Suburban voters, voting and acting out of fear

The much-discussed suburban voter of this election cycle may have multiple motivations for voting. One factor that appears present now is fear. Are our lives at risk? Will the country will be ruined if the other party is in control?

A little thought experiment: does this easily play into suburban anxieties and fears? Here are some fears scholars have suggested suburbanites face on a regular basis:

1. Fear of the “other,” usually referring to people of non-white races and ethnicities. This manifests itself in multiple ways including exclusionary zoning and gated communities.

2. Fear of losing a middle-class or upper middle-class status. This leads to trying to gather resources for just their family or community.

3. Fear that either their children are not going to succeed or that they are at risk. After all, the suburbs are supposed to be a safe place for which to launch them to excellence.

4. This dates back more to the early decades of postwar suburbia but a fear of losing their individualism and being pushed into conformity to suburban norms.

There are counterarguments to each of these as well as a general claim that suburbanites move to the suburbs because they wanted to, not because they were all fearful.

But, if there are indeed numerous fears in suburbia, does marketing politicians and policies on the basis of fear an even more effective tactic for suburban voters?

Defining middle class in an era of economic uncertainty

Understanding the middle class requires looking not just at resources but also how the middle-class life is lived:

By the 1990s, the world that Mills had documented was coming apart as corporate downsizing and disinvestment upended the neat equation of secure work and praiseworthy home life. Social thinkers writing in that decade, including the sociologist Katherine Newman and the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, followed Mills in charting the social and psychological shape of that in-between class. But they found that loss had replaced dependency as the most conspicuous feeling associated with middling workers’ place in the hierarchy.

Today anguish over lost social standing has, in turn, been replaced by a pervasive sense of insecurity…

Aspiring to stability and respectability today means not only navigating the landscape of eroded and contingent work, but of managing debts. Trying to give children a shot, parents take on financial burdens that can destabilize their own future security.

Class has always been partly about income, but debt is now an equal component of the middle-class story, leading to a central paradox of aspirational lives: Striving for stability and respectability means inhabiting insecurity both socially and psychologically. Economic metrics alone can only tell a shallow story, but at the very least, debt should join income in any attempt at definition.

If this is true, perhaps social class should be accompanied by a different sort of measure. Here are a few options:

  1. Economic security or economic insecurity. Perhaps there would be a certain bar to meet – having a certain amount of savings, the ability to find another job, or something else.
  2. Some measure of anxiety or well-being about current economic conditions.

Two households with similar sets of resources could be quite different on these measures based on the particulars of certain jobs, family situations, debt, etc.

The biggest downsides to such measures could be that they remove the baselines that social class measures often have as well as affect the value judgments made about social class. We know that less income or lower wealth matters; a household with $20,000 of income is going to be different than one with $100,000. (Yes, this could be contextual based on cost of living.) But, if we start including some measures of the lived experience of class, is there a baseline? Similarly, what if financial measures were similar for two groups but one group had a higher level of anxiety or insecurity; would researchers and pundits be quick to judge whether that anxiety is justified?

Of course, if the insecurity/anxiety questions are asked alongside more traditional measures of social class, researchers can look at the relationships and determine what a consistent and valid measure of social class should be.

Murdered cats and discussing suburban troubles in the US and Britain

The Croydon Cat Killer leads to reflection on how Americans and Brits view troubles in their suburbs:

When I told a friend I was writing about the Croydon cat killer, as he (or a copycat) appears to be holidaying in Washington State, her lips collapsed into a little moue, and then she looked away. “What?” I pressed, and she paused before replying, earnestly, “But what if he comes for you?” It was a risk I’d considered, having just celebrated our kitten’s first birthday, but one I am willing to take, because this story — some believe the same man has killed more than 500 cats over the last four years — is compelling and terrifying. And it encourages obsession: It pricks at ancient anxieties.

In midcentury America, the suburbs were seen by some as a dangerous social experiment — this style of living brought sickness. Suburban men fell ill from the stress of commuting; suburban women, trapped at home, had it even worse. In a best-selling 1961 study the authors renamed these regions “Disturbia.”

