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of modern America seem “rooted not just in dystopian fantasies but in dystopian fantasies that are generations out of date.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


Krugman Spells It Out

When Mitt Romney announced that he would not campaign for a second Senate term, the announcement did more than simply mark the political exit of one prominent Republican. It was yet another indicator of the metamorphosis of a once-rational political party.

As usual, Paul Krugman’s assessment of that metamorphosis was dead-on. In “The Road from Mitt Romney to MAGA,” Krugman described the decline of the GOP. As Krugman notes, Romney is clear-eyed about what has happened to his party and given his willingness to say what others are unwilling to admit, he is a comparative profile in courage. That said, according to Krugman, Romney–and Republicans like him–have also been part of the problem, enabling the party’s devolution.

It’s good to see Romney speaking up now, but the party he’s criticizing is in large part a monster that people like him helped create.

For the basic story of the Republican Party, going back to the 1970s, is this: Advocates of right-wing economic policies, which redistributed income from workers to the wealthy, sought to sell their agenda by exploiting social intolerance and animosity. They had considerable success with this strategy. But eventually the extremists they thought they were using ended up ruling the party.

When Romney ran for President, Democrats accused him of being a plutocrat whose policies would enrich the wealthy and hurt average Americans. Those Democrats were right. Krugman enumerates the policy positions Romney adopted during that campaign, and points out that they would indeed have hurt non-wealthy Americans.

In particular, Romney was a strenuous opponent of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, which was enacted in 2010 but didn’t take full effect until 2014 — an especially cynical position since Obamacare was very similar to the health reform Romney himself had enacted as governor of Massachusetts. If he had won in 2012, he would almost surely have found a way to block the A.C.A.’s rollout, which in turn would have meant blocking the large reduction in the number of Americans without health insurance after 2014.

The GOP accepted the basic premises of the New Deal through the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. When Eisenhower was President, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent and roughly a third of American workers were unionized. Krugman quotes from a letter sent by Eisenhower to his brother, in which he wrote:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again”; while there were a few conservatives who thought differently, “their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Their number remains negligible, but thanks to two things: the systemic distortions that form much of the discussion on this blog, and the success of culture-war appeals to racism–they exercise disproportionate power.

Krugman writes that, in the 1970s, the Republican Party began to be dominated by people who did want to roll back the New Deal legacy. He reminds readers of efforts like George W. Bush’s proposed privatization of Social Security and Trump’s corporate tax cut and multiple promises to demolish the A.C.A.

Republicans offset the unpopularity of their economic policies by harnessing culture war policies —” hostility toward nonwhites, L.G.B.T.Q. Americans, immigrants and more.”

In 2004, for example, Bush made opposition to gay marriage a central theme of his campaign, only to declare after the election that he had a mandate for the aforementioned attempt to privatize Social Security…

But eventually the forces that economic conservatives were trying to use ended up using them. This wasn’t something that suddenly happened with the Trump nomination; people who think that the G.O.P. suddenly changed forget how prevalent crazy conspiracy theories and refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of Democratic electoral victories already were in the 1990s. The current dominance of MAGA represents a culmination of a process that has been going on for decades.

And for the most part, Republican politicians who probably weren’t extremists themselves went along.

Krugman says we should give Romney credit for finally reaching his limit. But he reminds us that it took until very late in the game for Romney to get there — and that the “game” was one that he and people like him had basically started.

So here we are.

Even plutocrats like Romney who have massively benefitted from their culture war misdirections have begun deserting the ship; even the most privileged beneficiaries of corporatism have begun to recognize the damage that’s been done.

The question that keeps me up at night is whether the forces of hate and resentment unleashed in the pursuit of economic advantage will prove too powerful to control.

I guess we’ll know the answer to that question next November…..



A million or so years ago, I taught high school English. (This was back when women could prepare for jobs as secretaries, nurses or teachers–as my father put it, “in case your eventual husband dies.” I couldn’t type well, and the sight of blood made me faint–ergo, I would teach.)

I still remember a poem from an anthology I used; a person sat at the gate of a village and responded to questions from people entering the town. They’d ask: “what sort of people will I find here?” and the gatekeeper would inquire: “What sort of people lived in the village from which you come?”

If the answer was negative–“knaves and fools”–the gatekeeper would say “You’ll find the people here the same.” If it was positive–wonderful, kind folks–the gatekeeper promised “You’ll find the people here the same.”

As poetry goes, it wasn’t great. But as wisdom, it scored.

I’ve had several opportunities to revisit the undeniable truth that we humans see what we look for. I thought about it again when I read a recent Paul Krugman newsletter. We’ve all heard versions of the rant by Bernie Marcus with which he began his column:

Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot, had some negative things to say about his fellow Americans in an interview last December. “Socialism,” he opined, has destroyed the work ethic: “Nobody works. Nobody gives a damn. ‘Just give it to me. Send me money. I don’t want to work — I’m too lazy, I’m too fat, I’m too stupid.’”

