“Conscience of a Liberal”

Train reading over the last little while (when not listening to the Mayo/Kermode podcast) has been Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming America From The Right (2007, this edition paperback with new foreword from 2009).

The book is essentially a history of “how we (the U.S.) got into this mess”, combined with an emphatic reminder “yes, this is a mess”. It tracks through the last century-plus, where the Long Gilded Age of massive inequality was succeeded by the New Deal which introduced a welfare state and (with the help of some wartime measures) brought about what Krugman calls “the great compression”, where the extremes of inequality shrunk massively and the U.S. became a middle-class nation.

Then it tracks the rise of movement conservatism through its capture of the Republican party, and shows how the political shifts from Reagan onwards pushed inequality back towards Gilded Age levels. And it does all of this from an explicitly liberal, progressive viewpoint (Krugman discusses the use of both terms) that gives a prescription for pulling back from inequality and, crucially, completing the New Deal by developing health care for all.

It’s a great and readable book, putting a framework around a lot of things I only knew in bits and pieces. It’s a refreshingly candid argument, too, with an appeal to the fundamental morality of political liberalism and a reminder that it is liberals who are always on the side of democracy:

When liberals and conservatives clash over voter rights in America today, liberals are always trying to enfranchise citizens, while conservatives are always trying to block some citizens from voting. When they clash over government prerogatives, liberals are always the defenders of due process, while conservatives insist that those in power have the right to do as they please. After 9/11 the Bush administration tried to foster a deeply un-American political climate in which any criticism of the president was considered unpatriotic – and with few exceptions, American conversatives cheered. (p267)

Implicit in Krugman’s argument, but mostly unexplored in favour of other lines of discussion, is the power of social identity in shaping politics. Krugman gives convincing evidence that America is in fact a liberal country – that when you poll Americans on policy initiatives they would support, liberal policies are highly favoured. However, many of these same people identify as Conservatives. This is partly thanks to movement conservative’s skill at putting values issues to the forefront, a trick learned from Nixon; partly it’s a legacy of endemic racism in the US. In fact, if there’s anything in Krugman’s book that shocked me, it was his matter-of-fact conclusion that racism in the U.S. – specifically, the race relations problems that are the legacy of the slave trade – is the point of differentiation that explains why the US is so different to its neighbours and contemporaries. Since Reagan’s “welfare queens” comment, the hidden element of economic discussions in the US is that supporting poor people means supporting black people, and that is not a vote-winner.

Krugman gives a good account of the rise of movement conservatism. This was a small set of intellectuals in favour of minimal government and unregulated economic activity, and who saw the welfare state as anathema. They developed over time into a complex system of media channels, think tanks, and political operations that co-operate and, crucially, protect their own by circling them around through the system while ejecting those who stand against them (e.g. by shifting towards a more Eisenhower-Republican stance). However, he doesn’t have much to say about why people become movement conservatives – about the appeal of the ideology, in its purist form as well as its popularized (tea party) form. (The tea party movement hadn’t happened at the time Krugman wrote, of course, but the elements of it could be seen in the Joe-the-Plumber/Sarah Palin crowds.) To be fair, that’s well out of Krugman’s area, but I would have appreciated some comment from him on this. Movement conservatism, it seems clear from Krugman’s account, is not fundamentally concerned with social dividers like race and homosexuality. Movement conversatism is about the relationship between wealth and government, which are not identity issues in the normal sense; and yet the ideology seems to resonate as powerfully as any identity politics might.

This post hasn’t been a very good review or description of the book, more some random musings that it has prompted in me, but there you go. As usual, reading about the U.S. political scene is an exercise in wonder and frustration for me as a non-U.S.ian, but the influence of the U.S.A., and of movement conservatism, is clearly felt over here in countless ways so this kind of understanding is very handy. Book now available for borrowing, Wgtn/Hutt folks!

3 thoughts on ““Conscience of a Liberal””

  1. The scary thing is that the more I’ve thought about it the more I’m suspecting that there is no way to actually understand American politics. They don’t rest on logic and reason as in many countries but seem to rely more on emotion. It’s explains why as you said if explained properly many Americans are fully in support of a “welfare state” in theory, but then in practice will oppose it because emotions take over and they can’t abide “their” money going to someone else (despite the good reasons).

    It’s good to see the racist angle brought into it, since it’s really the big white elephant in the corner of American society. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be one that will be resolved anytime soon, since most of the population still seems to believe that if they pretend hard enough the problem will just go away.

  2. You might also want to check out Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland,” which is about the deliberate forging of divisiveness in US politics and how Republicans learned to sell the authoritarian, McCarthyite conservatism that was the hallmark of the Bush/Cheney era. It made me want to invent time travel so I could go back to the 1960s, grab people by the shoulders and yell, “How can you be so fucking stupid?” And the parallels to modern politics are alarming: history it may be, but highly, highly relevant to today. Drop me a line if you want to borrow a copy.

  3. Andrew: yep, U.S. politics does seem to be fought on emotion to a much greater extent than anywhere else in the world. I’d guess this is related to how their media operates, as that’s also quite globally distinctive. However, Krugman seems to be arguing that the emotional content is not something that emerges from structures, but something that came about as a post-Nixon strategy by the Republican political machine – I might be overstating his case here but there’s bound to be at least some truth in that line of explanation.

    Ivan: Yeah, I’d definitely be keen. Will get in touch somewhere down the line! Krugman doesn’t go far into the methodology or detail, but he does talk about how Nixon taught the movement conservatives how to do all that stuff you say. (Nixon himself not being a particularly conservative politician, judging by his policy initiatives.)

Comments are closed.