The place of suburbs in our collective psyche has been on my mind recently, as last year, with great internal drama, I moved out of the city, got a cat for my daughter — pets, of course, traditionally being tools for children to practice grief upon — and settled all the way down. In Britain the idea of suburbia has none of the David Lynchian perversion or drama of the United States. But it’s still thought of as an in-between place, a punch line, where small neat gardens reflect the dimensions of their owners’ minds. Suffocating, but safe. Until a predator shatters the illusion…

A year ago, after our baby was born, my partner and I moved to the area where I grew up, to a quiet street at the end of the Northern Line where the capital opens out into golf courses and garden centers, and I immediately began boring him with much existential whining about the shame of having returned to the safety of a life I’d thought left behind. Then, a month after we moved, our house was broken into. The bed was stained with muddy footprints — the burglar had turned over our furniture and opened my face cream, seemingly confused by the lack of jewelry. That night, tidying up, my partner said quietly, “I wonder what he thought of us.” The city had broadcast its dangers, using sirens and loud lights, but we learned quickly the suburbs hide theirs; here, on school fences, cartoon drawings warn of the threat of accidents and strangers’ cars in cute, childish scribbles. Now we always keep a light on.

This is not an uncommon story: person or family moves to the suburbs expecting an ideal life centered around a home and family life. Something occurs, often a crime or unpleasant experience with some other suburbanites, that then shatters the happy suburban illusion. The suburbanite then often lives on edge. This is also the plot of innumerable movies, books, and other cultural products.

On one hand, this is very understandable. The suburbs, particularly in the United States, are often sold as an idyllic place. Neighborhoods should be safe, kids can grow up without worry and also get ahead, and families should have plenty of good times together. These things do not always happen for a variety of reasons including an emphasis on privacy (which limits both exposure to and discussions of things that may otherwise be typical events), occasional crime, and personal choices.

On the other hand, most suburban places are relatively safe. A single encounter with crime could be very traumatic. Yet, on the whole, wealthier suburban communities do have less crime. Plus, crime on the whole is down compared to several decades ago. Perhaps we just know more about the crimes that do occur – a curse of too much information – and it is hard to keep the big picture in mind.

Perhaps the biggest issue here is the setup of the suburbs as a perfect place. This is a powerful cultural narrative. Yet, no communities are perfect. Simply making it to a nice home in a nice suburb is not a guarantee of a happy life. While there has been talk of developing resiliency in cities, do we also need resilient suburbanites who are able to weather some tough situations?

Successful Naperville also linked to stressed out teenagers

Naperville is not the only wealthy suburb to experience issues related to anxiety. Here is how one expert describes how community success can be related to worries:

Michelle Rusk, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, said when it comes to community pressure placed on teens to succeed and families to maintain the idealized “white picket fence” life, little has changed since she grew up in Naperville in the 1970s and ’80s…

Experts who work with Naperville students say they are treating more children experiencing signs of distress at a younger age…

Growing up in Naperville, Rusk, formerly known as Michelle Linn-Gust, said she heard stories of big houses with empty rooms because the owners couldn’t afford to furnish them or men who left their wives because they felt they weren’t making enough money.

People move to Naperville because it’s recognized as a great place to raise a family, but maintaining that image is challenging enough for adults let alone kids, she said.

In the 1990s, historian Michael Ebner argued Naperville was a “technoburb” – a suburb with a high number of high-tech and white-collar jobs – and this was accompanied by the development of high-performing schools. Naperville was not always like this; before the 1960s, Naperville was just a small town surrounded by farms.

But, is there a way to get out of this spiral of wealth, success, and anxiety and suicides? As Rusk noted above, Naperville is attractive in part because of its high-achieving environment. In communities like this with residents ranging from the middle-class to upper-class, families want only the best for their kids. Would residents and others be willing to give up some of the success to have better lives?