You’re naïve if you think his take is exceptional. Without question, rich men are constantly saying similar things at country clubs across America. More important, conservative politicians are obsessed with the idea that government aid is making Americans lazy, which is why they keep trying to impose work requirements on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps despite overwhelming evidence that such requirements don’t promote work — but do create red-tape barriers that deny help to people who really need it.

Krugman says he’s not under “the delusion that facts will change such people’s minds.” But he notes that people for whom facts do matter should know that America has, over the past year, conducted what might be termed a “huge test of the proposition that Americans have become lazy.”

They haven’t.

Krugman reminds readers that the American labor force is aging, which means we should be seeing a downward trend in the fraction of adults still working. (I will add that, given our unwillingness to admit immigrants with Brown skin who are mostly younger, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.) Despite that demographic decline, the data about labor force participation by Americans in their prime working years shows that such participation is higher now than it has been for 20 years.

Bobby Kogan of the Center for American Progress reports that if you adjust for age and sex, overall U.S. employment is now at its highest level in history — again, despite the lingering effects of the pandemic.

During the pandemic, of course, social welfare supports skyrocketed. If the “socialism” of such supports really made people lazy, the data fails to show it.

Krugman explains the benefits of the current “hot” labor market–including the fact that it has increased employment for members of marginalized groups. He then concludes:

The larger point is that despite what grumpy rich men may say, Americans haven’t become lazy. On the contrary, they’re willing, even eager, to take jobs if they’re available. And while economic policy in recent years has been far from perfect, one thing it did do — to the nation’s great benefit — was give work a chance.

Given the data, what explains the constant carping from employers who say they cannot find workers? A report in CNN says we have some 8.1 million job vacancies.

This problem is concentrated among America’s low-wage workforce, hitting restaurants, warehouses, manufacturers and the service industry. Many Republicans see these numbers and conclude the problem is unemployment payments that are, in their estimation, doled out to lazy people unwilling to work.

The real reason–confirmed by several studies–is low pay.  (Seventy percent of workers receiving federal aid work full-time, and are still so poor they qualify for government aid.) When  jobs are plentiful, workers have options. That’s bad news for the businesses that have felt entitled to employing and abusing a steady supply of poorly-paid workers.

Remember the gatekeeper in that poem?

Ask a Republican why he can’t find workers, and–like Marcus–he’ll tell you it’s because Americans are lazy and the government is too “socialist.” Ask a Democrat, and he’ll tell you it’s because employers are unwilling to pay a living wage. Our expectations frame our answers.

It makes policymaking very difficult…..


When Common Sense Became “Woke”

In a recent column, Paul Krugman traced the growing anti-environmentalism of the GOP. He noted that, in the 1990s, self-identified Republicans and Democrats weren’t that far apart in their environmental views, but that since 2008 or so, Republicans have become much less supportive of environmental initiatives. After considering several possible reasons for that devolution (“follow the money” among them), he concluded that

What has happened, I’d argue, is that environmental policy has been caught up in the culture war — which is, in turn, largely driven by issues of race and ethnicity. This, I suspect, is why the partisan divide on the environment widened so much after America elected its first Black president.

One especially notable aspect of The Times’s investigative report on state treasurers’ punishing corporations seeking to limit greenhouse gas emissions is the way these officials condemn such corporations as “woke.”

Wokeness normally means talking about racial and social justice. On the right — which is increasingly defined by attempts to limit the rights of Americans who aren’t straight white Christians — it has become a term of abuse. Teaching students about the role of racism in American history is bad because it’s woke. But so, apparently, are many other things, like Cracker Barrel offering meatless sausage and being concerned about climate change.

If this seems crazy, it’s because it is. Evidently, a substantial percentage of the American population is certifiably looney-tunes…

One of the most compelling explanations for that insanity was recently offered by Tom Nichols in the Atlantic. Nichols was opining about  political violence, or the possibility of another civil war. As he noted, however,  the actual Civil War was “about something.” Unlike today’s culture wars.

Compared with the bizarre ideas and half-baked wackiness that now infest American political life, the arguments between the North and the South look like a deep treatise on government.

Nichols writes that the “soldiers” fighting “wokeness” talk about “liberty” and “freedom,” but those are really just code words for personal grudges, racial and class resentments, and generalized paranoia.

What makes this situation worse is that there is no remedy for it. When people are driven by fantasies, by resentment, by an internalized sense of inferiority, there is no redemption in anything. Winning elections, burning effigies, even shooting at other citizens does not soothe their anger but instead deepens the spiritual and moral void that haunts them.

Donald Trump is central to this fraying of public sanity, because he has done one thing for such people that no one else could do: He has made their lives interesting. He has made them feel important. He has taken their itching frustrations about the unfairness of life and created a morality play around them, and cast himself as the central character. Trump, to his supporters, is the avenging angel who is going to lay waste to the “elites,” the smarty-pantses and do-gooders, the godless and the smug, the satisfied and the comfortable.

