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The Partisan

Difficult as it is to remember now, there was a time in the United States, as recently as fifteen or so years ago, when we were not engaged in constant political warfare. In those days Senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in a war, would not have been visually equated with Saddam Hussein in a television ad, something the Republicans did to him in 2002. The release of a declaration by, for example, the National Academy of Sciences was for the most part acknowledged as legitimate, and not attacked as a product of so-called liberal bias as its 2005 report on global warming was.1

We can regret, as it is customary to do, the loss of civility in political discourse (although such laments tend to assume a golden era that wasn’t quite as civil in reality as it is in the memories of those who mourn its passing). But the nakedness of the modern right’s drive for political power and of the Bush administration’s politicization of so many aspects of governance and civic life has, paradoxically, given us one thing to be grateful for. Liberals and Democrats now understand much more plainly the nature of the fight they’re in. Some recognized this early on: many of those who worked on the Clinton administration’s health care plan recognized back in 1994, as Paul Starr, one veteran of that effort, puts it, that the Republicans would not compromise on the plan under any circumstances because “if it succeeded, it might renew New Deal beliefs in the efficacy of government, whereas a defeat of the health plan could set liberalism back for years.”2

Others realized what was happening only much later, after the impeachment of Clinton, the foreshortened election in Florida, and the administration’s post–September 11 policies, including its brutal violations of civil liberties and its invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why it took such people so long to recognize reality is an interesting question; but now, in plenty of time for next year’s presidential election, Democrats and liberals seem more prepared than usual to put up a fight.

Many liberals would name Paul Krugman of The New York Times as perhaps the most consistent and courageous—and unapologetic—liberal partisan in American journalism. He has made his perspective on the Bush administration and the contemporary right, and on the need to see politics as a battle, manifestly clear in column after incendiary column. Indeed, of all the ways he could have concluded The Conscience of a Liberal, he chose to do so with a short essay that appears under the headline “On Being Partisan,” which notes:

The central fact of modern American political life is the control of the Republican Party by movement conservatives, whose vision of what America should be is completely antithetical to that of the progressive movement. Because of that control, the notion, beloved of political pundits, that we can make progress through bipartisan consensus is simply foolish….

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.

From the Krugman we’ve come to know through his New York Times columns, this assertion is hardly surprising. But the pre-Bush Krugman was a quite different person. He was in those days far more prominently an economist than a polemicist, and an illustrious one—in 1991 he won the John Bates Clark medal from the American Economic Association, an award for economists under forty said to be perhaps harder to win (or at least given out more sparingly) than the Nobel Prize in economics. As such, he was not much involved in partisan politics. He was always a liberal, to be sure, and highly critical of supply-side economics. But he also disparaged economists to his left, especially opponents of free trade (a view he defends less staunchly now than then). In his 1994 book, Peddling Prosperity, Krugman had harsh words for liberal economists such as Robert Reich and Lester Thurow, who advocated selective protection from foreign competition, particularly from countries in which poor workers were harshly exploited. Reviewing Peddling Prosperity in these pages,3 Benjamin M. Friedman took note of Krugman’s disdain for such “strategic traders” and their attempts to exert influence within the Clinton administration in favor of protectionism and subsidies for selected domestic industries. If you were a radical economist in those days, or a labor movement intellectual, or a left-leaning social scientist, chances are you weren’t a big fan of Paul Krugman.

On the strength of his academic work and his attention-getting columns in Slate, Krugman started writing in the Times on January 2, 2000. He made a point of challenging antiglobalization activists in his very first column. (“It is a sad irony that the cause that has finally awakened the long-dormant American left is that of—yes!—denying opportunity to third-world workers.”) During that election year, he regularly and strongly criticized George W. Bush’s tax-cut proposal and his opaque statements about Social Security. But he limited his critiques to economic policy and, compared to his Op-Ed-page colleagues, didn’t write about politics all that often, emphasizing such topics as the power of Microsoft, the future of Amazon.com, the policies of the Federal Reserve Bank, and Japan’s economic woes.

