About That Bubble…

Humans have always occupied bubbles–after all, as sociologists and philosophers tell us, we are inevitably embedded in the particular cultures into which we’re born and raised. But our ability to confine ourselves to a small slice of the larger culture–to occupy an agreeable, albeit distorted or manufactured reality –has been dramatically increased by the Internet.

When I first shared The Filter Bubble with my class on media and public affairs, a student objected that life in a bubble was nothing new. As she said “I was raised in Martinsville, Indiana, and I lived in a White bubble.” True enough–but her subsequent life in the “big city” (cough) of Indianapolis had allowed new experiences and ideas to penetrate that original, geographical bubble.

Today’s Republican Party depends for its continued relevance on two things: gerrymandering, and voters who live in a bubble that is also largely geographic (i.e., rural), but one that–thanks to the Internet and Rightwing media– reality can rarely penetrate.

A while back, the New York Times ran an op-ed focused on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former spokesperson for Trump and now Governor of  Arkansas. Sanders had just delivered the GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union address, and as the article noted, her message was inaccessible to most Americans, despite the fact that it was an opportunity to address voters who might not otherwise tune in to a Republican speech.

“In the radical left’s America,” she said, “Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race but not to love one another or our great country.”

Sanders attacked Biden as the “first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is” and decried the “woke fantasies” of a “left-wing culture war.” Every day, she said, “we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with big tech to strip away the most American thing there is: your freedom of speech.”

As the columnist noted, there’s nothing wrong with giving a partisan and ideological State of the Union response–after all, that’s the point of the exercise.

The problem was that most of these complaints were unintelligible to anyone but the small minority of Americans who live inside the epistemological bubble of conservative media. Sanders’s response, in other words, was less a broad and accessible message than it was fan service for devotees of the Fox News cinematic universe and its related properties.

As the columnist admits, this critique rests on the assumption that, in a democratic system, political parties actually want and need to build majorities. But he then considers another possibility: what if today’s GOP is uninterested in appealing to a majority of the nation’s voters?

What if the structure of the political system makes it possible to win the power of a popular majority without ever actually assembling a popular majority? What if, using that power, you burrow your party and its ideology into the countermajoritarian institutions of that system so that, heads or tails, you always win?

That’s a stunning question, but a lot of evidence supports its premise.

After all, there’s no need to win over a majority of voters if you can depend upon the structural realities that militate against genuine majority rule– what the columnist identifies as the “malapportionment of the national legislature, the gerrymandering of many state legislatures, the Electoral College and the strategic position of your voters in the nation’s geography.”

 And if your political party also has a tight hold on the highest court of constitutional interpretation, you don’t even need to win elections to clear the path for your preferred outcomes and ideology.

This analysis recognizes that America’s political system has become so slanted toward  overrepresentation of the Republican Party’s core supporters–the rural and exurban inhabitants of a deeply disturbing ideological bubble– that even when the party’s policy preferences are contrary to those of  most American voters, the party can remain competitive.

The question for the rest of us is: how long can this last? How long until that bubble bursts–and what will it take to burst it?

It won’t burst as long as Americans continue to choose the “facts” they prefer from an  information smorgasbord offering everything from credible reporting to propaganda and fantasy– and continue using those choices to curate and inhabit incommensurate realities.