Bubble, bubble, who’s in the bubble?

jetsonsRecently, it’s been fashionable for pundits and journalists to blame liberals and leftists for the political and cultural segregation of the United States today.  Liberals, so the story goes, have up and left middle America (AKA “real America”) and decamped for Democratic-leaning states on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and maybe a few liberal college towns in-between (Ann Arbor, Madison, Austin, and Boulder, for example) where they never meet a single Republican or white evangelical Christian, and this is why it was such a shock to them that the Human Stain was elected to the presidency.  It’s a satisfying, truthy story, but every time I hear some version of this I wonder:  have you talked to anyone teaching in non-elite public colleges and universities today, because a huge number of us left/liberals live in real America too.  Do we count?  Let me explain:

In my fabulous jet-setting career as a historian, let me list the number of Democratic bubble-cities I’ve lived in since leaving the shores of Lake Erie to begin my education 30 years ago.  (And by “lived in,” I mean I received U.S. mail there for more than a month):  Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Somerville and Cambridge, Mass., Washington D.C., Providence, Chicago, and Pasadena, California.  Of the past 30 years, I’ve lived about 10 years of my life in those places, and it was fantastic.  I love big cities.  I love not driving and riding bikes and using public transportation instead.  I love hearing people speak languages besides English on the street.  I love the museums, restaurants, parks, libraries, shopping, and all-round awesome business of urban life.

If I could have found jobs in those cities I probably would have stayed in one or two of them, but alas!  The two jobs I’ve ever been offered in my life were in Dayton, Ohio and Fort Collins, Colorado.  That’s how our democratic, optimistic American “system” of higher education works:  hundreds of years ago, our leaders decided that it was undemocratic to limit access to higher education to a few elite academies and colleges in a few northeastern cities, so through instruments like the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 and the Morrill Act of 1862, the federal government made provisions for the spread of educational institutions across the United States.  As it turns out, the creation of all of these schools and universities was not only more democratic, they became major drivers of economic opportunity for their students and staff as well.  This is the real story of education in the U.S., but you’d never know it to read most magazines and newspapers, who think higher ed is all about the former Congregational and Presbyterian seminaries in the East, which are just a drop in the bucket compared to the state colleges and universities everywhere.

But enough about you–let’s get back to my story:  Given the fact that my spouse has never found a congenial job in the town where I work, I never lived in Dayton or Fort Collins, and instead lived (or still live) outside of these cities in smaller, more conservative towns–namely, in Oxford, Ohio and Greeley, Colorado.  When we lived in Butler County, Ohio, Republican John Boehner–remember him?–was our congressional representative.  Here in Weld County, Colorado, our congresspeople are among the most deeply stewed Republican tea-partiers you could ever meet–Marilyn Musgrave, Cory Gardner, and now Ken Buck.  And it’s in Oxford and Greeley where I’ve lived for 20 years of my adult life.  Not in any cool, fun, Democratic cities or academical villages, but in red towns or cities in heavily Republican regions of the country.

Ask the majority of university faculty you know, and you’ll hear a similar story.  Most of us don’t live in Madison, Santa Barbara, Austin, Boulder, or even Columbus or Iowa City.  Most of us live in cities and towns like Ames, Duluth, Fargo, Norfolk, Tuscaloosa, Chattanooga, Brownsville, Logan, and Kalamazoo, just to name some of the places I know some of you blog readers live and work.  (I’m looking at all of you, friends!)

Mind you, I’m not complaining about my fate, or yours.  I’ve made great friends and had wonderful neighbors in both of the places in which I’ve lived for most of the past 20 years.  I’ve also been fortunate–extremely fortunate–to have tenure-track jobs and fellowships, and have made a pretty nice little career along the way.  But when journalists and pundits think about professors, they think we all live and work in big Democratic cities or in the glamour university towns.  They don’t think about the majority of us schleppers who are well-educated folks from coastal and Great Lakes Democratic enclaves and/or major university towns who nevertheless live openly and blatantly among the good people of real America.”

cowgirlgunsign1We are cosmopolitans who also live in rural, red-state America.  We live, work, and socialize with people of all political shades.  But how many of our friends and neighbors here who are not affiliated with our universities have ever lived or worked anywhere else?  How many of them travel regularly to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago to enjoy the sights and tastes of these cities?  I’m guessing that many of them may have visited these Democratic, diverse pleasure domes, but that most have never collected mail or paid their bills there.

So who’s really in a cultural bubble–all of us university people in red-state America, or the red-staters who never left home?  You tell me.

25 thoughts on “Bubble, bubble, who’s in the bubble?

