Will the Liberal Bubble Burst? Your Thoughts

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My colleague Andrew McGill wrote a punchy piece over the weekend called “The U.S. Media’s Real Elitism Problem.” An excerpt:

In the aftermath [of Trump’s victory], many of the immediate post-mortems blamed a coastal bubble: Too many journalists had grown nearsighted in urban Democratic enclaves, the reasoning went, blinding them to what was taking place in Middle America. If more reporters actually spent time in fly-over country, instead of jetting through for a rally, they’d understand why Donald Trump won voters over. [...] [T]here’s little question the journalistic class has diverged sharply from the country it covers. In 1960, nearly a third of reporters and editors had never attended a single year of college; in 2015, only 8.3 percent could say the same, according to Census figures extracted with the help of the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS project. That year, 46 percent of adults 25 and older nationwide had never attended a university.

Andrew also made a great little graph showing how our fellow members of the media have congregated on the coasts:

For a reader debate on the media’s role in this election, see “A Middle Finger to the Mainstream Media,” sparked by Lindsey, a long-time Republican. Brett responds:

I’m a 35-year-old teacher who grew up and attended college in Oklahoma, moved to Alaska for a few years after I got married, then moved to NM, where I currently reside. This narrative about how poorly Trump and his voters are treated by the media is flat-out embarrassing. We have here a group of people that looked at the fact that every adult in the room was telling them that this was a terrible mistake and took that as a sign of their virtue. And it wasn’t just the usual suspects in the so-called liberal media; conservative newspapers broke with hundreds of years of precedent to point out that—despite their concerns with Clinton—this was an election unlike any other and that it would be unwise to elect a temperamentally buffoonish man to the White House. And it didn’t make one iota of difference. Now, when everyone recoils in horror at the terrible damage that has been done, that is further evidence of the Trump voter’s righteousness?

Another reader, Chris, thinks we’re missing a big point about the media’s role in this election:

As preface, a brief synopsis of my background: I’m a mid-30s, white, straight, Southern male. I was born in South Carolina, about 30 minutes from where they flew the Confederate flag, and I’ve there most of my life. I’m college educated, married, and live/work in Atlanta now. I’ve worked extensively in Republican politics, including for Congressman Joe Wilson (of You Lie! fame) and in various state and federal elections. I voted for Bush, McCain, Romney and in this election, Hillary Clinton. I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Before this election I’d have called myself a Republican, but now I guess I’m a small-l Libertarian or maybe a small-government Democrat—if either of those things are things.  

Lindsey echoes much of what I see daily from friends, family, and acquaintances on my Facebook feed. Her point raises one I’d like to make, and that I don’t believe has been explicitly made on your site.

“Mainstream media” is an oversimplified attempt to describe dozens of entities ranging the ideological spectrum. There are plenty of traditionally liberal publications/websites/networks, obviously, and there are a litany of conservative outlets across all platforms as well but they’re no more a collective than Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh or NPR are collectively talk radio.

If there’s criticism to be levied at the mainstream media, it’s not for any specific political bias. Rather, such criticism should stem from the industry’s willingness to devolve, over the last decade or two, from information providers into infotainment peddlers. CNN and Fox and MSNBC keep a never-ending stream of talking heads on their networks, and they do it to drive conflict and drama, and they do that to drive ratings and subsequently advertising revenue. As the amount of legitimate news that’s available to report is less than the airspace they have to sell, they have filled the gaps with commentary, opinion, and (in a lot of cases) drivel, and then called that news.  

That commentary has become hyper-partisan on both sides, because in order to keep the eyes glued to the TV, you’re forced to forever ramp up the rhetoric, to call everything a crisis, to proclaim whatever it is you’re talking about to be the most important thing going on anywhere. It’s my belief that the American electorate has become largely incapable of distinguishing between legitimate news and trumped-up (pardon the phrasing) nonsense designed to rile up the viewers/readers or produce clicks/likes/shares/re-tweets.

In a society where we can’t tell the difference between news and entertainment, we treat everything as entertainment and thus feel no compunction in decrying the mainstream media wholesale, even when (especially when) that media does eventually attempt to provide what it believes to be objective truth. That’s why my Facebook feed treats angrypatriot.com as a legitimate news source. The people on it can’t tell the difference between hack websites and The New York Times, or else they’ve been convinced the difference doesn’t matter.  

