Tag Archives: deaths of despair

Urban Symbolism

There are a number of elements that tend to reinforce America’s increasing urban/rural divide–the sorts of differences that emerge among people who live in areas that are more or less densely populated. But we shouldn’t overlook the influence of symbolism–longtime images of dubious accuracy that have cemented our mental images of the country’s cities and countrysides.

Probably the strongest image that comes to mind when we hear the word “countryside” is bucolic–something between “Green Acres” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Mention “small town America” and we think “Mayberry.” Urban imagery is very different and much darker–as Paul Krugman pointed out in a column back in July, we tend to call up the various hellholes portrayed on television and in works of fiction.

But why do so many Americans still believe that our major cities are hellholes of crime and depravity? Why do so many politicians still believe that they can run on the supposed contrast between urban evil and small-town virtue when many social indicators look worse in the heartland than in the big coastal metropolitan areas?

To be sure, there was a national surge in homicides — although not in overall crime — during the pandemic, for reasons that remain unclear. But New York is still safer than it was a decade ago, vastly safer than it was 30 years ago, and, for what it’s worth, considerably safer than, say, Columbus, Ohio.

These stereotypes persist, despite the fact that, if anything, the roles have been reversed. While cities continue to have the challenges that occur when large numbers of people live together, emerging data locates more serious problems in the much-storied “heartland,” where–as Krugman noted– large numbers of men in their prime working years don’t have jobs and where “deaths of despair” have been steadily increasing.

If the waning accuracy of our urban/rural mythology was simply a product of imagery lagging reality, that would be one thing. But as Krugman and others have pointed out, the Republican insistence on the accuracy of that imagery is having destructive, even deadly effects on policy.

Some reporting suggests that one of the reasons the Trump administration downplayed the Covid-19 pandemic in its early stages was the belief that it was solely a large-city, blue-state problem; there were definitely many assertions that the risk was severe only in places with dense populations. And there were many pronouncements — some of them with an unmistakable tone of glee — to the effect that the pandemic would kill big cities and the states that contain them.

Of course, the harm done goes well beyond Trump’s fatally-flawed pandemic response. Support for the GOP is disproportionately rural, and the party responds to that reality by insisting to its rapidly radicalizing base that the inhabitants of rural America (overwhelmingly White and Christian) are the “real” Americans–and that their tax dollars are being siphoned off to support urban neer-do-wells.

Besides helping to cripple our pandemic response, the myth of rural virtue and urban vice means that many Republican voters seem unaware that they are among the major beneficiaries of the “big government” their party says it wants to eliminate. That is, they still imagine that the government spends money on urban welfare recipients, not on people like them.

For example, do red-state voters know that federal spending in their states — much of it taking the form of benefits from Social Security and Medicare — greatly exceeds the taxes they pay to Washington? In Kentucky, the most extreme example, the annual inflow of federal money per capita is $14,000 greater than the outflow.

Meanwhile, those of us who live in those urban hellholes of Republican imagination enjoy the benefits that only density can provide–not just the inviting coffee shops, restaurants and bars, multiple entertainment and education options, bike paths, parks and museums that are the stuff of tourism advertisements, but the salutary lessons to be learned through interaction with people who are, to varying degrees, unlike ourselves.

There are plenty of downsides to both urban and rural life, and good policy should address them. We need to figure out how to provide healthcare and stimulate economic development in rural areas. We need to improve police training and provide more affordable housing in our cities. Etcetera. But–as with so many of the truly serious challenges we face–we can’t solve problems we adamantly refuse to see.

Substituting mental images for complicated realities obscures our vision of both urban and rural America.