  1. I find this perennially aggravating for all the reasons you have laid out, Historiann. I think I followed a similar career trajectory as yours. I think its also important to acknowledge our research experiences abroad. I know you have done research in Quebec. I lived, studied and researched in a former East Bloc country for 18 months as a grad student and have had numerous research trips Central Europe since then. I know this extensive travel means I am not “a real American” in some peoples eyes. On the other hand I feel pretty comfortable talking and dealing with people who aren’t exactly like me.

    Although I live in a Blue State, I live in the rural “purple” hinterlands of that state. Our congress critter is the moderate Tim Walz who is in the pocket of ADM, Cargil, the Gun Lobby, and the VFW. Our state senator is GOP and our state rep is DFL. The local newspapers are mouthpieces for the Chamber of Commerce and the Tea Party. The TV news is even more conservative. I would say that I rarely see my own political or social views fairly represented or articulated in the local or state media. So in terms of my surroundings, I hardly live in a Blue State Bubble.

    I have plenty of day to day contact with Conservatives and Centrists and all kinds of people who have different political, social and cultural views than my own. I think pundits and journalists alike forget that our professional interactions with students at staff in the university mean that we talk with a wide variety of people with wildly divergent political viewpoints and experiences of the world. I do this in a respectful manner. I am not here to ‘lecture’ students on my politics, I am here to help them learn the discipline of history. That can only be done as a dialogue.

    Sometimes I think that the only people who live in a bubble are journalists and pundits from NYC, Washington DC/NoVA, and Boston. Everyone else has to negotiate with all the political and social diversity that modern America embodies.


    • Right on! And all of those journalists in the bubble went to college in New York and/or at the Ivies, so that’s their reference point for what all college faculty are like.

      Thank you for raising the issue of international research and living experience. (As you note I have a bit too, but I’ve never received mail in Canada, so it doesn’t count like that.) That’s another aspect of the university cosmopolitan that I totally neglected to mention. Sometimes I wonder if we’re resented because we’re “in a bubble,” or if we’re resented for that very cosmopolitanism.


  2. Thank you! I have had exactly the same sort of experience, except I was also raised in the Midwest. I am so so so tired of the assumptions about professors, who are all over the place and not concentrated in the “liberal” areas. And of the assumptions about “colleges”: all these criticisms of what “college” is like that focus entirely on the Ivy League or the 15-20 most elite liberal arts colleges. It drives me crazy.

    Also: my knowledge of the world comes in part from my students, who are a really diverse group. My directional state university is in a rural area, but we are on a train line from a big city four hours away, and have 20-30 percent minority students (mostly African American, some Latino/a), in addition to the students who come from the surrounding rural areas. My classroom is definitely not a bubble.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We go back to the rural midwest at least twice a year (did you know that Trump Christmas yard decorations exist?) because DH has really strong ties to his extended family… and it’s kind of stunning the difference between the people who stayed and the people who left. Most of the people I know growing up left small towns with dying industries to the economic opportunity of a city or another state. The people who stayed are generally the ones who couldn’t do that because of teen pregnancy or blowing off school (generally related to severe dysfunction at home) and so on. The ones who left never returned after going to college (the closest public 4 year institution being 3 hours away). So there’s also some selection in these dying towns of “real America”.

    And you know, I don’t have numbers on this, but I bet for Gen X and millennials there are more people in cities who were born/grew up in a small rural town than there are of the same age group actually living in small rural towns. But that’s just a guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure your right that GenX/Millennials are less likely than their Boomer parents to live in their hometowns, because it was clear to a lot of us–MADE clear to us–that college was the only way to ensure lifelong employability, because the GM/Ford/mfg jobs that dudes got right out of high school were going away. That was clear at least 10 years before NAFTA. My family is illustrative of exactly this: all of my grandparents were from Toledo & lived and died there; my parents are from Toledo and still live in the region (if not the metro area), but my brother and I went away for college & never returned.

      Something else your comment raises in my mind that I left out of the original post, but: since when is it a BAD THING to have pursued education and economic opportunity? Some of us grew up thinking that that was just “the American way.” Guess I missed the part about how education and taking responsibility for oneself and one’s bills was actually part of a plot to join the Fifth Columnists.


      • Because then the people staying in bad situations might have to think about why they’re in the situations. Personal responsibility is easier when it’s someone else’s fault. It’s easier to blame Mexicans and the people who escaped the town than to introspect.

        That being said, a lot of folk are trapped with no opportunity because the system is set up to make it very difficult for people in poor areas to know about opportunity or to be given second chances. (Much of the midwest has comparatively decent K-12 education even in rural areas– that’s not true everywhere.) And that is a failure of government and a victory of whoever it is that controls the right wing media. But if they understood that, they would have voted for Clinton since she had plans to address those problems.

        Liked by 1 person

      • After spending a year in Appalachia, I am convinced that one of the issues that has driven some voters away from the Democratic party is precisely the notion that in order to have economic prosperity, you need to go to college and escape. The former coal miners here don’t really want to go back into the coal mines, but they also don’t aspire to go to college and take jobs that require relocating. They like their communities. And wouldn’t it be great if they could stay and strengthen those communities, instead of leaving because the only professional opportunities they could find where far away? The mantra that college is the road out doesn’t fit everyone. Job training or retraining was a part of Obama’s platform early on. I haven’t heard much of it lately, but I know it would resonate a lot more with the people in my part of the world than talk about tuition free universities.

        Liked by 1 person

      • @ej
        So… you want to lie to them? Unskilled manufacturing jobs can come back but only at developing country wages and working conditions, which may be what republicans want to get back to. The gap between educated and uneducated wages is high and increasing. Technical change has been skill biased. And it’s the Republican version of economics that rewards free moving factors of production and hurts those that don’t want to move. And you’re making the point again that there’s selection between who moves and who stays.

        I’d like to have been born independently wealthy so I could live wherever I wanted too, but alas, I had to move for a job. As did my parents before me and so on.

        Also, job training and all that other stuff you’re saying not requiring a 4 year degree was part of HRC’s stump speech. It’s as if her policy platform got no media coverage and nobody heard her speeches. She made it pretty clear that although coal wasn’t coming back she had plans for manufacturing and skills training not just 4 year college (though college was part of her plan too).

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with ej that telling everyone to go to college is unrealistic, especially for people our age and older, but I also agree with nicoleandmaggie that it’s a fantasy to tell people that coal will be back (blame natural gas fracking in the US West, not Barack Obama for that one) or that manufacturing jobs will be plentiful.

        Appalachia would do well to look to places like Maine and New Hampshire, which were once booming extractive and industrial economies, but now are much more focused on tourism and recreation. Those jobs don’t take a college education always, and moreover they can capitalize on local skills and knowledge that people already have (hunting, fishing, etc.) But it will take a massive cultural change, one that acknowledges that environmental protection is their friend, not their economic enemy.

        New Hampshire and Maine are also a lot smaller states, relatively speaking, than they used to be. But then, a lot of their sons & daughters find that they enjoy Arizona, California, Colorado, and Texas. Appalachians can too.


      • According to my mom, TX and parts of the southern Midwest were settled by Appalachians moving west. You can hear traces of the movement in their accents today.

        Btw, any student of US history knows that West Virginia’s economic problems are not a new thing. Where do you think L B J took all those pictures from? (Also, on a related grumble, VA’s census taker in 1860 either had horrible handwriting or couldn’t spell.)


      • Oh, in defense of economists, nobody said everybody should get a college degree. (In our non pc field, we acknowledge that not everybody is capable of a 4 year degree. And we look upon skills training as education.). All I was arguing is that lots of people were born in these communities and left and the people who stayed are different than those who left. Education being one of those differences. Teen pregnancy being another.


      • EJ – that’s an issue in a lot of places. It’s an issue in the little towns around where I grew up in Iowa, and it’s an issue in the Iron Range of Minnesota.

        But even people who didn’t get college degrees leave those places to get a job, and that’s been true for at least 3 generations now. People join the Army. People move to South Dakota and live in a single rented room of a trailer to work in the oil fields. People suck it up and learn to ride a bus and live in an apartment and deal with people who aren’t just like them, whether they do it to get a degree or just to get a job.

        Lots of people want to stay. Lots of people save up and buy a little cabin out in a rural area, to visit. Why do the people who didn’t take the risk get all the sympathy and subsidies?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You are so right about these common mis-conceptions about colleges. I teach at a small CC in a rural Trump state. My MIL has taken to calling me “Kumbaya” because, you know, I’m a professor so that must mean I teach the evils of liberalism to my students. Does she even realize that many of my students are veterans … working people … low income and first time in college folks. The media needs to stop talking about the thought police at Oberlin because it paints us all with a very broad brush.


    • the evils of liberalism, or the evils of conservativism?

      Most people who are suspicious of ideological indoctrination in colleges don’t understand that most of us are just trying to get our students to understand the Oxford comma and the proper use of apostrophes.


  5. YES to all of the above, and let me add: my elite, top-15 SLAC is in a rural and economically depressed area of Upstate NY. Most of my neighbors are Trump supporters, so I know the complexities of liking and living with people whose politics are at odds with mine. A lot of the SLACs are located in small towns and are intertwined with the local community, partly to off-set the friction that arises from wealth and cultural differences. Our faculty raise their kids here and do all the “normal” family stuff with everybody else who lives here, but somehow the pundits nattering on about bubbles can’t see that.

