Paul Krugman: conscience of the American left

Canada has just endured another federal election campaign (1) in which parties put on their best public faces before heading back to Ottawa to do what they do behind those closed doors.

Typically, the Conservatives campaign to the centre but govern from the right. The Liberals campaign to the left, to govern from the centre. Maybe that’s why this time the progressive NDP did so well — say what you believe, and damn the torpedos.

In the United States, Barack Obama ran to the left but governs from the right. His chief justification — true, alas — he’s a lesser evil than those other guys.

An occasional feint to the centre to mollify his disappointed supporters, and the rest of the time, just let the Republicans scare hell out of everyone to the left of Atilla the Hun so that betrayed progressives leave him be to manage the CSA — the Corporate State of America.

Obama gets away with this with most people, but not with the man sometimes called “the last liberal in Washington.” A Nobel laureate and a ubiquitous New York Times columnist (2) ,Paul Krugman won’t just lie back, shut up, and take it. He’s arguably the most credible voice of liberal opposition that the most disappointing president in memory faces.

Krugman has recently been the subject of an extended article (“What’s Left of the Left“) in New York Magazine and a reaction (“Paul Krugman and the Disillusioned Left“) on If you don’t know much about Paul Krugman already, here’s a statement from his personal website:

With any luck, you will find many of these pieces extremely annoying. My belief is that if an op-ed or column does not greatly upset a substantial number of people, the author has wasted the space. This is particularly true in economics, where many people have strong views and rather fewer have taken the trouble to think those views through – so that simply insisting on being clear-headed about an issue is usually enough to enrage many if not most of your readers.

Krugman’s issues with Barack Obama began in the 2008 campaign when, despite having personal politics more in line with Obama’s, he supported Hillary Clinton when his first choice, John Edwards, dropped out. As the New Yorker reported in 2010, the chief reason was one of Krugman’s most common themes: “She wasn’t as left as Edwards was, but at least she was a fighter, and she obviously had no illusions about bipartisan harmony.”

The current article in New York Magazine describes Krugman’s increasingly lonely role in liberal American politics as a one-man, not-so-loyal opposition:

For the first two years of the Obama administration, Krugman has been building, in his columns and on his [New York Times] blog, not just a critique of this presidency but something grander and more expansively detailed, something closer to an alternate architecture for what Obamaism might be. The project has remade Krugman’s public image, as if he had spent years becoming a chemically isolate form of himself—first a moderate, then an anti-Bush partisan, and now the leading exponent of a kind of liberal purism against which the compromises of the White House might be judged.

That Krugman’s crusade has struck a chord with many Americans is evidenced by the fact that Krugman is “according to Technorati, the most popular single-author blog online—a more statistically rigorous counterpart to Rachel Maddow’s show and the Huffington Post.”

Following a December 2010 meeting between Obama and six liberal economists, Krugman included, Krugman despaired of the future of “left” politics in the Obama administration. New York Magazine described the situation as “a paltry, bowdlerized proxy for the left … six academics, and by any broad ideological standard a pretty moderate group, comfortable with markets and free trade.”

Krugman diagnosed the problem with the meeting: “First, the progressive economists had been too disorganized. And then they had been too late.” Krugman offered this analysis in the interview for the NYM article:

“I think what people like Paul Ryan are trying to do is set us on a glide path to a much harsher society,” Krugman now says. “A country in which, step by step, more and more people are cast out into a situation of not having health insurance and poverty, and so we slide back to a Victorian notion that life is full of evils and that’s too bad but that’s the way that God made the world. That large numbers of the poor, large numbers of the elderly just live in dire poverty and don’t have health care because life is tough.”

In his classes at Princeton, Krugman talks of the turning-point quality of the present political moment, claiming that the very structure of American society at stake. If health care reform has staying power, it’s possible that “we become an ordinary advanced country, where it’s taken for granted that of course society is going to make sure everybody has basic health care.” But he also thinks that stalled and incomplete reforms might turn to an “erosion that eventually swallows Medicare and Medicaid.” paints Krugman less as a lonely purist crusading for truth, justice, and the American Way than as an unrealistic critic, someone who doesn’t understand practical politics very well.

Andrew Leonard, author of the article, claims that it is Krugman, not Obama, who is being naive. Obama is a realist, according to Leonard, getting what little he can in a bad situation. Krugman, on the other hand, underestimates the difficulty of the task:

Which scenario is more likely — the current Republican party buckling to Obama’s progressive vigor, or centrist Democrat senators fleeing for the hills, denying the White House 60 votes on any of its agenda items? I know where I’d lay my money down.

According to this view, Krugman suffers from the isolated policy wonk’s disease — expecting others to see the issues with his own special kind of clarity:

“What I think Krugman got intuitively is that liberals understand politics as a policy argument,” says Ezra Klein, now a Washington Post columnist and then an influential political blogger. “On the right, there’s something of a cultural underlay to the worldview: We are the real Americans, and they are not. Liberals want to say, We are correct on the evidence, and they are not.”

Despite these realpolitik criticisms, what’s at stake now in the United States (and in much of the rest of the First World) is the question of just what kind of people “real Americans” will be. The greatest danger for the realists and compromisers is that starting in the middle means never progressing. If all you ever do is try to protect what you have, you inevitably will lose ground.

We’ll never know what kind of anti-Tea Party movement might have blossomed had a president with a real-world drive vigourously pushed for a political agenda that challenged the rabid right. Making speeches about the need to find “common ground” concedes the issue to the other side from the start.

Paul Krugman understands that, and conceding the issue isn’t in his game plan.


(1) May 3rd – Canadian election update: Conservative majority

Four more years of corporate tax cuts, global warming denial, and pan-American aggressive global militarism — Yippee ki-yai!


(2) Now is not a good time to read Paul Krugman’s columns on the New York Times  website, what with the newspaper’s recently-imposed policy of charging for online access beyond a small  number of articles monthly. To date, the Times is not restricting access through search portals, so if you want to read Krugman there you should go through a search engine rather than navigating directly to the Times site.

3 thoughts on “Paul Krugman: conscience of the American left

  1. It will be interesting to see whether Obama can capitalize on a post bin Laden boost to his popularity to move to the left as a realist or whether in fact he is comfortable where he is ideologically. One of the disappointments with Obama is that he is a powerful orator who could clearly do much to express a different ideological vision from the one that has dominated US politics. Would that bring Martin Luther King too much to mind !

    • I had just the same thought when I heard the news about Osama — that maybe now the US can start to move on from its extended 9-11 trauma.

      Then, in a cynical moment, I wondered how many rednecks were disappointed when they listened more carefully the second time and heard clearly just who it was who had been killed.

      The Obama who won the election by inspiring people’s hopes is nowhere to be seen — he could use a lot more MLK in his approach.

  2. May 3rd – Canadian election update:
    Conservative majority

    Four more years of corporate tax cuts, global warming denial, and pan-American aggressive global militarism — Yippee ki-yai!

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