Paul Krugman had a recent column in the New York Times headlined “Why Does the Right Hate America?”
Although the headline was clearly meant as snark, it wasn’t wrong: at its base, the division between MAGA voters and the rest of us rests upon MAGA’s clear distaste–even hatred–for the reality of today’s diverse America. That’s really what those anti-“woke” battles are all about; a not insignificant number of American citizens desperately want to “return” to an America that they mis-remember, an America that only existed in a Rightwing fever dream– a manufactured, inaccurate nostalgia for a world that privileged White Christian males.
Krugman began by referencing an essay by Damon Linker that profiled conservative intellectuals. Those writers, he argued, helped to explain where the MAGA right is coming from, and they paint a dire portrait of contemporary America.
For example, Patrick Deneen’s “Regime Change” describes America thus: “Once-beautiful cities and towns around the nation have succumbed to an ugly blight. Cratering rates of childbirth, rising numbers of ‘deaths of despair,’ widespread addictions to pharmaceuticals and electronic distractions testify to the prevalence of a dull ennui and psychic despair.” And he attributes all of this to the malign effects of liberalism.
When I read such things, I always wonder, do these people ever go outside and look around? Do they have any sense, from personal memory or reading, of what America was like 30 or 50 years ago?
I am old enough to remember the America of the 1950s and 60s, and like Krugman, my reaction to the quoted paragraph is incredulous.
I clearly recall separate drinking fountains for Whites and Blacks, the “Restricted” billboards on housing developments (warning that Jews and Blacks would be excluded), the rules prohibiting women from opening charge accounts or obtaining mortgages without a male co-signer…
Krugman is a bit younger; he references the Seventies, noting that these right-wing critiques of modern America seem “rooted not just in dystopian fantasies but in dystopian fantasies that are generations out of date. There seems to be a part of the conservative mind for which it’s always 1975.”
Start with those blighted cities. I’m old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s, when Times Square was a cesspool of drugs, prostitution and crime. These days it’s a bit too Disneyland for my tastes, but the transformation has been incredible.
OK, that’s something of a Big Apple-centric view, and not every U.S. city has done as well as New York (although it’s remarkable how many on the right insist on believing that one of America’s safest places is an urban hellscape). Chicago, for example, has done a lot worse. But between 1990 and the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic there was a broad-based U.S. urban resurgence, largely driven by the return to city life of a significant number of affluent Americans, who increasingly valued the amenities cities can offer and were less worried by violent crime, which plunged after 1990.
True, some of the fall in crime was reversed during the pandemic, but it seems to be receding again. And Americans are coming back to urban centers: Working from home has reduced downtown foot traffic during the week, but weekend visitors are more or less back to pre-pandemic levels.
This doesn’t look like blight to me.
What about family life? Indeed, fewer Americans are getting married than in the past. What you may not know is that since around 1980 there has been a huge decline in divorce rates. The most likely explanation, according to the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, is that expanded job opportunities for women led to a temporary surge in divorces as women left unhappy marriages, which receded as marriages adjusted to the new social realities. I take this to mean that during the “good old days” there was a lot of quiet marital misery, some of which is now behind us.
Oh, and when we talk about declining birthrates, we should note that a significant factor has been a huge decline in teenage pregnancies, especially among women 15 to 17. Is this an indicator of moral decay?
There’s more, and I agree with all of it.
As Krugman concedes, we Americans do still have big problems. (As he also points out, those “deaths of despair” and similar symptoms of dysfunction are mostly artifacts of rural areas of the country, not the urban “hellholes” that MAGA folks love to hate–those “cesspools” where uppity women and Black people and other minorities have the nerve to flourish…)
I couldn’t agree more with Krugman’s conclusion:
Indeed, some people on the right clearly hate the America we actually live in, a complex, diverse nation, as opposed to the simpler, purer nation of their imaginations.
Says it all….