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Tuesday, November 07, 2023
Why Does the Right Hate America? (Paul Krugman, NY Times column)
Right-wingers like Governor RONALD DION DeSANTIS are constantly badmouthing our Nation, as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman writes in his column in The New York Times:
U.S. democracy is clearly in crisis. It’s entirely possible that in less than two years dissenters will face the power of a government with an authoritarian bent; if that sounds to you like hyperbole, you aren’t paying attention.
But is America beyond the political realm also in crisis? Are the very foundations of society eroding? Many people on the right apparently think so. A recent essay by Damon Linker in The Times profiled conservative intellectuals whose writing, he argued, helps explain where the MAGA right is coming from. What struck me, reading some of their work, is the dire portrait they paint of the state of our nation.
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?
It’s true that U.S. society has changed immensely over the past half-century or so, and not entirely in good ways: Inequality has soared, and deaths of despair are a real phenomenon. (More about that later.) But many 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critiques of modern America seem rooted not just in dystopian fantasies but in dystopian fantasies that are generations out of date.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 prepandemic 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?
But what about those deaths of despair? They’re real and very much an indictment of our society. But while deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide happen everywhere, they’re happening disproportionately not in liberal big cities but in left-behind rural regions, stranded by economic forces that have caused a migration of income and employment to relatively well-educated metropolitan areas. If there’s “psychic despair” driving addiction, it seems to be the despair that comes from not being able to get a job — not the despair that comes from a decline in traditional values.
Social change is never an unalloyed good thing. I look at how America has changed over my adult lifetime and see some things I don’t like, especially the return to extreme economic inequality. But I also see a society that offers much more individual freedom, especially for women and minorities but for the rest of us too.
Not everyone considers this a positive change. 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.
And if you would prefer a society with more traditional social relationships, more people practicing traditional forms of religion and so on, that’s your right. But don’t claim, falsely, that society is collapsing because it doesn’t match your preferences or blame liberalism for every social problem.
Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman
A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 7, 2023, Section A, Page 20 of the New York edition with the headline: Why Does the Right Hate America?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe