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?