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?

Americans fearful of driverless cars

Recent surveys suggest a majority of Americans don’t want to hand over their steering wheels yet:

Autonomous autos are advancing so rapidly that companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo are beginning to offer robot rides to everyday consumers. But it turns out the traveling public may not be ready. A recent survey by the American Automobile Association found that more than three-quarters of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving car. And it’s not just Baby Boomers growing increasingly fearful of giving up the wheel to a computer, a J.D. Power study shows — it’s almost every generation.

Consumers will only become comfortable with driverless cars after they ride in them, Mary Barra, the chief executive officer of General Motors Co., said this week. The largest U.S. automaker is testing 180 self-driving Chevrolet Bolts and ultimately plans to put them in ride-hailing fleets, though it won’t say when…

Dangerous as it may be to operate cars themselves, many drivers are anxious about autonomous technology because they associate it with the fragility of electronic devices. Laptops crash and calls drop with nagging regularity. The consequence of a computerized car crash is much greater.

Americans tend to like technology: we like progress and new and exciting options. Is the fear related to safety or also connected to how Americans view driving (despite all the hours spent commuting and stuck in traffic, Americans like the freedom it offers)?

I’m guessing this fear will drop within a few years as stories of mishaps become normal (and even the occasional mishap would be safer in the long run compared to the tens of thousands of Americans killed each year in vehicles) and the technology improves. Could we also imagine a scenario where governments impose self-driving vehicles because of their improved safety?

Majority of Americans wrong about the decline in global poverty

Nicholas Kristof discusses the role of the media in contributing to incorrect knowledge about global poverty:

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world — and I count myself among the guilty…

The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. United Nations members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.

Kristof and a growing number of others have noted that certain aspects of life are getting better for many people – like decreasing violence around the world or lower crime rates in the United States – yet the general public is not aware of this. The media is certainly complicit but they are not the only social forces at work here.

Turning to my own discipline of sociology, several sociologists, including Ulrich Beck, Barry Glassner, and Harvey Molotch, have written books on the topic of fear. Yet, it doesn’t seem to get much attention from the discipline as a whole. Of course, sociologists are regularly pointing out social problems (critics may say even inventing social problems) and often trying to offer arguments for why people and those in power should do something.

If there is positive psychology, how about positive sociology? Here is a rumbling or two

American culture wars to move next to fighting over the suburbs?

Joel Kotkin is back with the claim that the next American culture war will be over the suburbs:

The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live. In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future. Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently…

Yet it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost. Notably in coastal California, but other places, too, suburban housing is increasingly relegated to the affluent.

The obstacles being erected include incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities, and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl. The EPA wants to designate even small, seasonal puddles as “wetlands,” creating a barrier to developers of middle-class housing, particularly in fast-growing communities in the Southwest. Denizens of free-market-oriented Texas could soon be experiencing what those in California, Oregon and other progressive bastions have long endured: environmental laws that make suburban development all but impossible, or impossibly expensive. Suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs are being banned under pressure from planners…

Progressive theory today holds that the 2014 midterm results were a blast from the suburban past, and that the  key groups that will shape the metropolitan future—millennials and minorities—will embrace ever-denser, more urbanized environments. Yet in the last decennial accounting, inner cores gained 206,000 people, while communities 10 miles and more from the core gained approximately 15 million people.

This is one long piece but provides a lot of insight into what Kotkin and others have argued for years: liberals, for a variety of reasons, want to limit the spread and eventually reduce the American suburbs in favor of more pluralistic and diverse urban centers. I would be interested to know which issue Kotkin is most afraid of:

1. Maybe this is really just about politics and winning elections. The split between exurban Republican areas and Democratic urban centers has grown with the suburbs hanging in the balance. Perhaps conservatives fear moving people to cities will turn them more liberal and hand all future elections to Democrats. Of course, lots of liberals had fears after World War II that new suburbanites were going to immediately turn Republican.

2. This may be about the growing teeth of the environmental movement operating through legislation but also agencies and others that are difficult to counter. Suburban areas may just take up more resources but Kotkin and others don’t see this as a big issue compared to the freedom people should have to choose the suburbs. Should there be any limits to using the environment on a societal level?

3. Perhaps this is about maintaining a distinctively American way of life compared to Europeans. Some fear that international organizations and the United Nations are pushing denser, green policies that most Americans don’t really want. The suburbs represent the American quest for the frontier as well as having a plot of land where other people, particularly the government, can’t come after you. This ignores that there still are single-family homes in Europe – though on average smaller homes on smaller lots.

Or, maybe this is a combination of all three: “If the suburbs go, then what America was or stands for dies!” Something like that. Imagine “Don’t Tread On Me” making its last or most important stand on the green lawns of post-World War II split levels.

I have a hard time seeing this as the next big culture war topic that reaches a resolution in a short amount of time (say within a decade), primarily because so many Americans do live in the suburbs and the suburbs have such a long standing in American culture. But, perhaps a movement could start soon that would see fruition in the future.

Sociologist who studies fear at and collects stats for a haunted house

Here is one way to put sociological training into practice: working for a haunted house.

