What SUVs Reveal About the Erosion of American Society

SUV sales are up and social trust is down. Some researchers think that’s not a coincidence.

Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

Millennials don’t always buy cars. But when they do, they apparently buy SUVs.

“The floor at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show will look a lot like America's roads: full of SUVs,” the AP wrote this week. Car sales overall are actually slightly down this year, but SUV sales are up 6 percent.

The AP speculated that the boom in Wranglers and Explorers is the result of “a combination of low gas prices, growing millennial families, and a host of new models.”

But according to the authors of The Spirit Level, a book about the human costs of social inequality by epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, skyrocketing SUV sales could also be tied to declining levels of social trust in U.S. society.

Fewer Americans now agree with the statement “most people can be trusted” than at any point in the past 40 years, and plummeting social trust tends to motivate individuals to make decisions that will protect their own family, class, or tribe.

The rise of SUVs in the 1980s and ’90s, Wilkinson and Pickett write, coincided with other markers of suspicion, like a growing number of gated communities and the increasing sales of home alarm systems. They point out how some of these cars’ names—Outlander, Pathfinder, and Crossfire—seem geared toward tough, suburban loners. With their rugged boxiness, SUVs are much manlier than small, socialist-approved minivans, which outsell SUVs in gentle, trusting Canada by two to one, they write. (The ratio is reversed in ballsy, do-it-yourself America.)

The main evidence for this theory is a 2005 paper by media-studies professor Josh Lauer. Lauer points out that SUVs are neither more spacious nor safer than minivans and station wagons. Instead, he argues, SUVs reflect Americans’ growing fear of others and our desire to sequester ourselves and our families from them. In other words, he writes, the “space” people actually seek in SUVs is personal space, and the “safety” is not road safety but personal safety.

Crime did not rise in the United States during the 1980s and ’90s, but fear of crime persisted, and so did sales of giant cars. Around that time, Americans also began buying mace and pepper spray, reflecting the “individualization of social risk”—or the idea that it’s on every individual to protect themselves from harm, Lauer writes.

He quotes Keith Bradsher as writing, in The New York Times in 2000, that:

The United States is in some ways becoming a medieval society, in which people live and work in the modern equivalent of castles—gated communities, apartment buildings with doormen, and office buildings with guards—and try to shield themselves while traveling between them. They do this by riding in sport-utility vehicles, which look armored, and by trying to appear as intimidating as possible to potential attackers.

Bradsher later wrote a book about SUV ownership, and, relying on market research, noted that their owners do, in fact, tend to be “insecure, vain, self-centered, insecure, and ... frequently nervous about their marriages.”

SUV ads hint at weekends full of mud-splattered adventures—the iconic image is of a Jeep Grand Cherokee perched on a desolate cliff—while dog-whistling to the buyer that the car is actually for protection back home. Lauer quotes one Toyota 4Runner ad, which showed the car parked in front of a city townhouse, as saying “It’s the only four-wheel drive to have in this neck of the woods” and that it’s “the ideal way to make tracks in the urban jungle.”

“The image of circled Conestoga wagons comes to mind,” Lauer writes.

Other ads suggest SUVs are dramatically roomier than other cars: “Imagine taking your favorite room wherever you go,” one read.

“These are not ads targeted at working-class outdoorsmen or seasoned campers,” Lauer concludes, “but insecure cosmopolitan drivers less concerned with actually roughing it than with being roughed up.”

In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett contend that, by making people more anxious about their place in the world, inequality contributes to all manner of social ills, including violence, poor health, and, yes, reduced social trust.

SUVs, if they are an emblem of this problem, are probably a lesser one. (More significant data points might include that CEOs make 271 times the salary of the typical worker, or that people without college degrees are dying of despair.) Aggressive-looking cars are just the canaries in the coal mine—or, shall we say, the Sorento on the cliff.