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  1. Opinion

Column: A question about friends reveals a lot about class

You may have been asked at some point how many of your friends are white or black, as a test for racial inclusiveness. Now try a question that reveals something about the U.S. class divide: How many of your closest friends didn't graduate from college?

The insularity of elites has been noted frequently in this election season as an explanation for the failure of political operatives, journalists and scholars to recognize the political ascendance of Donald Trump. But it isn't a new phenomenon. Americans tend to sort themselves geographically by party or ideology so that like-minded people tend to live near one another.

With the help of Morning Consult, an online polling organization, we sought to measure such insularity. In a poll of more than 2,000 registered voters, it found that 29 percent of adults with at least a bachelor's degree say all five of their closest friends have at least a four-year college degree.

And 31 percent of adults who either never attended college or never graduated say none of their closest friends had at least a four-year college degree.

The survey shows that the less educated aren't quite as insular as the educated. Among those without a college degree, 10 percent said all of their five closest friends didn't attend college. Among those with a college degree, 3 percent said all five of their closest friends never attended college.

Among Americans who say they had postgraduate educations — doctors, lawyers, professors, business-school graduates — 57 percent say four or five of their best friends have at least a college degree. Half of the people with a four-year college degree say that.

Liberals are about as exclusive in their friendships as conservatives: 34 percent of them say four or five of their five closest friends have college degrees. Among conservatives it is 30 percent.

Others have tried to measure the elites' bubble. PBS NewsHour created a quiz for its viewers based on Coming Apart, the 2012 book by Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The quiz attempted to determine just how isolated the U.S. elite are. It asked questions like "Have you ever bought an Avon product?" and "Have you ever bought a pickup truck?"

What it found was that on a scale of 1 to 100, the average score was 40, with a lower score indicating insulation from mainstream American culture. The quiz was a lot of fun, but it still left unanswered the question of how isolated and polarized Americans are.

Despite the separation of the college educated from the less educated, the Morning Consult survey shows that race still reveals a sharper separation. Among whites, 48 percent say all of their five closest friends are white. Thirty-six percent of blacks say all of their five closest friends are black, and 31 percent say none of their five closest friends are white.

Not surprisingly, people of the same income level say they flock together. About 1 in 3 adults in households earning less than $50,000 a year say all of their friends have incomes that level or below. Almost 4 of 10 adults in households earning more than $100,000 a year say none of their five closest friends earn less than $50,000.

A bubble envelops people by party affiliation as well. Among Democrats, 34 percent say all of their closest friends are Democrats, while only 7 percent of Democrats that say that none of their closest friends are Democrats. With Republicans, 28 percent say all of their friends are Republican.

People who identified as political moderates tend to have views that are closer to those of self-identified liberals than to those of self-identified conservatives. But in terms of sharing friendships among people with less education, political ideology seems to make little difference. Nearly the same percentage of moderates, conservatives and liberals — about 36 percent — have few or no friends without college degrees.

© 2016 New York Times

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