That’s why Lindsey explicitly says she doesn’t care what the mainstream media thinks, and why she hilariously calls on the media not to report the truth, but to advance a narrative more to her liking. She appears to believe there’s no longer an objective truth to report on, only post-fact narratives to be advanced.

Trump exacerbates this, of course, by actively attacking anyone who says anything negative about him and by lying pathologically. As such, we appear to have reached the point where the truth is no longer relevant to the discussion, where a great many of us don’t believe that truth exists at all. How much further before we get to Orwell?

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy.

Andrew Simmons on our site yesterday addressed 1984 in the context of 2016. Update from reader Kevin, who points to another literary classic:

Another, less obviously violent but no less repressive fictional dystopia applies better than 1984: the one invented by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. As far back as 1985, when he published his prophetic screed Amusing Ourselves to Death, the late media critic Neil Postman wrote:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture . . .  [emphasis added]

Postman’s description in my opinion captures the Trump phenomenon and the man’s essential power—to a T. It’s that triviality and distraction, rather than violent oppression, that most of us Americans will experience.

Pixar’s version:


Outside the media bubble but still within the social bubble of big coastal cities, we posted “‘Confessions of a Liberal Urban Elitist’” and “‘Elite Doesn’t Mean Born With a Silver Spoon.’” Both reader notes center on the theme of coastal professionals resenting being called “elitists” by rural Trump voters, especially when such professionals grew up in working-class communities themselves.

Along those lines, here’s Daniel, a reader who began on the lower rungs of the economy:

I am an immigrant who came to this country in 1995 as young adult with exactly $10 in my pocket. When we arrived to Seattle as refugees (see: Syria)—and legally, I might add. My family went on welfare courtesy of some relief agency settling us—yes, that stuff with food stamps and everything. It gave us a way to orient ourselves, and within seven months we were off it.

My first job was working for minimal wage ($7 as I recall) with bunch of illegal Mexicans (who got $4.50) in a machine shop, working a lathe and smelting lead— a nasty toxic process. I was buzzed in and buzzed out, just like I suppose they did/do in steel mills. I still go by that place when I think my work is stressful, just to remind myself.

So I think I started as barely-ends-meeting “white working class” and perhaps have a bit of insight into it. But then I very rapidly progressed out of that term/category.

Fast forward 20+ years. I now have a solid job in software, a nice family, and a decent house of the least expensive part of Mercer Island. I did it without finishing my education I started in my home country. I must thank the high-tech software industry for letting university dropouts prosper. I am not privileged in any way, except that I used my brains, worked hard, and didn’t sit around on my ass. My mother wound up being incredibly successful at real estate—again, by working harder than anyone I know.

So when I hear about people from the Great Middle or South sticking a finger to the “elites” in the coast cities, I have very similar reaction to that of Jon’s. Why? What have I done that you couldn’t have? It’s not like I even bothered with education—although my kids are certainly going to go to university, if I have anything to do with it. I didn’t even chose to move to the coast myself; my parents did. But when I came here, I applied all the resourcefulness and all the brains that I have and I did just fine both financially and morally! What in that behavior is making me “elitist” and worthy of disdain from the center of the country?

Renie’s parents were also refugees:

No one from the top of the elite world would ever see me as part of it. I may have a PhD; my husband and I may have worked all our adult lives in universities; we have lived for more than 45 years in one of the bluest enclaves in the U.S., but we are invisible to the elite that truly does govern our country. But to working-class whites, we appear as alien as any Goldman Sachs partner, and that is despite the fact that we now run a small ranch and interact often with people whose lives up to now appear to have been very different than theirs.

A lot of that is assumptions: that people like us were born to the life we have lived; that we have no clue about people whose lives are different than ours; that we don’t respect them; that our rejection of fundamentalist Christianity is because we have no moral grounding; that we are somehow “others” and not real Americans because we are liberals. Remember that it’s not just liberals who scorn conservatives and ignore flyover country. I’ve had people I know afraid, literally afraid, to set foot in Boulder because they see it as so alien and scary.

