Some Preliminary Thoughts

How Americans became Average

It's lurching unevenly but inexorably towards spring here (yesterday's rain felt somehow colder than the snow that came before it) but in the UW greenhouses it's always summer, or whatever season it is the carnivores like to grow in.

Venus fly trap

Chomp chomp chomp CHOMP chomp

Pitcher plant

Uh, slurp? Gobble? Glub? Not sure what the pitcher plant say. Whatever it is, don't fall in!

Thanks to Conleigh, whose visit to Madison all the way from Zurich prompted this greenhouse trip, for the photos.

The book:

Igo, Sarah E. The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public. Harvard University Press, 2008.

Truman defeats 'Dewey defeats Truman'

Truman defeats "Dewey defeats Truman" (Byron Rollins/AP via Wikimedia)

Remember how much Sturm und Drang there was after the 2016 election over how the polls could have missed Trump's victory so resoundingly? The polling miss in 1948 probably felt even worse for the pollsters, in part because public opinion polling itself was so new. Many Americans still looked askance at the idea you could predict the votes of 50 million of their countrymen by speaking with a mere few thousand. The editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune probably wished they were among that skeptical number after their infamously mistaken early headline.

After the election, hundreds of people wrote to pollsters like George Gallup and Elmo Roper, some excoriating them for their hubris ("Gallup never asked me!"1) while others apologized for throwing them off: "I didn't deliberately try to deceive," one interviewee wrote Roper, explaining he voted Truman after telling Roper's pollster he would vote Dewey. "I changed my mind in the last week of the campaign."2

Gallup on a Romanian stamp

George Gallup on a Romanian postage stamp (via Wikimedia). I don't know what he's doing there—if you know, let me know!

Such earnest naïvete is good for a chuckle, but it reveals something profound about the era: in 1948, Americans were still learning how to see themselves and their countrymen through surveys and social scientific statistics. The Averaged American is about how this came to be. It focuses on three episodes in the history of surveys: Robert & Helen Lynd's years-long study of Muncie, Indiana, whose pseudonym Middletown in their publications helped turn it into a stand-in for 'normal' America; the rise of opinion polls like Gallup's and Roper's; and Alfred Kinsey's surveys of the sexual habits of Americans. Through these and others, Americans came to imagine themselves as members of a community whose voice (Gallup's syndicated column was called "America Speaks!") could be heard through statistics.

This was not a smooth process. Of course, people questioned the premise of surveys (a popular retort to the Kinsey reports was that of course Kinsey found 'deviant' sexual behavior everywhere—only a deviant would sit for an hour-long interview full of probing questions about their sexual history). But skepticism wasn't the only obstacle social scientists faced in making the "Average American" a meaningful ideal. The Lynds presented their 1929 depiction of Muncie/Middletown as an objective portrayal of normal American life, but in their efforts to describe a single, cohesive American culture, they papered over Muncie's class conflict; largely ignored the town's black, Catholic, and Jewish population; and, remarkably, didn't bother detailing the Ku Klux Klan’s stranglehold over the town’s government. (The first issue was somewhat corrected in a follow-up study, after the Great Depression brought Muncie's class divides to the fore).

The Muncie, Indiana courthouse

The Muncie, Indiana courthouse, sometime in the first half of the 20th century (dayne baughma/Wikimedia Commons)

Marketers and salesmen saw Middletown as a new Bible for their profession, pouring over it for insights on the dreams and desires of the American consumer. "Middletown," after all, was an "objective" depiction of a town that matched their ideal of middle America (far more closely, I'll note, than the real Muncie ever did). Marketing actually has a long-running connection with these surveys: Gallup got his start as an audience researcher, and admen were quick to embrace new polling methods as their companies sought to sell off their surplus production. This turn is somewhat ironic: the Lynds used their study to decry the rise of consumerism in Middletown and across America. But in the end the marketers saw the Lynd's book as just so much advertising data.

I guess in that respect, Middletown isn't too different from much of the Web today.

Other stuff I'm reading

The Imminent Danger of A.I. Is One We’re Not Talking About [The New York Times]

ChatGPT keeps recommending this company for a service they don't offer, so they put out a blog post hoping to stem the tide of dismayed reviews claiming their service "doesn't work"

Nobody knows what the point of homework is, [The Highlight/Vox] edited by Marina, and written by Jacob Sweet, a great writer and overall good person. Everyone should read Jacob's alternately big-hearted and hilarious writing in the New Yorker, and Denver friends will appreciate his review of the Quizno's at DIA, one of the few locations remaining in the country.

Your Tax Data Shouldn’t Be Up for Grabs [The Markup]—Tax prep services like H&R Block and Intuit/TurboTax sell your financial data directly to Facebook. This is especially absurd since, for the majority of Americans, the IRS already knows how much you owe. If the Feds could fill out your return for your approval (like many other countries do), it'd save you the headache and the privacy breach—which is why the tax-prep lobby has been, well, lobbying to prevent exactly that for decades.

The recipe:

One-Pot Roasted Squash Soup, from the New York Times. This seems pretty versatile—we threw some potatoes in, and added extra carrots to supplement the single 3-lb squash we were using. It takes a while, but most of that is set-it-and-forget-it baking. It'd be even easier if we had a Dutch oven (which the NYT seems to assume everyone has—we got around our lack of one by baking the veggies in a casserole dish and then transferring to a pot).

This is Some Preliminary Thoughts, Bennett McIntosh's blog. You can sign up for email updates here, or unsubscribe here.

  1. Igo, The Averaged American, p. 152

  2. ibid, p. 161

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