The Conscience of a Liberal
Has liberalism regained its mojo? Everywhere you look – the resurgence of progressive organizations, the explosion of left-leaning blogs, the defeat of the GOP in the 2006 midterm elections – points to a revival of liberalism’s fortunes.
To be sure, liberalism has received a helping hand by the unpopular administration of President George W. Bush, and a tidal wave of discontent felt at home and abroad for its policies. Public approval ratings for the President – once at stratospheric levels in the wake of 9-11 – have plummeted to record lows making Bush’s reputation as the most unpopular President in American history.
Yet for all of conservatism’s failures, liberalism has been arguably adrift. Stung by the Supreme Court decision that installed Bush as President in 2000, and successive defeats in the 2002 congressional elections, and the 2004 presidential race, liberals often appear to operate from a defensive crouch, even as Democrats have regained majorities in both the House and Senate.
Liberalism need look no further than Princeton economics and New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Paul Krugman, to find a voice. Labeled by the Asia Times as the “Mick Jagger of political/economic punditry,” Krugman, the author and editor of 20 books, has written The Conscience of a Liberal (W.W. Norton, 2007) a vibrant and optimistic call to arms.
The Liberal Partisan
Beginning with his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Krugman mounts a full-throated defense of the liberal creed. For those who do not count themselves as political junkies, The Conscience of a Liberal is surprisingly accessible, and fluently written. Krugman makes no bones about his partisanship – indeed, he views it as a necessary evil in today’s hyperpoliticized climate – and in that respect, the book, though no screed, is written more with the aim of rallying the faithful than wooing over the undecided.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that in the partisan precincts of the liberal blogosphere, Krugman is regarded as a rock star. His perch on the New York Times Op-Ed page offers a powerful platform, which he uses to great effect to blast the Bush Administration.
Krugman is unrepentant about his liberal partisanship. Near the end of The Conscience of a Liberal, he writes:
“To be a progressive, then, means being a partisan, at least for now. The only way a progressive agenda can be enacted is if Democrats have both the Presidency and a large enough majority in Congress to overcome Republican opposition… achieving that kind of political preponderance will require leadership that makes opponents of the progressive agenda pay a political price for their obstructionism – leadership that, like FDR, welcomes the hatred of the interest groups trying to make us from making our society better.”
Krugman: The Economist Turned Political Theorist
Krugman’s analysis of how “movement conservatism” helped create the hyper partisan political environment we now inhabit makes for compelling reading. “Movement conservatism,” as he defines it, is an interlocking network of Republican office holders, pro-business think tanks, lobbying organizations, wealthy foundations, and conservative media outlets. He is unafraid to take on sacred cows, such as movement conservatism’s first poster boy, Ronald Reagan.
Krugman contends – and here he has received withering scorn on the right, most notably from his conservative Times Op-Ed colleague David Brooks – that Reagan’s road to the White House, indeed the electoral domination of the South by the GOP since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, would not have been possible without coded appeals to race and white backlash against civil rights advances. Krugman calls these veiled appeals “dog whistle” politics, and argues convincingly that they have been a sine qua non of Republican electoral success.
A trained economist, Krugman is the first to admit, that like much of his brethren, he was conditioned by the “dismal science,” to view politics through the prism of economics. However, sifting through the effects of the growing power of conservatism over the past twenty five years – including the accelerating trends of rising economic inequality and repeated efforts on the right to dismantle Social Security and Medicare – Krugman dispenses with the idea that impersonal economic forces have caused the pillars of the New Deal to weaken. Instead, he points to shifting “norms and institutions” (among them weakened labor unions, bloated executive pay packages, lower tax rates for the rich, etc.), the outcome of a decades long, determined and well-organized pushback by “movement conservatism,” to dismantle the legacy of the New Deal.
In other words, politics increasingly trumps economics.
“I’ve become increasingly convinced that… political change in the form of rising polarization has been a major cause of rising inequality. I’d suggest an alternative story for the last thirty years that runs like this. Over the course of the 1970’s, radicals of the right determined to roll back the achievements of the New Deal took over the Republican Party, opening a partisan gap with the Democrats…The empowerment of the hard right emboldened business to launch an all-out attack on the union movement, drastically reducing workers’ bargaining power; freed business executives from the political and social constraints that had previously placed limits on runaway executive paychecks; sharply reduced tax rates on high incomes; and in a variety of other ways promoted rising inequality.”
In a chapter entitled “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” he tills over ground familiar to readers of Thomas Frank’s 2004 best seller What’s the Matter with Kansas. In it, he asks: How does a conservative movement backed by big business, harmful to the interests of most working class and middle class voters, win election after election? Are voters being duped? Are they victims of some sort of false consciousness?
Taking aim with Frank’s thesis – which argues that more and more “Good Folk” are being manipulated to vote Republican against their own economic interests – Krugman points to voting data compiled by Larry Bartels that shows just the opposite. Over the past two decades, the most significant voting bloc for the GOP remains largely concentrated among upper income segments, while Democrats continue to draw their core constituency from lower income and middle income voters. The key to victory for Republicans has been massive and largely successful efforts at voter suppression (dampening the turnout among key Democratic constituencies), coupled with an elitist economic platform well camouflaged in pseudo-populist language.
Krugman on Universal Health Care: The Road to a ‘New” New Deal
In perhaps his most compelling and impassioned chapter, “The Health Care Imperative,” Krugman makes the case for completing the unfinished legacy of FDR by enacting universal health care. He reminds us that over the past sixty years several comprehensive health care plans from Democratic and Republican Presidents alike have floundered, killed by a mix of well-funded pharmaceutical interests and medical lobbies. The most recent failed effort was the Clinton Administration’s attempted overhaul in 1994, a chastening experience for liberals who felt the time was ripe for reform.
Krugman argues that liberals are in both a wiser and stronger place to lobby for reform, having learned their lessons from the 1994 “Hillary-care” debacle. Key reasons: Democrats control the Congress, the public is fed up with the decaying employer-based system, and movement conservatism is on the run.
However, he cautions that any reform – even if it fails to adopt a single payer, government-run scheme and instead moves to an individual mandate through private insurance – will run into resistance from the insurance and drug lobbies. But unlike 1994, the ground has been laid for significant reform in the court of public opinion.
Krugman concludes on this optimistic note:
“Universal health care could, in short, be to a new New Deal what Social Security was to the original – both a crucially important program in its own right, and a reaffirmation of the principle that we are our brother’s keepers. Getting universal care should be the key domestic priority for modern liberals. Once they succeed there, they can turn to the broader, more difficult task of reining in American inequality.”
As the number of Americans without health insurance approaches 47 million and the inefficiencies of the system become more glaringly obvious, liberalism is well poised to sound its once uncertain trumpet. The L-word might regain its mojo after all.
Bill Gaston is an analyst with the New York City government, a former editor at Institutional Investor Magazine, and a freelance writer on political and economic affairs. Bill received his BA from George Washington University, and MA from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.