Once again, sales of SUV are dominating the car market. Many would attribute that to the usefulness of the vehicle, such as the fact that it can carry almost as many people as the minivan, but with less dowdiness.
But some researchers suggest the rise in the sales of sport-utility vehicles is a sign of something bigger and more troublesome about American culture.
The authors of The Spirit Level suggest that skyrocketing SUV sales might be the result of decreasing social ties in US society.
It’s true that we’re losing trust in our fellow man. When asked if “most people can be trusted,” fewer Americans than ever agree, and epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson suggest that this declining social trust motivates people to make decisions that will protect their family, class, or “in-group.”
The rise of the SUV – starting in the 1980s and 1990s – coincides with “other markers of suspicion,” Olga Khazan writes in the Atlantic, such as more gated communities and home alarm systems, despite a marked decline in crime rates over the last 20 years.
They point out how some of these cars’ names—Outlander, Pathfinder, and Crossfire—seem geared toward tough, suburban loners. With their rugged boxiness, SUVs are much manlier than small, socialist-approved minivans, which outsell SUVs in gentle, trusting Canada by two to one, they write.
SUVs aren’t necessarily better than minivans. They aren’t safer or roomier or even better. But their marketed ruggedness and individualism allegedly reflect our growing fear of others and desire to isolate ourselves in our own little world. In a paper by media studies professor Josh Lauer, he writes that the “space” people actually seek in SUVs is personal space, and the “safety” is not road safety but personal safety.
To take it a step further, one writer suggests that America is becoming a “medieval society,” in which people live and work in the modern equivalent of castles – gated communities, apartment buildings with doormen, and office buildings with guards – and try to shield themselves while traveling between them. They do this by riding in sport utility vehicles, which look armored, and by trying to appear as intimidating as possible to potential attackers.
In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett contend that, by making people more anxious about their place in the world, inequality contributes to all manner of social ills, including violence, poor health, and, yes, reduced social trust.
If you think this is all very silly – you might be right. The rise of SUVs in the 80s and 90s coincides not only with “other markers of suspicion,” but the fact that they didn’t exist as a market segment before then. The Jeep Cherokee was the first modern SUV and their usefulness might be more of a marker of American’s ability to spot a good product than “suspicion.”
Still Khazan ends her article with a foreboding tone:
SUVs, if they are an emblem of this problem, are probably a lesser one. (More significant data points might include that CEOs make 271 times the salary of the typical worker, or that people without college degrees are dying of despair.) Aggressive-looking cars are just the canaries in the coal mine—or, shall we say, the Sorento on the cliff.
Do you buy these theories? Let us know in the comments below.