View from across the pond: Americans don’t interact with people unlike themselves because of the automobile

Here a sociological take on American social interactions and our love of the car:

A while ago a friend of mine, a leading sociologist, told me that the reason people in the United States seem so conservative and set in their ways, their politics so polarised and full of hate, is that they never meet anybody who disagrees with them, they never encounter a single other person who offers a different way of seeing the world, and so their attitudes become overly rigid.

The reason for this is that their lives are so governed by the private automobile. The average citizen of America lives not in a city where you have to rub along with others, but in a suburb where everybody is ethnically and socially indistinguishable, then they get in their car to drive to work and tune their radio to a station that exactly mirrors their own views and when they arrive at work all the people there share the same opinions.

Three thoughts:

1. This sounds like The Big Sort kind of world where people live with people like them, chalk it up to taste and preferences, and don’t think about the structural factors, like class and race and settlement patterns, that influence these decisions.

2. Mass transit is implicated here: Americans don’t want to ride buses and be that close to others. Instead, we would rather hop into our personal cars – think about all of those single-occupant cars in rush hour traffic.

3. But, we can’t think about mass transit without also thinking about how settlement patterns, generally more spread out in the idealized American suburbs, influences the feasibility of  mass transit.

Put this all together and perhaps there is some merit to these arguments. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans dislike other people. However, it could mean that Americans tend to privilege the lives and actions of individuals before considering community life.