About Bush v. Gore, he had little to say. After Bush took office, he savaged the administration’s regressive tax cuts. But it wasn’t really until the fall of 2002, as the marketing of the Iraq war began in earnest, that he began broadening his criticism beyond economics to the war and the threats to civil liberties, extending his critique to the larger conservative movement and its modus operandi, and discussing the mainstream press’s failure to report what was really going on right in front of their noses. It was around then that Krugman began producing with regularity the kinds of columns that whiz their way around the liberal blogosphere. Aficionados may even remember certain columns, like the one headlined “Dead Parrot Society,” from October 25, 2002, in which Krugman cited some typical Orwellian phrases from the press, as when a reporter wrote that President Bush’s statements on such matters as “Iraq’s military capability” were “dubious if not wrong” and that Bush had “taken some flights of fancy.” Krugman wrote:

Reading all these euphemisms, I was reminded of Monty Python’s parrot: he’s pushing up the daisies, his metabolic processes are history, he’s joined the choir invisible. That is, he’s dead. And the Bush administration lies a lot.4

So Krugman came a bit late to the political trenches—and perhaps a bit reluctantly. Just as Arnold Schoenberg said of himself, when asked by a stranger if he was indeed the controversial composer, that “nobody wanted to be, someone had to be, so I let it be me,” so I suspect Krugman might say that virtually no one on the leading Op-Ed pages was saying the things that so obviously needed to be said as the Iraq war approached, so he let it be himself who said them.

And now, after years of twice-weekly deadlines, he appears to have decided that there’s no turning back: The Conscience of a Liberal, with its title so clearly aping and answering Barry Goldwater’s from forty-seven years ago, represents Krugman’s fullest embrace of his polemicist identity. He has written some twenty books, popular and scholarly; this is the first that chiefly sees economics through the lens of politics rather than the other way around.

He makes this clear in the first chapter, with an argument that seems self-evident to people who see the world in political terms but will surely strike some of his fellow economists as an apostasy. Krugman begins by observing that he was born (in 1953) at a time when expanding prosperity was a given and inequality was on the decline, and when political polarization was at a comparative low. Noting that both of those conditions changed starting in the 1970s and asking what happened, he observes that two narratives define the march of history, one political and one economic. The normal economist’s view is that economic changes drive political changes. Thus, the Depression led to the New Deal, for example. In our time, global competition, the IT revolution, and the demand for high skills led to higher inequality, which in turn meant a shrinking constituency for a populist politics and a larger constituency, among the winners, for the kind of top-down, class-warfare politics that today’s GOP engages in.

Krugman had always believed—even “when I began working on this book”—that this was how things unfolded. “Yet,” he writes of our era:

I’ve become increasingly convinced that much of the causation runs the other way—that political change in the form of rising polarization has been a major cause of rising inequality. That is, I’d suggest an alternative story for the last thirty years that runs like this: Over the course of the 1970s, 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.

Elsewhere in the book, he explicitly, and in more detail, rebuts the view that market forces like technological change, immigration, and growing trade could possibly account for today’s dramatic levels of inequality. He argues that what has happened is

largely due to changes in institutions, such as the strength of labor unions, and norms, such as the once powerful but now weak belief that having the boss make vastly more than the workers is bad for morale.

This concern about institutions and norms is at the heart of Krugman’s argument.

The earlier chapters trace roughly the last one hundred years of American history from one gilded age to an era of general prosperity to a time of tumult (the 1970s) and finally back to a new gilded age. The arguments are brief, clearly organized, and crisply to the point. Each chapter ends with a little one- or two-paragraph cliffhanger that sets up the next:

Why have advocates of a smaller welfare state and regressive tax politics been able to win elections, even as growing income inequality should have made the welfare state more popular? That’s the subject of the next chapter.

Chapters three and four are the crucial ones in Krugman’s historical overview of the American economy since the Depression, since they describe how an aggressively liberal politics of an earlier time spelled the end of a long age of inequality and how those liberal policies, once thought to be radical, became mainstream. Chapter three, the New Deal chapter, explains—one gets the feeling that his real intended audience here is today’s Democrats—how it was the political choices made by Roosevelt and his colleagues, and not impersonal economic forces, that lifted the country out of depression and poverty and built the middle class. The result was, in the phrase of two economic historians he cites, “the Great Compression,” the narrowing of the gap between the rich and the rest, and the reduction in wage differentials among workers.

  1. 1

    I refer specifically to the June 2005 declaration, signed by the national academies of the G8 nations and three others, that the science of global warming is real enough to merit prompt action on reduction of greenhouse gases. Amid intense conservative criticism, the White House began the next month to retreat from the declaration’s language.

  2. 2

    See Paul Starr, “The Hillarycare Mythology,” The American Prospect, October 2007, an excellent analysis of how the plan was constructed and sold (for better and worse), and of the forces that worked to defeat it.

  3. 3

    Must We Compete?,” The New York Review, October 20, 1994.

  4. 4

    Every Krugman column is collected at the Unofficial Paul Krugman Archive, at www.pkarchive.org.

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