In other words, Trump is leading the battle against “woke” folks. You know, people who have the nerve to suggest that conclusions should be based upon verifiable evidence, that many if not most of the issues we face are complicated, and that knowledge and expertise are desirable and not simply an elitist construct devised to make less educated people feel inferior.

It”s “woke” to admit that racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia still exist; “woke” to recognize that climate change is real and that it threatens our future; “woke” to criticize the “Big Lie;” “woke” to argue that women are entitled to agency over their own lives and bodies…

To those on the political Right, to be “woke” doesn’t simply describe people who have awakened to obvious realities and begun trying to ameliorate inequities. To the True Believers, the Christian Nationalists, “woke” is today’s “mark of the beast.” 

So here we are.

“Wokeness”  no longer means you’ve reached certain conclusions about contemporary society based on research, observation and  common sense. It’s morphed. It has become a label to be applied to one’s mortal enemies–and a threat to be defeated at all costs. 

 It is simply not possible for rational folks to reason with the True Believers. The old adage is right–you can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into. 

Welcome to the all-encompassing culture war.


And Furthermore…

I am convinced that the biggest problem America faces– the reason we can’t solve or even address the other multiple problems that grow worse each day they are ignored–is the GOP. 

Permit me to share some observations that support that thesis.

Paul Krugman–Nobel winning economist and opinion writer for the New York Times —took on the “reliably awful” Ted Cruz and his anti-gun-legislation GOP cohort, including Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, whose “solution” involved locking school doors rather than controlling firearms. (Patrick has obviously never talked to a Fire Marshall..) As Krugman and literally hundreds of others remind us,

Mass shootings are very rare outside the United States. Why are they so common here? Not, according to the U.S. right, because we’re a nation where a disturbed 18-year-old can easily buy military-grade weapons and body armor. No, says Patrick, it’s because “We’re a coarse society.”

I know it’s a hopeless effort to say this, but imagine the reaction if a prominent liberal politician were to declare that the reason the United States has a severe social problem that doesn’t exist elsewhere is that Americans are bad people. We’d never hear the end of it. But when a Republican says it, it barely makes a ripple….

What distinguishes us is that it’s so easy for people who aren’t nice to arm themselves to the teeth.

What also distinguishes us are outmoded rules of governance that allow representatives of a minority of citizens to block action supported by the majority. (Recent polling by Pew and others tells us that ninety percent of Americans want stricter gun regulations, especially more stringent background checks.)

It isn’t just gun safety. Republican senators routinely object to pretty much anything proposed by the majority or by the Biden Administration. I get absolutely livid when people complain that “Biden isn’t doing anything.” These are people who clearly have no idea how easy it is for Republicans to block administrative measures. One recent example, reported by Daily Kos:

When Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) came to the floor Wednesday afternoon to ask for unanimous consent to approve Dr. Shereef Elnahal to serve as the Veterans Affairs deputy secretary for health and Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) objected, Tester blew, telling Scott: “You want to talk about why the American people think the United States Senate is dysfunctional? The senator from Florida could look in the mirror.”

Elnahal had impeccable credentials–he’s currently the chief executive officer of University Hospital in Newark. Furthermore, he’d had a hearing in the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and been approved unanimously.  As Tester pointed out, the need to have the position filled is urgent. “The VA is continuing to battle the impact of COVID-19 pandemic with veterans cases, hospitalizations, and death on the rise again, and VA staff are dealing with burnout and increasing turnover in our VA system.” The job hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed person in it since January 2017.

And what was Scott’s objection? Well, we don’t know, because he refused to say. (Of course, Elnahal is brown…) But under Senate rules, and thanks to the Memorial Day recess,  his objection will delay a vote until sometime in late June.

And don’t get me started on the filibuster…..

As Jamelle Bouie recently wrote in the New York Times,

I am thinking about the ways that narrow, destructive factions can capture the counter-majoritarian institutions of the American system for their own ends. I am thinking of how they can then use the levers of government to impose their vision of society and civil life against the will of the majority. And I am thinking of this in the context of guns, gun violence and the successful movement, thus far, to make the United States an armed society.

Two weeks ago, a gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo. Three days ago, a gunman killed 21 people, including 19 children, at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Although there has been, in the wake of both atrocities, the requisite call for new gun control laws, no one believes that Congress will actually do much of anything to address gun violence or reduce the odds of gun massacres. The reason is that the Republican Party does not want to. And with the legislative filibuster still in place (preserved, as it has been for the past year, by at least two Democratic senators), Senate Republicans have all the votes they need to stop a bill — any bill — from passing.

I am old enough to remember when Republicans and Democrats had good-faith, substantive disagreements about the proper way to address national problems. Those days are long gone–and so is the time when currently-obsolete Senate rules and procedures served any legitimate legislative purpose.

Go re-read Pastor Pavlovitz’ warning. And help get out the vote.