Why Do We Ignore How the Other Half Lives?

I want to begin this week’s newsletter with several facts.

The most-watched television series in America from last fall to this spring was Sunday Night Football, followed by Thursday Night Football. In third place was the CBS procedural “NCIS,” which, as I found out a few years ago, is a great show to watch if you happen to be at your sister’s house over the holidays and want to lie on the couch for a few hours.

Also: The number of people currently attending Ivy League universities is about 146,000 — basically two Texas A&Ms or Universities of Central Florida.

These pieces of information have become obsessions of mine recently not just because they are interesting and good conversation fodder but also because there is a chance that, depending on your media diet, you may not have thought about them much.

Let me be clear: It is absolutely fine to enjoy fancy television shows on fancy networks that get a small fraction of the viewers of “NCIS.” HBO’s “Succession” may even be good (or so I hear). And I have nothing against Ivy League institutions. But the attention both prestige television and our most prestigious universities receive from people like me on Twitter and cable news and in our biggest newspapers seems to outstrip their actual, real-deal importance in the lives of most people in America.

I’ve written before in this newsletter about the definition of “elites” and how we’ve permitted wealthy people, generally on the political right, who compose the so-called American gentry to deny their status because they lack cultural cachet. They still have money and power, of course, but not the kind of social clout they believe is necessary to achieve their political and cultural goals.

But I do agree with them on one thing: My urban, elite milieu has far too much reverence for itself. We pay too much attention to the interests and actions and political demands of people who occupy the top percentiles of American life and far too little to the people who, well, don’t. And I say this as a member of the cultural elite myself.

Sure, it’s not a crisis if “Succession” gets a weekly recap in The New York Times. But it is an indication of the silos in which we live. And in mine, the enthusiasms and persuasions of elites like me hold sway. Our conversations, our reading lists and even our controversies and interpersonal dust-ups become the sources for media discussion and analysis, a cycle of content that serves only to edify us about ourselves.

People tend to write about what they know. That’s why I write a lot about sports. I have spent years of my life learning about the vagaries of pass interference and the pistol and why zone defense is argued by some to be for cowards. So it makes sense to me that people who may have attended elite institutions, or spend time in circles with people who have, may want to write more about what goes on at, say, Yale than they do about the happenings at a community college around the corner from their apartment. Or that people who work in media are often interested in reading about other people who work in the same field.

But our fixation on reading about the shows we already like and the schools we went to and the people we already kind of know may be trapping us in our own bubbles. This can leave us less informed about people who may live a few miles away but lead entirely different cultural, social and political lives.

In 2020, I wrote about how Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was focused on topics that mattered a lot to conservatives on Twitter but made very little sense to people who spend most of their time offline and disconnected from the daily swirl of online politics. It is striking how unrepresentative of American life Twitter is: According to Pew surveys, 22 percent of Americans use Twitter, but the top 10 percent of users create 80 percent of the platform’s content. And Twitter users tend to be younger, more highly educated and wealthier than the average American.

Rather than discussing working-class issues or rising unemployment, Trump yelled about the need to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that states that websites like Twitter and Facebook and even your best friend’s recipe blog cannot be held liable for what someone who comments or posts on it says.

Now, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act matters a great deal to me. (I think it’s great!) But I’m a writer and podcaster for The New York Times who spends a great deal of time on Twitter. So of course I’m interested. I’m also concerned (or, more accurately, confused) by Senator Josh Hawley’s demand late last month that Twitter be broken up.

But what gets said on Twitter or about Twitter should generate far less media and political attention than, say, recent purges of Black Democratic officials from election boards in several Georgia counties. And what most people need from a politician is probably not a laser focus on the inner workings of tech regulations but solutions to real problems like low-paying jobs, rising housing costs and the continuing opioid epidemic.

What matters to the most powerful Americans is important (and you can watch all the prestige television you want). But what matters to most Americans, period, matters too. What they watch, what they read and, crucially, why and how they vote — or, for almost 80 million Americans, why they didn’t in 2020. This has more significance than what happens at colleges where people like me went or what we watch on television.

Unless, of course, it’s sports.

Please send your thoughts to [email protected].

Jane Coaston is the host of Opinion’s podcast, “The Argument.” Previously, she reported on conservative politics, the GOP, and the rise of the right. She also co-hosted the podcast “The Weeds.”@janecoaston

Related Articles

Check Also
Back to top button