How Television Exacerbates Class Conflict

Modern Family House

Television has been widely blamed — rightly, in my opinion — first, for making the Trump nomination possible and then for making it inevitable.  Starting with “The Apprentice,” TV made Donald Trump a household name, and then, through wall-to-wall coverage during the primaries, it gave him so much attention that the other candidates suffocated from a lack of media oxygen.

But I think there’s another way that television has made Trumpism popular: by (inadvertently) stoking the flames of class resentment.

Let’s recall that the initial vessel of this round of voter anger, the Tea Party, was originally propelled by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli’s rant against a government bailout of homeowners who had bought houses they couldn’t afford, at the expense of sober-minded homeowners who were living within their means.  In other words, the Tea Party began as a protest by middle-class homeowners against upper-middle-class homeowners.

Tea Party resentment blossomed from the wreckage of the financial collapse and Great Recession.  What’s less clear is why there is so much anger today, at a time of relatively low unemployment and steady (albeit sluggish) economic growth.  Despite the good news consistently trumpeted by the Obama administration, a Marketplace-Edison Research poll found that 63% of Americans feel anxious about their finances, while 43% feel stuck in their financial situation.  That’s a recipe for a disrupter like Trump.

The Occupy movement’s explanation for voter discontent is that the economic gains of the past seven years have gone only to the top one-percent of the population.  But all you have to do is look around to see that it’s more than the top one-percent who are doing pretty well in this economy.  Indeed, as the economist Stephen Ross has wondered, why does a luxury brand like Mercedes-Benz advertise on a mass medium like television when there are more targeted ways to reach the wealthy?

Well, it turns out that the social group with the biggest economic gains in the past few years has been the upper-middle class: i.e., families making between $100,000 and $350,000 a year.  And if you’ve got a nice-size 401K, you’re feeling pretty comfortable about the stock market’s performance these fast seven years. The reason Mercedes advertises on TV is because there’s a large and growing group of Americans who can aspire to a luxury lifestyle.

And it’s exactly that group, the upper middle class, that is over-represented on television.  Among the top-rated series, a disproportionate number feature well-dressed characters living in beautiful houses who are definitely not living paycheck to paycheck and who probably have one of those fat 401ks.  For starters, I’m thinking of “Empire,” “Scandal,” “Modern Family,” “The Good Wife,” “black*ish,” and “Madam Secretary.”

Not all shows are about the upper middle class, of course. But many of the most popular shows that don’t highlight this groups (“The Big Bang Theory,” “The Walking Dead,” “NCIS,” “Scorpion,” and “The Mentalist”) are essentially class-free.  It’s a rare series like the now-cancelled “Mike and Molly” that is clearly set in a working-class environment.

Now this is the point where we leave data-based analysis and enter the realm of conjecture.  I can’t point to any specific studies linking TV viewing and class resentment, but I have to wonder how people who are struggling financially feel when faced with a steady barrage of television shows about people who are, effortlessly, living much better than they are.

America has never had a strong class consciousness, nor have Americans traditionally resented depictions of the rich.  Even during the Depression, one of the most popular film genres was the screwball comedy, with its focus on the antics of rich socialites and playboys.

Still, there must be some impact when the majority of the population doesn’t see their lives represented in popular culture.  Inevitably families who are treading water are going to think they’re worse off and more insecure than they really are if everyone else seems richer, happier and more secure.

And what is the impact of all those commercials (for luxury cars, wealth management advisers, high-end computer equipment, top-shelf liquors, stock-trading services, etc.) that many middle- or working-class families can’t afford?  Couldn’t this contribute to resentment and anger?

Television used to be the most democratic of art forms, representing a wide array of social classes.  It’s ironic that as the TV screen has become more diverse in terms of gender, race, and sexuality categories, it became significantly less diverse on class issues.  The white working and middle classes, which used to be so well-represented on TV are now largely invisible.

And who are Trump’s strongest supporters? Those very same white working- and middle-class voters.  A coincidence?  Maybe, maybe not.

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