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The Economic OtherInequality in the American Political Imagination$
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Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780226691732

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226691909.001.0001

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Why Americans Don’t Look Up

Why Americans Don’t Look Up

Chapter:
(p.125) Chapter 8 Why Americans Don’t Look Up
Source:
The Economic Other
Author(s):

Meghan Condon

Amber Wichowsky

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226691909.003.0008

What kinds of social comparisons are encouraged by an increasingly unequal America? This chapter explores how class segregation and media portrayals of wealth combine to push the American imagination away from contrast-focused upward social comparison with the wealthy elite. As inequality has grown over the last half century, so has economic residential segregation, insulating the majority of Americans from the sort of social experiences that make inequality feel real and meaningful. Exploring media portrayals of the elite, including celebrity culture and reality television, they show that increasingly, Americans’ opportunities for interaction with the rich are not social per se, but parasocial, conducted via imagined relationships and comparisons with celebrities through social and traditional media. Rather than offering opportunities for upward social contrast, these parasocial experiences are deliberately crafted to do the opposite: portraying the rich as morally or intellectually inferior, drawing attention to similarities between the elite and everyday Americans, or making distances seem small to spark economic aspiration and exploit the appeal of the American Dream. Finally, the authors demonstrate how race and class segregation distort white Americans’ perceptions of status, and how media use race and gender strategically to draw attention away from contrast-based thinking about the wealthy.

Keywords:   media, residential segregation, American Dream, economic inequality, social comparison, celebrity culture, reality television, parasocial, race, gender

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