Those Alternate Realities

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of modern America seem “rooted not just in dystopian fantasies but in dystopian fantasies that are generations out of date.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….


Political Diversity

In a recent essay for the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie traced the arc of GOP radicalization.

He noted an undeniable fact: while the Democratic Party overall is more liberal than it has previously been,  it is not nearly as ideologically uniform as the GOP. Neither does it employ a doctrinaire liberalism as a litmus test in most Democratic Party primaries. As he points out,

Joe Biden, for example, is the paradigmatic moderate Democrat and, currently, the president of the United States and leader of the Democratic Party, with ample support across the party establishment. And in Congress, there’s no liberal equivalent to the House Freedom Caucus: no group of nihilistic, obstruction-minded left-wing lawmakers. When Democrats were in the majority, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was a reliable partner of President Biden’s and a constructive force in the making of legislation. If the issue is polarization, then it seems to be driving only one of our two parties toward the abyss.

What accounts for the fact that the Democratic Party still operates as a normal American political party while the Republican Party so clearly doesn’t? Why do Democratic moderates continue to hold the levers of power within the national party, while –as we’ve just seen– extremists completely control the GOP?

One important reason for this fact is the heterogeneity of the Democratic coalition. To piece together a majority in the Electoral College, or to gain control of the House or Senate, Democrats have to win or make inroads with a cross-section of the American public: young people, affluent suburbanites, Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters, as well as a sizable percentage of the white working class. To lose ground with any one of these groups is to risk defeat, whether it’s in the race for president or an off-year election for governor.

Political pundits often note the problems posed by the Democrats’ diversity : phrases like “circular firing squad” and “it’s like herding cats” come to mind. But Bouie reminds readers that the elements that make consensus difficult are also small-d democratic positives:

A broad coalition also means a broad set of interests and demands, some of which are in tension with one another. This has at least two major implications for the internal workings of the Democratic Party. First, it makes for a kind of brokerage politics in which the most powerful Democratic politicians are often those who can best appeal to and manage the various groups and interests that make up the Democratic coalition. And second, it gives the Democratic Party a certain amount of self-regulation. Move too far in the direction of one group or one interest, and you may lose support among the others.

Governing a diverse polity requires an ability to compromise, to operate and negotiate among diverse needs and interests. Whatever terms describe today’s GOP, “diverse” is not one of them.

Consider the demographics of the Republican coalition. A majority of voters in both parties are white Americans. But whereas the Democratic Party electorate was 61 percent white in the 2020 presidential election, the Republican one was 86 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Similarly, there is much less religious diversity among Republicans — more than a third of Republican voters in 2020 were white evangelical Protestants — than there is among Democrats. And while we tend to think of Democrats as entirely urban and suburban, the proportion of rural voters in the Democratic Party as a whole is actually greater than the proportion of urban voters in the Republican Party. There is, in other words, less geographic diversity among Republicans as well.

The GOP is also ideologically monolithic– almost uniformly conservative. There are plenty of moderate Democrats; as Bouie notes, however, moderate Republican politicians are virtually extinct. “The Republican Party exists almost entirely for the promotion of a distinct and doctrinaire ideology of hierarchy and antigovernment retrenchment.”

The key issue for conservative voters and conservative media isn’t whether a Republican politician can pass legislation or manage a government or bridge political divides; the key question is whether a Republican politician is sufficiently committed to the ideology, whatever that means in the moment…

Outdated electoral systems incentivize even further radicalization.

The Republican Party is practically engineered to produce politicians like Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. And there’s no brake — no emergency off switch — that might slow or stop the car. The one thing that might get the Republican Party back on the rails is a major and unanticipated shift in the structure of American politics that forces it to adapt to new voters, new constituencies and new conditions.

Only if massive losses force the GOP to diversify will the party be capable of participating in democratic governance. Today, it’s just a monolithic tribe.