    So where IS the bubble? In our community, if you haven’t gone to to high school here and you don’t have a lot of local family connections, don’t even think about running for office and good luck starting a business. A major reason why the Republican beat the Democrat in our Congressional race was not political ideology, but the fact that the Republican is “from here” and the Democrat had her family base in a less-populated county, and the people in our county made sure that the seat remained “ours.” The real cultural difference between the college and the larger population is that the college values openness to the world and to different ways of life, and many of the “locals” prefer a closed and uniform community.

    I also grew up in a small, mid-western town, and one of the big reasons that I was eager to leave was the entrenched suspicion of anyone who’s different in any way: Don’t act so smart! (or you’ll make the rest of us feel bad). Why don’t you want to do what everybody else does? Why are you interested in weird things? I’m sure most academics have similar childhood experiences; the problem is when you want to break out of the “heartland” bubble. Why is it that the Euro nationalist image of a “real American” or “true Russian” is an uneducated, close-minded peasant?

    Liked by 2 people

    • . . . because “real American” or “true Russian” sounds better than “uneducated, closed-minded peasant?” (Or as the Human Stain said last summer, “I love the uneducated.”)

      The way you describe local business & politics is familiar to me, but here there are ethnic implications. The older, whiter good-ol-boys have been able to continue to run things in spite of the fact that my town is probably 30-35% Latino. There is now a rival Latino establishment, with its own businesses, etc., but I wonder how sustainable the political domination by whites is. It’s very much a locals-only crowd.


  6. Trump is the guy who lives in a bubble. Born in Queens and really never left. Basically commuted to Wharton. Rides to work in an elevator. Weekends in New Jersey, and occasionally Florida. Couldn’t find Indonesia on a map or a globe, but he’ll keep the South China Sea an international waterway, one tweet at a time.

    I was born a mile from where Trump was, but never got a letter there (so can I count that?) in the year or so before we moved east to suburbia, then southwest to exurbia, college in small town Ohioah, back east to the only real city that I’ve ever really lived in, taught in a Midwest state flagship university town, some overseas research jaunts, conference papers on four continents. Not all that cosmopolitan, but not all that bubbleicious either, I’d say. I split my time now between the blue and red ends of a statistically blue but topographically red state. People are pretty much the same, whatever their yard signs say.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. On Appalachian adaptation re northern New England, upthread, still valuable for comparative perspective is Hal S. Barron, _Those Who Stayed Behind: Rural Society in Nineteenth Century New England_ (Cambridge, UK, 1988), set in and around Chelsea, Vermont. I wonder if Bernie had this one on his campaign recommended readings list?


  8. Thanks for this. I’m in Odessa, Texas, so I don’t want to hear any bullshit about not knowing “real America.”

    Forgive the autobiographical self-indulgence to follow that hopefully augments your point(s):

    Also, the narrative just presupposes that all academic come from academic-type family backgrounds. I grew up in NH before it was in any way shaded purple, back when John Sununu ran the roost. My working class parents got divorced when I was a kid. I split time between them, though mostly with Mom, who worked factory jobs until I was in high school and she put herself through the local vo-tech to get an LPN to become a nurse. Dad ran a failing dairy farm. We were poor. Half my high school class seems to have voted for Trump. I don’t need any lectures from people about real America.

    Also — and this is the grandest irony of all — I write a lot for various national and international media, and let me tell you about the salt of the earth right wingers: They are the first ones to shit all over my institution in the comments section (or in threatening emails or tweets). They love “real America” in the abstract, but as soon as you enter the public sphere, you’d best represent Harvard, or you have no credibility in their minds. One of these critics took it upon himself to write my university president an email telling him I should be fired. He did not do himself any favors in making his case by saying in that email that I should have “better things to do at your third-rate institution” than write an op-ed column for his apparently above-my-station big city newspaper.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dcat, if you taught at an Ivy, I’m sure the right-wingers would accuse you of not living in the real America. Their arguments are not made out of conviction, but out of expedience.

      Great point about proffies not necessarily coming from WASP/wealthy backgrounds. I have a lot of friends who are from professor or other professional families, but I also know historians who started their careers in higher ed as students in community colleges. My colleague who died last year was living in her car when she graduated from college.

      Sometimes I wonder if the reason the right has such contempt for education is the fact that it has effectively diversified and made good on its promise to include the masses. That is, if you and I are professors, then it shows that education works as a vehicle for intellectual and class mobility. But then I think I’m overthinking the broad streak of anti-intellectualism in conservative or revanchist politics. It’s probably not personal–they don’t care if we’re rich WASPs or trailer trash/swamp yankees by birth. Either can be used to dis and dismiss us.


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