American middle class worried about downward mobility

A new poll suggests the American middle class is anxious about falling out of the middle class:

That’s the deeply ambivalent message from the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll exploring the public’s perception of what it means to be middle class in America today. Fully 56 percent of those surveyed said they believe they will eventually climb to a higher rung on the economic ladder than they occupy now. But even more said they worry about falling into a lower economic class sometime in the next few years. Reaffirming the results in earlier Heartland Monitor polls, most of those surveyed said the middle class today enjoys less opportunity, job security, and disposable income than earlier generations did. And strikingly small percentages of American adults said they consider it “very realistic” that they can meet such basic financial goals as paying for their children’s college, retiring comfortably, or saving “enough money to … deal with a health emergency or job loss.”

In all, the survey suggests that after years of economic turmoil, most families now believe the most valuable–and elusive–possession in American life isn’t any tangible acquisition, such as a house or a car, but rather economic security. Asked to define what it means to be middle class, a solid 54 percent majority of respondents picked “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt”; a smaller percentage defined it in terms of getting ahead and accumulating savings. “It seems like that class of the people just live from paycheck to paycheck,” said Dale High, a trucker from near Idaho Falls, Idaho, who responded to the poll. “Everything is going up, but wages are staying the same. And people can’t live like that.”

Several quick thoughts:

1. Is this mainly the result of the current economic conditions? In other words, if the American economy rebounded significantly in the next few years, would the middle class again be more optimistic? I’m wondering if this is a temporary anxiety or is this a longer-term insecurity based on a perception that the world and their position within it is more fragile than before.

2. This seems related to research that suggests people feel losses more deeply than equivalent gains. Moving down is much more influential than moving up.

3. How do these perceptions actually line up with economic realities? Here is one indicator:

People who responded to the Allstate/National Journal poll reported a substantial amount of economic churning in their own lives–showing, again, a close balance between upward and downward mobility in American life. Exactly 30 percent of those surveyed reported they had risen from a lower economic class, and 27 percent said they had slipped down from a higher class. Forty-three percent had seen no movement at all…

This fear of losing ground is rooted in the conviction that, in the past few years, downward mobility has become much more common than upward movement. Asked whether more Americans recently had “earned or worked their way into the middle class” or had “fallen out of the middle class because of the economy,” almost eight times as many respondents took the bleaker view.

So how much “economic churning” is acceptable? Where do these ideas that people are falling behind at larger rates coming from – statistics about stagnant median household incomes, anecdotal evidence from family, friends, and neighbors, media coverage, etc.?

4. I wonder if this is also related to American interest in keeping up with others. Critics have argued that American consumption and life in suburbia has been motivated by “keeping up with the Joneses.” Is this still the case when times are tougher – people don’t want to fall behind relative to others around them? There is also some measure of generational comparison in this poll data – perhaps future generations will have it tougher in living in a “decent life.”

Briefly considering the sociology of stuttering

Responding to a review of the recent movie The King’s Speech, a professor who struggled with stuttering quickly talks about the sociology of stuttering:

As a person who sometimes stutters and as the author of a doctoral dissertation (The Quest for Fluency, University of Toronto, 1977) and a half dozen or so publications on the sociology of stuttering, I was pleased to read the excellent articles by Tom Spears on the film The King’s Speech and on the stuttering management program at the Ottawa Regional Rehabilitation Centre. As scientists and speech therapists have noted, stuttering is a puzzling phenomenon, shaped by neurological and psychosocial factors, for which there is, technically speaking, no cure but which individuals can learn to manage successfully through a variety of strategies to achieve more relaxed, flowing speech. For some individuals, as they cease to struggle and become more comfortable in their own skin, stuttering may even virtually disappear as a problem; for others, neurological and psychosocial propensity may be so obdurate and self-defeating avoidance practices so stubbornly ingrained, that only strictly applied therapeutic speech techniques may provide modest improvements in fluency and comfort.

From this short letter, it sounds like anxiety and stigma can contribute to the issue of stuttering. Like many human concerns, a combination of individual and social factors can lead to challenges.