Do You Know Anyone Who Drives A Pickup Truck and Other Offensive Questions

In the past days, Twitter has been on fire over a tweet by a Florida-based web developer and blogger who asked, “The top 3 best selling vehicles in America are pick-ups. Question to reporters: do you personally know someone that owns one?”

The inferno that erupted was notable for its defensiveness, particularly among New York and Washington-based media elites who tried to challenge the premise of the question without answering it.

The quarrelsome reaction, noted in conservative blogs and media outlets who kept the conversation alive a full two days after the question was asked — a rarity in the era of 24-minute news cycles, is a fulfillment of the cliché about “hitting a nerve.”

But blogger John Ekdahl’s bubble question, and the commentary that ensued, isn’t the first of its kind on the subject nor does it really get to the heart of the matter. That’s where social scientist Charles Murray comes in.

Murray has been probing the issue of American-made bubbles for decades, and has written several books about the sectionalism of American culture, most notably in his best-selling book, Coming Apart. In it, he offered a quiz in which people could test the thickness of the bubble in which they lived.

More than 140,000 people responded to the quiz, which was picked up and shared by PBS’s News Hour, and Murray has been sizing up the feedback for the past couple years.

Interestingly, the bubble that Murray investigates is the same one that Ekdahl triggered. And when the boys in the bubble started to react, the Twitter conversation, as usual, melted down and became less of a teachable moment and more of the same ol’ same ol’.

Murray, on the other hand, offers a meaningful and insightful discussion of not merely what the bubble is, but why the bubble matters. He explains his position in response to questions that he received on his own Twitter feed, where he often shares his analyses.

For instance:

“Why are large, diverse cities considered a ‘bubble’ but ethnically homogeneous small towns are not?”

Because it’s not just any old bubble that I’m interested in, but the bubble in which too many members of the new upper class live. The reason their bubble poses problems whereas the bubble in an ethnically homogeneous small town does not is an asymmetry of power. The people in ethnically homogeneous small towns don’t affect the lives of the new upper class. The new upper class pervasively affects the lives of all Americans everywhere, through their effects on the nation’s politics, economy, and culture. What we saw in the last presidential election was in part a result of the members of the new upper class being isolated in their bubbles. It would be good for the nation if they got out more.

So who is this new upper class? Murray describes them as fitting several criteria that put them into a very narrow and elite group of people. This is not based merely on zip code or socioeconomic status, but also on education and culture.

(U)rban-rural isn’t really the major source of the difference in bubble scores. Culture is, with mainstream American culture being conspicuously different from the culture of the new upper class. The decisive indicator of that culture is a zip code’s percentage of adults with college degrees. … (E)ducation continues to have the largest independent role even after putting measures of urbanization into the analysis. …

What does this tell you? Well, it’s not a critique of America’s educational system, and amusingly, the quiz turns pass/fail on its head so that the lower the mean score in a zip code, the bigger the bubble in which its residents reside.

After serious number-crunching, Murray finds that the biggest bubbles are no surprise, not merely because of their insularity, but because of their nearly homogeneous attitudes about everyone else.

The lowest means were found in New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles—the core cities for the regions that contained such a large proportion of the nation’s 100 bubbliest zip codes. Now look at the bottom of the list, where the mean bubble scores for the elite zip codes are closer to the national mean. These with means of 38 and higher are all well away from the Northeast or the Left Coast.

So while pickup trucks may be the biggest selling vehicles in the United States, these thick-bubbled cities are more likely to contain Amtrak’s Acela riders and SUV drivers, and they’re apparently none too happy for having that pointed out, especially since they discovered in the most recent presidential election that their influence didn’t have the seeming sway it usually does.

Take the bubble quiz.