation at the polls (a feeling we don’t know very well for a host of reasons). Failing that…if the left can’t figure out that empathy, listening, and communication, especially when communication is difficult, are essential to bubble transcendence, I don’t know what to say. Absent effective persuasion, all that’s left is “might is right,” and as this election has shown thus far, popular vote notwithstanding versus the established (and hopefully to be dismantled one day) electoral college, we don’t have that either.

  2. I know a few people who voted for Trump. I don’t think any of them are truly “OK with bigotry and borderline incitement of violence, behaviors and values that … were fundamentally un-American” Two of them are actually a couple of the sweetest, kindest people I know. I don’t believe they ever saw the nasty side of Trump. I think they were fed and consumed a sanitized version of him and then did what their minister told them to, mostly because of abortion. This is not to say that a huge swath of Trump enthusiasts aren’t tiny-minded, homophobic racist cretins, but to paint all the people who voted for him as such is to reinforce the bubble, as it were.

    • If they were fed only the good and none of the bad, then that’s as much a bubble as what I’ve recognized in myself. From my perspective, the main difference is that their minister is helping maintain their bubble rather than the bubble being strictly a product of their own choices and biases.

  3. Not everyone voted for Trump, many people voted against Clinton. My wife being one of them. She went in to vote and filled out every other position and came back to the President position, and she started crying, wiping tears off the table with her sleeve. When the choice is Clinton or Trump, it’s not like it was an easy decision for all of those 62 million.

    And don’t forget that there are a lot of single-issue voters (pro-life/choice, 2nd Amendment, gay rights, etc) who will vote that issue no matter who the person is.

    • I would really like to understand why it was an agonizing choice, because from my perspective it was a very easy decision – one was bad but in a known way that could be opposed, while the other was bad in ways that appeared to be anti-American and potentially a threat to American democracy (and news since hasn’t much changed my mind about that). Gaining a better understanding of why this was difficult is actually a bubble-breaker for me.

      In the context of this post, any single-issue voter represents almost the worst examples of being bubbled in. Single-issue voting represents a form of intentional blindness by the voter, and reaching single-issue voters is something I have a really hard doing given how little I understand the psychology of someone given to doing that.

      For example, anti-abortion single-issue voters often vote for the candidate that they feel is the most likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. But overturning Roe v. Wade won’t make abortion illegal nationwide – it’ll simply return the decision to the states, with the most populous (and generally most liberal) states keeping abortion safe and legal within their states. Similarly, the better the economy, the lower the abortion rate is – because one of the most common reasons for an abortion is because the family (often but not always headed by a single mother) can’t afford to raise another child. And the greater the availability of long-term birth control, the lower the abortion rate, especially among teens as witnessed by the massive decline in teen abortions in Colorado after the state started offering free IUDs and implants to low-income women in 2008. So, according to the data, single-issue anti-abortion voters should probably vote for those candidates who support financial aid and fertility control for low-income women and women who are not yet ready to start families (mostly teens and college-aged women), rather than voting for candidates who will repeal Roe v. Wade. Yet this data doesn’t usually penetrate the bubble, and I don’t understand why. The only reason I can think of is psychological biases that have to be either carefully worked around (a group member mentioning the data) or blasted away (like a family member getting an abortion) before a change of thought and frame can occur.

      • The easy decision was to not vote for the Clinton Machine. There’s enough people from both parties who don’t like Trump to stop him from doing a lot of what he talks about. I don’t think Congress or the Court is likely to give him free pass, even with majority in both Houses.

        I know some who think he talks that way, but will actually be more moderate in practice. We can hope.

        I voted third party, they both turn my stomach.

    • I love third party voters. petulance disquised as principle. Please explain to me exactly why Mrs. Clinton turns your stomach. Her record, sans right wing propaganda, is exemplary.

  4. If the object here is to pierce or at least merge our philosophical bubbles into some sort of commonality then I suggest the first step is to stop dismissing, denigrating, and demonizing the people who disagree with us. We should stop with the cultural arrogance and start with listening.

    That’s why I, Mr Whitey McWhite business owner, NRA endowment member and relatively staunch Republican come here. To read and listen and question my worldview. I like cognitive dissonance, it makes me think.

    Can you folks say the same? Is your bubble permeable or inviolate? Osmosis and symbiotic relationships can be wonderful things. Give it a shot.


    • My goal is to pierce my bubbles some, and to hope that others a) recognize theirs and b) work to pierce theirs some too. I’m realistic enough to know that complete piercing is not possible, and may not even desirable. But yes, listening to people as Frank said earlier is a big piece of it. Talking with instead of at is another. Not demonizing is another.

      But everyone in these comments has got me thinking, and I’ve realized that there are some things that are non-negotiable for me. Entry points for any actual discussion that have to be agreed upon before there’s any point in having an actual discussion. I’m thinking about making that a post all its own, however, rather than a comment, simply because there’s a lot to say there.

  5. Excellent piece, Brian. Although I’m headed in the other direction. I live in rural Indiana and I’m moving to California. Fuck those people in the Fox bubble.