The idea that liberals hate the middle of the country and harbor a deep antipathy for the occupants of rural states has become so ingrained a part of the conventional wisdom that almost no one questions it anymore. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana, a rising candidate in the bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has spent a good deal of his campaign bemoaning this trait in his party — and pitching himself as the solution.
I have sometimes pushed back against the narrative, arguing that there's at least as much hostility from rural regions to urban regions than there is in the reverse. And in a new column for the New York Times, Paul Krugman argued that the narrative is entirely upside down.
It's conservatives who have disdain for middle America, even as the GOP depends on its votes.
He started the argument by pointing to a dismissive quote from President Donald Trump's Federal Reserve pick Stephen Moore, who once said:
If you live in the Midwest, where else do you want to live besides Chicago? You don’t want to live in Cincinnati or Cleveland or, you know, these armpits of America.
But it's more than just offhand quips. (You can probably find some from Democrats with a little Googling, after all.) The ideological view of conservatives about what ails the "heartland" is just as dismissive:
They attribute the heartland’s woes to a mysterious collapse in morality and family values that somehow hasn’t affected coastal cities. Moral collapse is the theme of books like Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America,” and of innumerable articles. One widely read essay in National Review went so far as to label the troubled Eastern Heartland “the white ghetto,” whose people are too indolent to move to where the jobs are.
He added: "The point is that if you look at what conservatives say to each other, as opposed to what they pretend to believe, it becomes clear that contempt for middle America is much more prevalent on the right than on the left."
Krugman didn't mention the much-ballyhooed book "Hilbilly Elegy" by conservative writer J.D. Vance. The book, celebrated by conservatives and liberals alike as an insightful look on the struggles of "Trump country," dismissed any progressive solutions to social troubles in Appalachia and criticized the region for its moral failings. The solution Vance seemed to propose? Become a high-powered lawyer like him.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even reportedly urged Vance to run as a Republican for the Senate.
And this ideology isn't just window dressing on the conservative movement, as Krugman explained. It informs policy that enacts disregard and neglect:
...all that Republicans have to offer are fantasies about bringing back lost jobs in things like coal mining and manufacturing. In reality, coal mine closures have continued and the manufacturing trade deficit has widened since Trump took office.
More important, think about what will happen to troubled parts of America if Republicans manage to do what they tried to do in 2017, and impose savage cuts on Medicaid and other safety net programs.
I always think about West Virginia, where Medicaid covers almost a third of the nonelderly population. And it’s not just about receiving care, it’s also about jobs. More than 16 percent of West Virginians are employed in health care and social assistance, compared with less than 3 percent in mining. Hospitals are the biggest employers in many parts of rural America. What do you think will happen to those jobs if Medicaid is hollowed out?
On the other hand, Krugman pointed out, Democratic politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) actually have ideas to make life better in rural areas.
The perception of who actually cares about the people in these regions, however, is completely at odds with reality. Krugman attributed this distortion to "Fox News and other propaganda organizations."
And he has a point. Remember when Hillary Clinton in 2016 said she was"going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business"? Obviously, it was poor phrasing, but she followed it up immediately with:
And we're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.
Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.
But most readers probably have never heard the very next sentences of Clinton's comments. That's because right-wing media has strong incentives to completely distort what she had said and what she meant. They played it on a loop, they moaned and wailed, stoked outrage, and laughed all the way to the bank — while Clinton was forced to apologize. Conservatives used the quote to cast her as out-of-touch with the needs of working families when she was actually demonstrating the exact opposite. That's the grift — and they keep getting away with it.