The Right Wing

What Awful Reality TV and Suburban Living Have to Do With the Tea Party's Lack of Empathy

The Tea Parties are partly a product of the suburbs, where social isolation leaves communication about social mores to reality TV. Is it any wonder the movement lacks empathy?

If there’s any one defining feature of the Tea Party, it’s a lack of empathy for their fellow Americans. Republican candidates know this about their base: more than their supposed love of Jesus or the Founding Fathers, more than any coherent principled conservativism, more even than the strong streak of bigotry running through the Tea Party is this gleeful “screw you” attitude. Therefore, the Republican primary has become a contest to see who can heap the most abuse on Americans Tea Partiers don’t identify with.

You have Herman Cain preening about making Muslims second-class citizens; Michele Bachmann attacking doctors and public health officials who would prevent cervical cancer in young women; Rick Perry crowing about his heavy execution rate (which includes a willingness to execute people who should have been acquitted or had mistrials); and Ron Paul drawing heavy applause from a debate audience for his belief that government should just let the uninsured die. Far from being concerned about misfortune befalling others, the Tea Party routinely supports the expansion of suffering.   

To help explain this phenomena, we might remember another signifying characteristic of the Tea Party: despite the enthusiasm for country music, Tea Partiers proliferate in suburban and exurban districts. The most right-wing districts in the country are also some of its most suburban. Michele Bachmann serves the 6th District of Minnesota, which is composed of the suburban area surrounding the north of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Steve King, known for his competing hatreds of immigrants and sexually active women, serves the 5th District of Iowa, built from the suburban sprawl between Omaha and Des Moines. Anti-health-care fanatic Joe Walsh represents Illinois’s 8th District, composed of the northern suburbs of Chicago. Joe Barton, known for apologizing to BP for the White House post-oil spill investigation, serves the 6th District in Texas, which encompasses the suburban sprawl south of the Dallas/Ft. Worth areas.  

There’s likely a connection between the lack of empathy and the suburban nature of the conservative base. Research shows people tend to be more bigoted toward gays and those of different races when they have no personal connection with those people. Suburbs are known for breeding social homogeneity that does shelter people from humanizing those who are a little different than them. Beyond that, suburbs make it harder to develop a well-connected social life altogether.  Without that, it’s difficult to keep your empathy muscles, aka your ability to look at others and feel a common humanity with them. If you don’t use empathy, you lose it.  

In the past half century or so, Americans have flocked to suburbs, attracted to the promise of large houses, quiet, and privacy levels that simply can’t be achieved in small towns and dense big cities. But the price of all those conveniences was the loss of a sense of community, as people left interconnected urban enclaves or small towns to the impersonal streets of the suburbs.   

While there’s a great deal of diversity of suburbs--some are iconoclastic and some are quite walkable--the average American suburb has been notable for decades for an isolating geography and culture. Your average suburban/exurban home is set away from its neighbors with no porch or sidewalks, and suburbanites enter and exit their homes in cars that are parked in garages, minimizing their exposure to anyone who might be walking by. Of course, walking is unlikely to begin with; unlike in small towns and dense big cities, there’s very little within walking distance, killing much reason for anyone but the occasional jogger to be out on the streets on foot. 

Many people living in suburbs have long commutes to and from work, minimizing the amount of time for after-work socializing. Through law and custom, suburbs discourage the proliferation of public spaces where people can congregate easily, unlike urban centers where bars, libraries and coffee shops that are a brief drive or walk away. When you have to drive 20 or 30 minutes to get to the bar to hang out with your buddies, it starts to seem that much easier just to watch the game at home.  

What public spaces do exist in suburbs tend to be less welcoming and intimate than the local businesses and more neighborhood-y areas of small towns and big, dense cities. Suburbs are the natural home of big box stores and chain stores, places you may go on occasion or even frequently to get out of the house, but not places conducive to creating tightly knit communities. Megachurches that litter suburbs struggle to create the community of smaller churches of old. If you live in a small town or a city full of activities for meeting people with whom you have interests in common, you’re not only that much more likely to get out of the house to make new friends and visit with the ones you already have, but the friends you do have are more likely to know each other, creating a web of connection. In the suburbs, people have less reason to get out, and the friends they do have are much less likely to know each other, creating more isolation and loneliness.  

