One of the most prominent and problematic narratives to come out of the 2016 election has been that of “Real America” vs “Costal Elites” and how East and West Coast liberals simply don’t understand what it is like to live and work in the real US of A. Some of this perception has been driven by Donald Trump’s surprise victory with Democrats professing that they no longer know their own country, while another driving factor has been conservatives lauding how grounded they are compared to their “out of touch” liberal brethren. For examples of both of these themes and hyperlinks, you can consult my other two blog posts on voters turnout in Elections 2016 and Racism and the Democratic Party. Particularly for people on the right, one online quiz by libertarian political scientist Charles Murray has been widely cited as proof of the “liberal elite” bubble. Even before the election, many right-wing pundits and academics drew on Murray’s work to prove their point about disconnected elites. I’ve posted one example of many from twitter below:
The quiz, which first appeared in 2012 in Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 but was recently updated and republished by PBS Newshour in March of 2016. Subsequently, the national media latched onto this idea, with outlets like NPR and The Washington Post highlighting it on their websites. However, once you start digging into Murray’s intellectual history, the data he uses to shape his 25 questions and the assumptions underlying the very purpose of the quiz, it is very obvious that this project is not about identifying who lives in a bubble but rather is about normalizing and celebrating a certain rural white American experience to the exclusion of everyone else.
First, it is important to highlight who Murray is and what his background is. Murray, a self-described libertarian political scientist who has spent his entire career working for a variety of conservative organizations such as the American Institute for Research and the American Enterprise Institute, isH described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a white supremacist who through the use of racist pseudoscience has argued throughout his career that other races are inferior to whites but particularly white men. He most infamously makes this argument in his 1994 book The Bell Curve, but has also defended this position in multiple interviews, articles and editorials in the years following the book’s publication. When the survey is put into the context of Murray’s entire career it becomes clear that the purpose of his work is to elevate the culture and conservative politics of white America and equate it with real America, thereby delegitimizing the actual cosmopolitan nature of present-day United States.
Murray’s choice of questions further demonstrates his agenda. His one question about sports culture references NASCAR and while he recognizes the dominance the NFL has over American sporting culture, he implies that NASCAR is the hidden giant that real American supports but elites know nothing about. However, if you look at actual numbers about sports Americans watch or play, NASCAR is not part of the mainstream but rather a regional sport embraced by only a section of the population. For example, the most played sport in America is basketball with over 24 million registered participants while soccer has more registered players than American Football and hockey combined. Furthermore, of the top 26 most watched sporting events in the USA during 2015, only two, the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final and the NCAA Basketball final, were not American football, Yet, while it is important for Murray that people can identify Jimm(e)y Johnson (be it the NASCAR star or the Dallas Cowboys coach), he doesn’t ask about Lebron James or Abby Wombach, despite the fact that many more Americans watched these two athletes in the past year.
Other questions on the survey continue this trend. While Murray argues that pickup trucks represent real America, the fact is that in 2015 Japanese sedans outsold pickup trucks in the US and have done so for most of the decade. Furthermore, in regards to popular culture there are no questions about music, possibly because that would have meant asking whether people had heard of hip-hop artists Drake or The Weeknd. This trend continues throughout the 25 questions of his quiz, equating normal with white, working-class American culture and ignoring anything else, even when evidence demonstrates that many of Murray’s cultural touchstones are actually unique to one particular part of America and don’t represent “mainstream” American culture.
The broader problem, however, is the idea that one particular set of experiences makes up “real” America and everything else is foreign or less important. Certainly, African-American and Hispanic-American artists, thinkers and writers made and continue to make vital contributions to American culture, yet they are totally ignored by Murray. I would suggest that if someone doesn’t know what Univision is or who Kanye West is then they are certainly living in a bubble. Yet, the idea that white working-class America could be insular is never even discussed. Certainly, limiting oneself to only a certain set of cultural experiences to the exclusion of all else is a problem, however, when one suggests that such a process of isolation only goes one way, that is disingenuous at best.
The truth is that real America doesn’t exist. Ever since the colonial period, America has been a collection of cultures and people who share some common touchstones but also differ widely in all aspects of their life. Yet since that time there has always been people who argue that certain values, practices, ideas or beliefs are more American than others. The attempt to equate one’s own culture with “real” America is fundamentally a political project, one that seeks to delegitimize alternative ideas or experiences. For Murray, if white working-class culture is the mainstream, then those who are immersed in that culture are true Americans whose opinions and politics should be values above others. Conveniently for Murray, the politics of the group he elevates above all else are conservative and reflective of many of his own positions. This test is not a neutral arbiter of how much of a bubble one lives in rather it is a tool of a political partisan designed to encourage flawed ideas about the USA.