Armpits, White Ghettos and Contempt
“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.” So declared Stephen Moore, the man Donald Trump wants to install on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, during a 2014 event held at a think tank called, yes, the Heartland Institute.
The crowd laughed.
Moore is an indefensible choice on many grounds. Even if he hadn’t shown himself to be extraordinarily misogynistic and have an ugly personal history, his track record on economics — always wrong, never admitting error or learning from it — is utterly disqualifying.
His remarks about the Midwest, however, highlight more than his unsuitability for the Fed. They also provide an illustration of something I’ve been noticing for a while: The thinly veiled contempt conservative elites feel for the middle-American voters they depend on.
This is not the story you usually hear. On the contrary, we’re inundated with claims that liberals feel disdain for the heartland. Even liberals themselves often buy into these claims, berate themselves for having been condescending and pledge to do better.
But what’s the source of that narrative? Look at where the belief that liberals don’t respect the heartland comes from, and it turns out that it has little to do with things Democrats actually say, let alone their policies. It is, instead, a story line pushed relentlessly by Fox News and other propaganda organizations, relying on out-of-context quotes and sheer fabrication.
Conservative contempt, by contrast, is real. Moore’s “armpit” line evidently didn’t shock his audience, probably because disparaging views about middle America are widespread among right-wing intellectuals and, more discreetly, right-wing politicians.
Let’s be clear: There is a real economic and social crisis in what one recent analysis calls the “Eastern Heartland.” This region suffers from persistently low employment among working-age men and has seen a surge in mortality from alcohol, suicide and opioids — “deaths of despair,” in the phrase of Anne Case and Angus Deaton.
What lies behind this crisis? The view of most liberals, as far as I can tell, is that it reflects declining economic opportunity, changes in the economy that have favored metropolitan areas over rural communities. On this view, declining opportunity has led to social disruption, in the same way that the disappearance of urban industry undermined inner-city communities a half century ago.
Many conservatives, however, blame the victims. 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.
So who, exactly, doesn’t respect middle America?
When it comes to politicians, of course, what they say is much less important than what they do. So what do the policy choices of liberal and conservative pols say about how they value the heartland?
Some Democrats, notably Elizabeth Warren, have been offering real proposals to help rural areas. They’re probably not enough to reverse rural and small-town economic decline, which would be hard to do even with plenty of money and the best will in the world. But they would help.
Meanwhile, 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?
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. And this contempt is reflected in the right’s policy agenda, which would badly hurt the people it claims to consider the only real Americans.
I know that this will be a hard point to get across. Indeed, I’m sure that some people in the heartland will take any effort to convince them that they’re being misled as just another example of liberal disrespect. But all Americans, wherever they live, deserve to be told the truth.
Initial image: An abandoned gas station in East Lynn, W.Va., a coal mining town. Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
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.