Over the weekend, JD Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and now Senate candidate in Ohio, tweeted that he was planning a visit to New York and had heard the city was “disgusting and violent.” .
Vance, who studied law at Yale University and works as a venture capital executive, certainly knows that’s not the way it is. But presumably he expects Republican voters to believe otherwise.
But why do so many Americans still believe that the country’s major cities are hells of crime and depravity?
Why do so many politicians still think they can run campaigns based on the alleged contrast between urban evil and the virtues of small towns, at a time when many social indicators seem worse indoors than in large urban areas? two sides ?
It is true that there has been an increase in the number of homicides in the country – but not in crime in general – during the pandemic, for reasons which remain unclear. But New York remains safer than it was ten years ago, immensely safer than it was 30 years ago, and, if that’s anything, considerably safer than Columbus, Ohio.
And if you want to name a particular region as the victim of a crisis, New York is hardly the place to go.
The biggest social problems in the United States occur in what is called the “heart of the east,” an arc stretching from Louisiana to Michigan. This is the area where more and more men of working age are unemployed, and where “deaths from desperation”, that is to say due to overdoses of alcohol, suicide and drugs, reach high totals.
Please understand that I am not attributing these problems in the central parts of the country to some form of moral collapse on the part of the local residents. The region’s social deterioration has obvious economic roots.
The rise of the knowledge economy has led to an increasing concentration of employment and wealth in large metropolitan areas, whose populations are highly educated, leaving behind much of the rural areas and small towns of the United States. United States.
And this loss of opportunity ended up translating into social disintegration, as did the loss of jobs in many deteriorating urban areas half a century ago.
It’s strange to say, however, that most people who call themselves “populists,” like Vance – or Donald Trump – don’t make the obvious parallels between the problems in the central region of the country and those of Americans in others. eras, nor do they offer anything that can improve the situation.
Instead, they keep repeating the demagoguery of 1975, pitting an idealized view of the country’s heartland, which looks even less like reality, against a grim view of urban life decades out of date.
And the mythical contrast between big bad cities and small good towns has destructive, even deadly, effects on public policy.
Reportedly, one of the reasons the Trump administration decided to downplay the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic in its early stages was the belief that it was a problem only for large cities and majority democratic states; there were certainly many claims that the risk was only severe in places with high populations.
And there have been numerous claims – some of them in tones of undeniable joy – that the pandemic will kill major cities and the states that are home to them.
In fact, Covid-19, although it initially hit New York City hard, was not a metropolitan issue; population density apparently does not influence the incidence of the disease. For example, the state of South Dakota has roughly the same population as the city of San Francisco and has recorded four times as many deaths from Covid.
And now, rural and Republican-leaning states have much lower vaccination rates than most Democratic states, so if a new wave of contagion emerges, the myth that cities are the hubs of contagion will be overturned.
Oh, and while you’ve heard that a lot of people run away from California, liberal and urbanized, that might just be another myth. California is suffering from a severe housing crisis, brought on by the private worries of homeowners, but like New York City, if you’ve heard that the state has become a terrible place to live, you’re listening to the right. Propaganda.
As well as helping to cripple our response to the pandemic, the myth of rural virtue and urban vice means that many Republican voters seem unaware that they are among the biggest beneficiaries of the “big government” their party says it wants to eliminate. .
That is, they continue to imagine that the government is spending money for the benefit of urban residents who depend on Social Security, and not for the benefit of people like them.
For example, do voters in majority Republican states know that federal spending in their states – largely in the form of Social Security and Medicare benefits – far exceeds the taxes they pay in Washington ?
In Kentucky, the most extreme example, the annual inflow of federal money is $ 14,000 (R $ 73,100) higher, per capita, than the state’s federal collection.
If voters knew this, would they be quite willing to support cutbacks in benefits for working Americans and tax cuts for big business and the wealthy?
I want to make it very clear that I am not criticizing policies which, in practice, subsidize many states. We are all Americans and we should be prepared to help each other.
Rather, the problem lies with cynical politicians who belittle parts of the country and imply that those areas are not part of “the real America”. This cynicism killed thousands of people during the pandemic – and it could easily kill democracy, too.