We all live in a bubble. Yes all of us. The bubbles may be different. In my case, living many years in Manhattan and now in Chapel Hill, both locales not necessarily indicative of their surrounding areas or the country as a whole. But so too are many other places across the land not to mention the United States itself —all bubbles. There are also the more personal bubbles of family, friendship circle, political ideology, ethnicity and religion. Few of us inhabit a single bubble. Instead, we navigate multiple, often seamlessly interwoven, bubbles working in tandem. Nonetheless, there are times when one of our individuated bubbles may emerge as a primary determinant force that, if only in the moment, colors everything we see and do.
Much like mirrors, bubbles reflect inward, confining and thus limiting our vision. As a result, we may think (even if we know better) that our particular bubble represents all that is. We don’t appreciate or fully understand what lies beyond its walls and, on some visceral level, come to believe that ours embodies the only truth —the only valid worldview. So those beyond our sphere are somehow seen as clueless, often leading to misguided actions on our part. They feel the same about us and with the same result. Bubble myopia, has always stood in the way of productive communications, but I would argue is particularly problematic and harmful today. The irony is that communications have never been more enabled, access to a broad range of ideas at our fingertips. That we are in such a state of misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility may be a tribute — albeit a sad one — to the strength of the robust bubble system in which we function.
Bubbles can be instruments of deception. If our personalities are strong enough, or the noise we make loud enough, we can momentarily draw others into our bubble mindset convincing them that our narrative is of outsized importance. The media, always on the hunt for news, real, imagined or even fabricated, is particularly susceptible to this delusion. They emerge from a visit to our bubble as co-conspirators, not merely enablers but also active mythmakers. In fact, so much of what they do these days is to draw us all deceptively into synthetic bubbles whose breadth and consequence they exaggerate and whose message they either misread or distort.
The bubble mentality has been particularly damaging to our political process. Not only are we locked, fortress-like, into singular positions; we also have become convinced that ours is the only tenable approach to addressing opportunities and problems alike. We, after all, possess the truth. It isn’t only that this kind of bubble thinking has cut off meaningful dialogue; it has also provided fertile ground for fringe groups. Perhaps because the ideas they espouse are so far at the edge, their influence may have a short shelf life but not before they do great damage. No political party has shown itself more vulnerable to fringe movements than the Republicans. In this presidential cycle, the most radical of its members are running rampant while, for example, Mitt Romney lays as low as possible hoping to emerge out of the dust to save the day. Who knows where his gamble will lead? Regardless, In all of this bubbles play a significant role.
Take the one called Iowa where about 17,000 rank and file Republicans, whose dance cards are underwritten by individual campaigns, conduct a quadrennial presidential straw poll. Given the airtime, ink and digital coverage one might think this was a truly momentous event, a predictive gage of how Republicans across the country think and will act. In the end, a winner is declared and boldly memorialized in headlines — in 2011 that would be Michelle Bachmann. Well, it’s fair to ask, what exactly constitutes a winner? This year it means garnering a humble 28.5% of the Ames vote. Reality check: about 71.5% (an overwhelming majority) voted for someone else, one could say against her. Perhaps she is a winner in the sense of getting marginally more votes (Ron Paul a hairbreadth behind) than anyone other individual, but imagine if such a victory would bring her to the White House. Italian or Israeli style fragmented government anyone? To be sure, Bachmann is the current darling of some voters including the hard religious right and she might do well in real go-to-the-poll primaries, but it remains that the Iowa Republican caucus is a bubble.
Speaking of the religious right, there is the bubble housing Texas’ Rick Perry and the participants in his Response Rally in Houston. Governor Perry proclaimed August 7th as a day of prayer and fasting. As detailed on a Terry Gross Fresh Air program, two ministries of the extreme, I’d say revolutionary, apostolic prophetic end of times movement planned and orchestrated the event. Let’s not concern ourselves here with either this disturbingly radical group or the church-state issues raised by Perry’s official proclamation, but rather with the prayer day bubble. According to Focus on the Family, 22,000 gathered to share the experience. It was widely covered by the media. Given the announcement Perry was to make in South Carolina only days later, I look at Houston as the trailer for the new movie, Mr. Perry runs for President. Others may see the gathering as a sign of a religious right resurgence. After all, that’s a big crowd gathered together for public prayer. Not so fast. Remember Perry’s sponsors rented a stadium seating 71,000 and tickets were free. It’s hard to see how any promoter or performer would call filling less than a third of the available seats a resounding success. To put this turnout in perspective, consider the 300,000 out of Israel’s 7.5 Million who took to Tel Aviv’s streets (my last post) compared with 22,000 out of 26 Million Texans who gathered in Houston. I’d suggest a bubble not a groundswell or resurgence.