Me And Paul (Krugman)

When I quote Paul Krugman, which I often do, it’s almost always for an observation about economics. After all, Krugman won his Nobel Prize for economics, and his columns in the New York Times and the subjects he addresses in his newsletter routinely focus on economic issues.

In a recent column, however, Krugman “sang my song”– explaining why many Americans have deserted rural and suburban residencies in order to live in densely populated urban neighborhoods.

He also addressed the impact of America’s rural/urban split on the country’s political culture wars.

 I have an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s a very densely populated area — according to census data the area within a one-mile radius of my place has around 100 residents per acre, or more than 60,000 per square mile. This dense (and, to be honest, affluent) population supports a huge variety of businesses: restaurants, groceries, hardware stores, specialty shops of all kinds. Most of what you might want to do or buy is within easy walking distance.

In effect, then, I live in what some Europeans — most famously Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris — call “a 15-minute city.” It’s a catchy if slightly misleading name for a concept that urbanists have long advocated: walkable cities that take advantage of the possibilities of density.

Modern politics being what it is, alas, it’s also a concept that has been caught up in the culture wars and become the subject of wild conspiracy theories. And as usual the people who yell loudest about “freedom” are actually the ones who want to practice coercion, preventing other Americans from living in ways they disapprove of.

I often come across articles glorifying rural life, and promoting movement “back to the earth.” Like Krugman, however, my husband and I are urban people. We lived many years in historic, near-downtown neighborhoods, and when we got too old to comfortably navigate our last (three-story) house, we moved to an apartment in the very center of our city’s downtown.

Krugman’s column described what has been so liberating about that move: urban life is easy. As he points out, “Running errands is a snap; because you walk most places, you don’t worry about traffic jams or parking spaces.”

And those perceptions of crime and grime? They are simply wrong.

Krugman’s New York is one of the safest places in America, and as the Indianapolis Business Journal recently confirmed, Indianapolis’ downtown is the safest area in our city. (It’s pretty clean, too!)

There’s an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to disparage big cities and their residents in a way that would be considered unforgivable if anyone did the same for rural areas…. There seems to be a widespread sense that only people living a car-centered lifestyle, or a pickup truck-centered lifestyle, are real Americans….

Now, I don’t know how many Americans would choose the walkable-city lifestyle if it were widely available, but surely many more than are living it now. Unfortunately, urban planning — for cities are always planned, one way or another — is yet another casualty of the politics of grievance and paranoia.

That last observation really hits home.

In conversations with people who are clearly flummoxed by our choice to live downtown, we often hear concerns centered on the very elements of urban life that we celebrate. In Indiana, the “buckle of the Bible Belt”), the center of a city is where you find the most diverse population mix–and for far too many Hoosiers and other Americans, diversity equals danger.

It must be dangerous downtown, because there are so many people who don’t look like me…

There’s a reason apartments and condominiums are being built at a rapid pace in the city core. It’s an attractive, vibrant, quintessentially urban place to live. Even with  constant residential construction, occupancy levels are 93- 95%.

When weather permits, my husband and I like to sit in the outdoor/sidewalk section of the restaurant next door to our building, and watch the young, multi-ethnic crowds walk and bike (and scooter) by. We look up Massachusetts Avenue at the multitude of restaurants, bars and shops we regularly patronize.

In an era where media is filled with reports of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia, our little patch of urban life remains welcoming and enthusiastically “woke.”  And I’m gratified to report that the young people who dominate residency in our apartment building are unfailingly polite and helpful to us “old folks.”

We aren’t the only Americans drawn to what urban life has to offer: According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2020, only 14 percent of the U.S. population still lived in the rural counties that continue to dominate American politics and dictate public policy.

I hope I live long enough to see fair representation for the remaining 86% of us.


Stop The World, I Want Off Doesn’t Work

Posted this by mistake, but just consider it an extra…Sorry to clutter your inboxes.