Don't take my word for it. A study at the University of California, Davis found that suburbanites were less happy with their neighborhoods than urbanites. The reason was that the cities provided more stimulation and interaction with other people, providing a sense of excitement and connection. The interactivity of the city was replaced in the suburbs with a culture that encourages staying at home to watch TV and building tall fences to minimize interaction with others. The result for suburbanites is isolation and difficulty making new friends.  

The isolating aspects of suburbia are ironically part of their draw, because people see this isolation and feel it provides privacy. But there’s good reason to believe that all this isolation destroys people’s ability to look at their fellow citizens and feel empathy, not only because they simply know fewer people they can relate to, but also because they have fewer occasions to gossip.

Gossip, i.e. the practice of people talking about others they know in common, has a bad reputation as being nothing but back-biting chatter, but sociologists see it in a much different light. In fact, gossip has two very important functions, building relationships and communicating social values. Gossip can be the passing along of negative information, sure, but it also is used to pass along positive information (who had a baby, who got a job), and to communicate value-neutral information that just happens to be interesting (who’s dating who). When you gossip, you not only bond with the person you’re gossiping with, but you are both solidifying your sense that the person you’re gossiping about is a part of your community. After all, they matter enough to be talked about.   

Gossip is often used to shame and to judge, but it also keeps people interested in other people and can help build empathy. As someone who grew up in a small town, I can testify to its power to make you feel connected, even to people you aren’t otherwise close to. When we would congregate in the beauty salon in the afternoons and hear all the local gossip, we walked away feeling closer to the people that had been discussed, even the ones who were being judged. By hearing stories about hook-ups and divorces, teen pregnancy and romantic rivalries, we got to practice imagining what it’s like to be these other people. And because they were people we knew and had to deal with on a regular basis, we worked those empathy muscles harder. Yes, there was lots of scolding and lots of judging, but there was also lots of sympathizing and coming up with ideas to help people out of tight spots.  

In place of gossip, suburbanites have turned toward tabloid magazines and reality TV to scratch that itch to gawk at other people’s personal lives. As noted urbanist Richard Florida explained to New York Magazine, reality TV signals understanding that it’s filling the gossip void in the lives of lonely suburbanites, by filling the set design with familiar aspects of suburban lives, but then populating it with the real people experiencing dramas that are shut off from suburban dwellers who don’t have enough interconnections to gossip about their own neighbors. Florida didn’t seem to think this was such a bad substitute, but looking at some of the effects of suburban culture on the body politic should give us reason for concern.   

After all, unlike with regular gossip about your friends and neighbors, reality TV and tabloid stars aren’t people you have to deal with or empathize with. In fact, reality TV and tabloids go out of their way to make their stars seem like horrible, shallow people you can judge without any empathy at all. Enjoying reality TV is only somewhat like regular gossip, in that there’s the same judging and cataloguing of behavior. But unlike with real world gossip, there’s no empathetic side. It’s just all pointing and laughing, with very little sympathy and absolutely no value put on problem-solving. If the beauty salon in my small town had been nearly as vicious as your average reality TV show, everyone would have avoided it for fear of picking up a terminal case of bitchiness.  

So this is how it is for much of suburban America: they’re being encouraged to demonize and sit in judgment without taking much time to actually get to know others and sympathize with their problems. Suburban isolation makes it harder to see other people as real, important and human. No wonder it’s increasingly easy for suburban conservatives to judge others with an unrelenting harshness that shows no indication they even realize their targets are fellow human beings. No wonder they can whoop with joy at the idea of someone dying for lack of health insurance or suggest that even married, monogamous women are dirty sluts who don’t deserve any sympathy for their health care concerns. The complex realities of living have become increasingly alien to large swaths of America. They have very little exposure to what real people’s lives are like, and it’s that much easier for them to treat other people like they’re simply toys that can be tossed out with the trash when they have no more use for them.