Bachmann and Perry occupy the Republican bubble, one not to be underestimated, but they also share a place in the bubble called religion. Many millions in America and around the world live in that bubble in all of its diverse expressions, few as radical as theirs. Nonetheless, religious bubbles share the characteristics of all others and most especially for people sometimes described as social conservatives. Seeing beyond that bubble is simply not in their playbook. If they would just look out, they would actually find an unmistakable trend among Americans, especially young people, of moving away from rather than to religion. Since the last election, for example, attitudes have changed radically regarding same sex marriage, long a favorite wedge issue. The majority (53%) now support such unions. But don’t expect either of these candidates of the religious right bubble to be quoting this statistic on the campaign trail.
The Tea Party they actively court is the most notable political fringe bubble currently on the scene. We all now know how fiscal matters — most especially deficits and taxes — play in their conservative political agenda, but how about religion? It turns out, according to Professors David Campbell and Robert Putnam that the Tea Party and religion are closely bound together. In an August 16 NY Times Op-Ed, they wrote…next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter…[is] to see religion play a prominent role in politics. Teas …seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates…are much more interested in social conservatism than anything else and often personally active members the religious right. Teas, most especially, may be living in a delusional bubble.
A recent CBS/Times Poll suggests Tea Party disapproval ratings have more than doubled (from 18% to 40%) in the last ten months. Campbell and Pitman reported that the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right. I’m not surprised that the two groups track closely together — are part of the very same minority bubble. If the two researchers are correct in saying that religion (specifically social conservatism) ranks number one on the Tea’s agenda, then all their talk about deficits and debt ceilings may be a smoke screen, a political calculation that issues like government spending sell better than God.
It’s striking that Teas in Congress speak little of jobs, except in criticizing the President for not producing them, but focus on spending cuts that actually are likely in increase not alleviate unemployment. The Tea’s demographics tell us why. These are not, the researchers tell us, a group of nonpartisan political neophytes, but rather were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born and they are mostly white and, I would guess mostly employed or part of a wage earning family. If we live in a culturally and ethnically diverse society, which includes religious and not religious people, the Teas do not. Their bubble is a closely defined homogeneous circle kept in tact.
While certainly not obliged to give equal time in this blog, I do think it important to focus briefly on the bubble inhabited by those of us who consider ourselves left, progressive or liberal. You chose what fits. We may be correct in our thinking — bubbles give you that confidence — but we tend to be just as myopic as anyone else. Republicans have lionized Reagan, we Franklin D. Roosevelt. That we have to reach that far back is interesting, but that’s for another day. As with the hero in any bubble, we like to engage in a glossy and selective reading of history. We hail FDR’s for heroically ending the Depression and Defeating the WWII Axis. Left out of this lofty story is that far from being an idealist or ideologue, FDR was a pragmatic patrician. His misjudgment and capitulation to conservatives almost took the country back into Depression. He was charismatic but largely cautious and slow to act. Churchill had to drag him kicking a screaming into intervening in the European theater, and only a sneak attack forced him to so engage in the Pacific. It took Give ’em Hell Harry to integrate the armed forces — that, after the war had ended. From within our bubble, all Republicans seem wrongheaded and blindly pro-business, a large percentage of them just plain kooks. In contrast, we’re self righteously for the workers and of course against the indulgent rich. That may be the case, but many of our number are just as interested in success, accumulation of wealth and the very good life. Does that make us all disingenuous hypocrites? Certainly not, but we do live in a bubble with its own narrow view and prejudices. We are as intolerant of other bubble dwellers as anyone else.
The point here is not to say that all bubbles are wrong or that they are not an inevitable part of life. Perhaps with all the possibilities open to us, they are the only way to manage things and maintain our sanity. The point rather is to say we should recognize our bubbles for what they are and seek to overcome their natural barriers, to look beyond their walls with some modicum of an open mind. Only then will meaningful discourse be possible and ultimately only then will we be able to address the vast problems that lay before all of us regardless of what bubble we may call home.