As for living an insulated and privileged life—yes, I do know people whose lives were and are very privileged. But I come from parents who literally started with no money when they came to the U.S. as refugees. My dad’s CPA clients were small businessmen; they owned kosher butcher shops, small clothing stores, bowling alleys, and beachfront businesses until I was a teenager and his company merged with a larger one. My husband’s father graduated from CCNY at the end of the Depression with a degree in electrical engineering. His first job was driving a laundry truck; he took a step up when he drove an electrician’s truck. Eventually he got a job as an engineer for the federal government and he was on the way to a very successful career.

Both of our families did bring ambition, education, and a belief that they could succeed. And after much hard work, frugality, and sacrifice, they did.

Another immigrant story comes from Kavinder:

I am a 25 year Sikh-American medical student. I was originally a Republican and my politics was in great part (and still is) influenced by my father and his journey (documented here in Notes). After my time getting my undergraduate degree from NYU, my politics and ideology shifted (due to open-minded inquiry, not some false PC indoctrination that Trump supporters believe is wide spread on college campuses). My politics also influenced my career choice of join into medicine.

For the record, my policy choices aligned more with Bernie Sanders, but I supported Clinton (quietly) in the primary and more openly in the general election. Besides commenting online and getting my immediate family to vote for Clinton in my deep blue state, I did nothing else. [For a longer reader note along those lines, see “The Guilt and Pain of a Clinton Supporter.”]

Let me begin by saying that I will NEVER accept Trump as my president. I will also join the resistance against him (in the ballot box and on the streets). I will not take the Trumpian agenda lying down, nor I will accept the hate crimes being committed in Trump’s name. Nor will I compromise on my core values of a open democratic and inclusive society.

At the same time, I do want to acknowledge that two bubbles exist in America, and one is made up of the Northeast and West Coast where liberal initiatives made gains. This is the bubble I live in, a progressive urban and cosmopolitan bubble. The other bubble is made up of the Mid-west and South, a backwards bubble (economically and socially).

I want to believe that most Trump voters are not personally racist or motivated by hate of the “other” (evidence is proving to show otherwise). But at the same time I do want to reach out to blue-collar workers (people I grew up around my entire life) and understand why the think and believe what they believe. If I can go from being a conservative Republican to liberal Democrat as a result of open-minded inquiry, then I believe other people can. I do not want to believe that half of our country is irredeemable, and I want to bridge the divide and work towards a progressive future.

Lastly here’s Susan, a reader in Portland, Oregon (where most of my family ended up after living all over the Midwest and South):

I guess I’m an elite, by Trump voters’ definition. I grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., my dad worked in a factory. I went in the military, finished college on the GI bill and moved to the west coast. I remember bitterly finding out my cousin-in-law back in GR, a gate guard at an auto factory, made three times a year what I made as a college graduate and news reporter. My fault for picking a low-paying profession, lower than teachers, with whom I used to commiserate. If people think THOSE jobs are coming back, well, I hope they hold Trump’s feet to the fire. They’ve been lied to, big league.

If you have something notable to add to the thread, hello@theatlantic.com is always open. We’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of emails since the election, and we can’t post all of them of course, but we’re doing our best to feature the smartest, most thoughtful, tough-minded arguments and personal stories. I’m truly awed by the quality of notes coming in—the best I’ve seen since Notes launched more than a year ago.

Update from yet another reader, Mike:

I reject the notion of a “Liberal Bubble” as it has been described in the media recently. To me, it’s more indicative of liberals’ proclivity to hurry into the arms of defeat whenever they can. As our politics has seen over the last several decades, liberals seem to look for ways to surrender ground all the time. They seem to have taken to heart all the conservative tropes about how they’re somehow not #RealAmericans. This bubble talk is just one more instance of that.

How is it the liberals who are in a bubble and not other factions of the country? We’re not getting that impression from the popular vote!

If anything, we are a country of bubbles. The Trump supporters were deluded when they voted us into this mess. They bought into a massive con because they were conveniently insulated from a lot of important information. That’s by no means a unique feature to their cause, but that’s also kind of my point.

Now, if we were to say there was a “Clinton Bubble,” then I would agree with that. But really, it’s a stretch to call her a liberal to begin with.

But really, we’ve all just been divided into convenient demographics to make it easier to market to and exploit. Recent events should make that all the more evident.