Ms. Kerr’s equivalent of a coffee break was the ScareHouse in Etna, which bills itself as “Pittsburgh’s ultimate haunted house” and has earned accolades from national publications, trade magazines, horror movie directors and other outlets to buttress the claim…

A part-time professor at Pitt and Robert Morris University, Ms. Kerr’s appreciation for the macabre also led to a job at ScareHouse, where she’s worked since 2008 as an administrator, statistician and resident sociologist…

Though the ScareHouse, which opened in 1999, had long taken customer surveys, Ms. Kerr added a new dimension, he says, polling not just on what aspects of the haunted house worked but what customers’ fear most deeply…

Ms. Kerr’s book, based on her haunted house experiences, deals with “the real benefits of experiencing thrilling or scary materials.” Those can range from the endorphin and adrenaline rush and confidence boost of surviving a dicey encounter to the stronger bonds formed in social groups that experience a scary situation together. Of course, there’s an important caveat.

“To really enjoy thrilling situations, you have to know that you’re safe,” she added.

“Thanks for experiencing our haunted house – now please take our exit survey.” Yet, it sounds like an interesting place to collect data. It would be interesting to hear how generalizable the findings about fear at a haunted house might be to other situations.

I often tell my statistics and research methods students that all sorts of organizations, from NGOs to corporations to religious groups to governments, are looking to collect and analyze data. Here is another example I can use that might prove more interesting than some other options…

Worried about NATO protests in the Chicago suburbs? Look for graffiti, flyers

I know there is a lot of preparation going on for the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago but should this really include warning people in the suburbs? Here is what was printed in the May 2012 edition of our community’s newsletter:

While the G8 Summit has been moved to Camp David, the NATO Summit is still planned for the City of Chicago from May 19 through May 21, 2012. At this time, it is unknown what impact that Summit will have on the City. [Our] Police and Fire Departments are well aware of the upcoming event, and have been involved in pre-event strategy meetings and preparations. Please be assured that there is no anticipation, or information at this point, that any significant incident(s) will occur within the City, and [our] residents may expect the same level of security they have come to know and trust.

Being part of the community, residents and business owners have the unique opportunity to be observant and are encouraged to report suspicious activity, especially graffiti. It is one of the most basic indicators that certain extremist groups are making an appearance. Flyers advocating direct actions against government, businesses, or other institutions are another indicator of suspicious activity. For more information…

One could argue that there is already graffiti in the suburbs; was this done by extremist groups? And flyers about direct action – are we expecting anarchists or violent groups at the local strip mall or subdivision? Additionally, these sound like gross generalizations.

On one hand, perhaps it is good that our local government is trying reassure people about the protests that will get a lot of attention in the media. See all the coverage yesterday about the small May Day protests in Chicago. Even if much doesn’t happen during the NATO Summit, residents of Chicagoland will certainly be aware of the possibilities.  On the other hand, I’m disturbed that suburbanites may think that these protests will affect their suburban paradises more than 15 miles from the Loop…

Lost in the Trayvon Martin story: the mindset behind gated communities

Lost in the Trayvon Martin story is the location where this all occurred: a gated community. While these are common in some places, particularly in Florida, one author explains the unique mindset in gated communities and how this might have contributed to the situation:

From 2007 to 2009, I traveled 27,000 miles, living in predominantly white gated communities across this country to research a book. I threw myself into these communities with gusto — no Howard Johnson or Motel 6 for me. I borrowed or rented residents’ homes. From the red-rock canyons of southern Utah to the Waffle-House-pocked exurbs of north Georgia, I lived in gated communities as a black man, with a youthful style and face, to interview and observe residents.

The perverse, pervasive real-estate speak I heard in these communities champions a bunker mentality. Residents often expressed a fear of crime that was exaggerated beyond the actual criminal threat, as documented by their police department’s statistics. Since you can say “gated community” only so many times, developers hatched an array of Orwellian euphemisms to appease residents’ anxieties: “master-planned community,” “landscaped resort community,” “secluded intimate neighborhood.”

No matter the label, the product is the same: self-contained, conservative and overzealous in its demands for “safety.” Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders. These bunker communities remind me of those Matryoshka wooden dolls.  A similar-object-within-a-similar-object serves as shelter; from community to subdivision to house, each unit relies on staggered forms of security and comfort, including town authorities, zoning practices, private security systems and personal firearms.

Residents’ palpable satisfaction with their communities’ virtue and their evident readiness to trumpet alarm at any given “threat” create a peculiar atmosphere — an unholy alliance of smugness and insecurity. In this us-versus-them mental landscape, them refers to new immigrants, blacks, young people, renters, non-property-owners and people perceived to be poor.

This account lines up with academic research on the topic: gated communities are intended to be safe places. They are generally in the suburbs and residents move there to feel more secure. While not stated explicitly, these communities are meant to help keep issues like poverty, race, social class, and crime outside the walls and fences.

Here are the three best works I know on the subject:

1. McKenzie, Evan. 1994. Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.  

2. Blakely, Edward and Mary Gail Snyder. 1999. Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

3. Low, Setha M. 2003. Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America. New York: Routledge.

One of the ironies revealed in these works is that these gated communities are rarely completely sealed off from the outside world. The ones that are tend to be the province of the wealthy and have very controlled entry points. For many gated communities, while there might be fences or walls, not all communities have manned gates and there are often multiple entrances into a neighborhood. So the gated nature of the community is more about a feeling of security than an actual sense that no unwanted outsider can get in.

In the end, gated communities do not necessarily lead to more violent action against outsiders. At the same time, the mindset in these communities is explicitly about safety and protection from the outside world.