During the last year, have you purchased domestic, mass-market beer to stock your own fridge? Have you patronized Applebee’s or Chili’s? During the 2014-2015 television season, did you regularly watch Scandal, The Voice or How To Get Away With Murder?
The answers to these questions may help determine just how shocked you are at the current state of American politics. Adapted from political scientist Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, the questions aim to measure the thickness of the cultural bubble in which you live. The fewer meals you’ve had at Applebee’s and the less you know about network television (those shows were among the highest rated last year apart from NFL broadcasts), the thicker your bubble, which is to say, the more clueless you are about how most Americans think and feel.
Murray, a controversial figure who’s known for divisive theories about the relationship between poverty and IQ, has never been popular in bubbly liberal circles. But in recent weeks his quiz has surfaced on progressive social media feeds, popping up on Facebook alongside handwringing articles about Donald Trump that ask, “How did we not see this coming?” The implication is that “we” (which is to say those of us who read such articles and take such quizzes) are so caught up in NPR-listening, HBO-watching and LGBT-supporting that Trump’s ascendancy was simply beyond the scope of our imagination. And shame on us.
The bubble quiz is obviously more parlor game than scientific measure, but what it tests is still revealing. You can take it online courtesy of the PBS Newshour’s Making Sense blog by Paul Solman. The questions say a lot about American values and the perception that progressivism is careening toward the mainstream. The quiz suggests this perception is held chiefly by progressives themselves.
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It may be true that just 1 percent of Americans control most of the country’s wealth, but an almost equally small percentage of us make up the chattering classes — the folks who’d like to think they’re setting the cultural pace by choosing the topics and the tone of the American conversation.
I’m not just talking about the so-called media elite, which, depending upon whom you ask, is either shamelessly furthering a “liberal agenda” or shamelessly bending to corporate pressures. I’m talking about the people who gravitate toward coastal cities in order to escape the parochialism of “real America” and then forget that their sensibilities and worldview are not shared by the majority.
This is more than a little ironic. After all it is very often alienation — or at least outsider status — that propels them into their hipster enclaves to begin with. From there, the rarefied magic of drinking craft beer and hanging out in groovy coffee shops engenders a certain amnesia about the cheap six-packs and chain restaurants that most of the country contends with.
Such forgetfulness may not even require inhabiting a groovy coffee shop. Many social-media communities are just hipster enclaves in digital form (in other words, a scroll of liberal outrage mixed with pit-bull rescue pleas); they can be just as effective as an Intelligentsia habit at limiting your awareness of the economic hardships and cultural disenfranchisement endemic among many Trump voters.
This amnesia isn’t just a byproduct of upward mobility; it is, for some, the entire point of that mobility. Sure, it’s an American platitude, even in coastal diasporas to “never forget where you came from.” But it’s even more quintessentially American to brag about leaving your one-horse hometown and never looking back. Like dropping a regional accent, losing perspective on the struggles and misplaced anger of ordinary folks can be construed as the ultimate success.
But, as we’re seeing in this campaign season, we lose touch with a wider reality at our peril. Finding a community of like-minded, forward-thinking enlightened souls is great. Never watching shows like Scandal or The Voice is perfectly acceptable. But forgetting there’s a bigger world out there — one in which people feel so forgotten by the establishment that they’d vote for someone like Trump — is the opposite of enlightened. It’s utterly provincial. It’s bubble-brained.
Hence all the heads that are exploding.
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
©2016 Los Angeles Times