I’ve often thought that if ultra-wealthy people like Bloomberg and Gates really want to help the country reject White Nationalism and misogyny, they would use their dollars to buy Fox News and its clones. (But no one ever listens to me…)

Evidently, however, some rich people on the Right have come to the same conclusion: propaganda can be effective if you dominate the information landscape. As Vox (among others) has reported, CNN-one of the world’s most powerful news outlets– is in the process of change, and that change happens to be in sync with the views of one of the world’s richest men.

OK–so CNN has a new owner, and a new boss. Changes are coming. There is nothing inherently suspicious about change–but in this case, the question is: will change come “because the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, its new owner, wants an overhaul? Or is it at the behest of a conservative billionaire investor in the company who sits on its board?

Malone has repeatedly wished, in public, for CNN to remake itself. And his prescription happens to sync with the new CNN agenda: a plan to steer the channel away from what Malone and others call a liberal bias they say muddles opinion and news. And to shift it toward a supposedly centrist, just-the-facts bent.

Just “fair and balanced,” right? (Malone has opined that Fox News is “real journalism.”..)

Those who now control CNN have hotly denied any meddling by Malone, and insist that their goal is a non-ideological middle ground between Fox and MSNBC. Time will tell, but suspicions of a political agenda raise a more basic question: can the various plutocrats who are  “flooding the zone” with conservative propaganda, the Neanderthals in Red state legislatures, and the ideologues who’ve been appointed to the courts win the fight they are waging against modernity?

Can they take the country back to a time when rich White Christian men were in charge? A time when they didn’t have to share dominance with uppity women, people of color and immigrants from “shithole” countries?

I very much doubt it.

Don’t get me wrong–the forces of reaction can bring progress to a temporary standstill–and “temporary” can be a long time.  As we’ve seen, GOP efforts to pack the courts can end up eviscerating constitutional guarantees and eliminating longstanding rights. The Tucker Carlsons of the world can give aid and comfort to the incels, militias and other assorted hate groups that litter the American landscape.

But ultimately, they can’t erase a century of cultural change. The America we currently live in is a dramatically different country than the one these people want so desperately to re-install.

Let me offer some homegrown examples.

Before I sat down to write this blog, my husband and I shopped at the Costco on the south side of Indianapolis. That location serves the suburban south side of town and the adjoining exurban and rural–very Republican– areas. The store carries a variety of foods catering to its wide variety of shoppers–as I browsed, I saw Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs and a variety of “ethnic” folks.

I’ve previously noted that I read my husband’s Engineering World Record. (Yes, I’m a nerd.) A story in the current issue highlighted pilot projects testing out “smart roads.” Engineers in Kansas and Denver are working with technologies developed Germany’s Siemens A.G., by  Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and by France’s Renault. Companies from Israel, Italy and India are all in the mix.

Another article reported on several cross-country joint ventures focused on “green hydrogen.” 

When I was a girl–back in the Ice Age–a trip to another continent seemed impossibly exotic. I would have been astonished to learn that I’d have a granddaughter living in England and a son living in Amsterdam–and that I would keep in touch with them between visits via that science-fiction-promised “picture phone”–i.e., FaceTime.

The frightened reactionaries trying to “stop the world” may well create an extended period of chaos, but there is simply no way they can “reverse engineer” the cultural changes that have brought us to today’s normal. Women aren’t going back to the kitchen and nursery; LGBTQ folks aren’t climbing back into the closet, interracial couples aren’t divorcing and Black Americans aren’t going back to the plantation.

The vastly increased diversity of America’s cities has spread to the suburbs. Outside of the most isolated rural precincts, most Americans have friends and relatives who don’t look or pray like they do. 

The Rightwing can make acceptance difficult, or a Blue wave in November can accelerate it.  Either way,  the Right will ultimately lose. 

America isn’t going back to the 1950s.



If Demography Is Destiny…

Ultimately, of course, demography is destiny, but if significant changes in the makeup of the population fail in the short term to change the status quo, those changes do tell us a lot about our current civic unrest, including acts of domestic terrorism.

The Brookings Institution has issued an analysis of the most recent census and it points to the demographic realities that have triggered the racist backlash we are experiencing.

The big picture shows healthy growth in our larger cities–what the report calls “major metro areas”–despite the fact that the nation as a whole experienced historically low growth over the past decade. (The decline in the nation’s overall growth rate is attributed to reduced immigration, a decline in fertility and an increased death rate due to an aging population.)

The disproportionate growth of urban America was characterized by increased racial and ethnic diversity, especially among youth populations–a data point that undoubtedly feeds the grievances of MAGA Republicans. Much of that metropolitan growth occurred in the South.

Reflecting changes from earlier decades, six of the fastest-growing metro areas in 2010-2020 were located in the traditional Sun Belt magnet states of Texas (Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio) and Florida (Orlando and Jacksonville), along with three southeastern metro areas (Raleigh, N.C., Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn.) as well as Seattle.

Brookings notes that every metro area with greater than 10% growth is located in either the South or West except three: Columbus, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul. I was pleasantly surprised to find Indianapolis in that category. (The rapidly changing populations of Florida and Texas may help to explain the increasingly frantic efforts of Abbott and DeSantis to energize their GOP bases before the demographic shift overtakes them…)

The most politically potent information was the data on increased diversity.

The 2010-2020 decade continued the nation’s “diversity explosion” that was already evident in the 2010s. This was especially the case among the nation’s major metro areas. While people of color (those identifying as Latino or Hispanic, Black, Asian American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Native American/Alaska Native, or as two or more races) together comprise more than two-fifths (42%) of the total U.S. population, they now comprise over half (50.3%) of the combined populations of major metro areas.

The impact of this minority concentration is most apparent in 20 of the 56 major metro areas, where people of color now comprise more than half of the 2020 population. This was the case for only 14 major metro areas in 2010 and just nine in 1990. The newcomers to this category are metro area Dallas, Orlando, Fla., Atlanta, Sacramento, Calif., New Orleans, and Austin, Texas. As shown in Map 2, most of these are located in California and Texas, where the greatest minority populations tend to be Latino or Hispanic. Metro area Chicago is close to being next in tipping to minority-white status.

Rising diversity is not specific only to these minority-white metro areas. Each of the nation’s 56 major metro areas registered a decline in its white population share since 2010 and, in 41, the decline was 5 percentage points or more. Metro area Seattle led all others, with a decline from 68% white in 2010 to 58% in 2020. Las Vegas experienced the largest 20-year change, from 60% white in 2000 to 39% in 2020.

Brookings also looked at the data on neighborhood segregation, finding limited improvement nationally. Milwaukee, interestingly, remains the most highly segregated city in the U.S.

Another very troubling finding was an absolute decline in the youth population.

The 2020 census data allows for an assessment of the size and recent changes in the nation’s under-age-18 population (referred to here as the “youth” population).

An especially noteworthy finding is the overall decline in this population by over 1 million during the 2010- 2020 decade. In a country that is rapidly aging, such an absolute decline in the youth population represents a demographic challenge for the future.

As White American fertility has declined, the percentage of the youth cohort that is White has also declined.

 The 2020 census shows that more than half of the youth population in 37 major metro areas are people of color, up from 24 in 2010 and 16 in 2000. The rise of youths of color is a key element of the changing demographics of America’s under-age-18 population. These groups have not only stemmed a sharp decline in the youth population but, as they age, will be driving most of the growth in the nation’s labor force.

There’s lots more data and many charts at the link, but the overall picture is clear: America is becoming more urban; it is also aging and rapidly diversifying.  Many older White Americans perceive these demographic shifts as an assault–not just on their status as the “real Americans,” but on their very concept of what America is.

They’re terrified and they’re angry. And they’ll vote for candidates who promise to prevent the inevitable.